George R. Schumacher
This I Believe, 2011
There aren’t any stages in a person’s life that are so maligned as adolescence. For most people, those years between entering puberty to leaving home are a period of custom-made unhappiness, geared to make each person miserable in his or her own special way. My unhappiness centered on loneliness and isolation. In fact, one of the benchmarks for me that my adolescence was ending was to see that others my age were also struggling mightily with their own demons. And so I was not so all alone after all.
Despite all my later training as a psychologist, when I became a father I somehow thought that the sensitivity and stability my wife and I achieved as adults would make it possible for our daughter to be spared the full onslaught of adolescence. I think we have been good parents, maybe even very good parents sometimes, but not so good that our daughter could go through those years unscathed.
And yet, looking back over my life, I’ve come to believe that out of the furnace of adolescence came many of the qualities and interests that have brought me the most pleasure, and the most important goals in my life.
Not having many friends back then, I made many treks by myself to museums in New York City, and came to feel right at home and very comfortable with some of the finest works of art in the world. And from these solitary trips, there began an interest in art that is now as much associated with good times with friends as with welcomed time to be by myself.
Another lasting gem from my own painful adolescence is my relationship with Judaism. Several years before I crossed the threshold to puberty, my parents enrolled me in the Shalom Aleichem Folk Schul, and I went every Sunday to the local YMHA for classes. I later described this institution as “My atheist agnostic Jewish Sunday school, where the right wingers were the agnostics but most of us were atheists.” It was definitively a precursor to the City Congregation.
For us teenagers, there was a Sunday discussion group where we’d read and discuss adult books that we were now able to approach, and talk about them with an adult who I can now see was very committed to this work. At the age of 14, we each had to do a report on a notable Jew in history, and my subject was Sigmund Freud. Within a few years I’d decided what my career would be, and I’m now a clinical psychologist. Though much of what I read then certainly was above my head, I sensed that here was someone who had some inkling of what my inner turmoil was like.
It was in those Sunday discussion groups that I first heard the word “existentialism,” and we read Albert Camus (who wasn’t Jewish), and Saul Bellow (who was). Though neither existentialism nor a love of reading are unique to Judaism, for me both became linked with the idea that I’m Jewish, and we’re “the people of the book.”
And so out of the “iron loneliness” of my adolescence came deep links to art and reading and Judaism, and each of these became links to the community beyond. And so I believe that out of very hard times something very wonderful can come.