To my dear Golden Calves
My dear Golden Calves,
Did you know that until recently, I never realized I created you, let alone worshiped at your feet? I used to read about the Golden Calf in this week’s Torah portion and scoff. How could the Israelites be stupid enough to worship their own creation?! And mere weeks after hearing God’s voice saying “Thou shall have no other gods before me,” too!
My bubble of moral superiority burst a few weeks ago, when I tried to explain idolatry to my son. “People used to create something,” I said, holding his hand in mine. “Like you do with Lego. But then, they believed that it had power over their lives!” I laughed with him, basking in the joy of being his mother. And then I choked on my laughter, suddenly remembering just how difficult motherhood was at first. I realized, in a moment of clarity, that what changed was more than my competence. What changed is that back then, I worshiped you.
I created you when my pregnancy entered what we dubbed as “the whale stage.” Instead of silver and gold, I used assumptions and expectations. I assumed that childbirth is controllable and motherhood should come to us naturally. I expected to be in charge of my birth, and move on as a composed and calm mother. I expected to bond with my baby instantaneously, in an instinctive surge of bliss.
I took these expectations and conjectures, formed by my own wishful thinking, and placed them on the pedestal of Truth with a capital T. And I gave you, the idols thus created, the power to control my feeling of self worth, measuring myself by you and falling short.
You made me think that I was an inherently flawed mother. When the birth spiraled out of control, ending in general anesthetics and a C-section, I felt like a failure. When breastfeeding challenged me, I thought that the mere existence of difficulties reflected on my abilities as a mother. When bonding didn’t happen in one sudden flash, I thought I was emotionally handicapped. My failure to meet the standards I enshrined made me panic, stealing my calm and composure, further cementing my feelings of inadequacy.
Childbirth and baby care are objectively challenging. But the challenges weren’t what made those weeks so harsh. You did.
I usually associate “iconoclasm” with religious wars, bloodshed and pain. When the Israelites created their Golden Calf, it lead them to death and destruction. But smashing you, my dear enshrined assumptions about motherhood, was pure pleasure.
When I accepted that difficulties are a normal part of parenthood, when I accepted that it’s OK for bonding to happen over time, I relaxed. I started to enjoy parenthood. I grew into my new roles.
When I accepted that we can’t control childbirth fully, I let go of the things I couldn’t command. I focused on my attitude instead, and went through my second birth cheerful and happy.
* * *
I didn’t get rid of you fully, of course. I enshrine new assumptions even as I unmask the old ones, and new Golden Calves appear wherever I go. When I assume I know someone fully and can predict whatever he’ll say, I’m treating my imperfect understanding as fact, giving it the power to make me stop listening. I let it prevent me from ever being surprised, or seeing change. When I assume I know a topic and need ponder it no more, the Golden Calf of my intellectual hubris stops me from reaching deeper understanding.
When the Israelites created their Golden Calf, they betrayed God. Whenever I create you, I betray myself and my ability to discover and learn. Whenever I find and unmask you, my elusive Golden Calves, I open my world to surprises and growth.
* * *
You may ask why I created you in the first place, seeing as I wish to destroy you. I used to wonder the same thing about the Israelites. They just witnessed the plagues, walked through the sea, and heard God first hand. Why substitute God and Moshe with a golden statue?
Now that I’m aware of your existence within me, I think I finally understand.
We humans want to believe that reality is reliably fixed. We want to believe that some rules are consistent, and that we can control our lives. But the real world is fluid, varied, and not fully knowable, and when we realize that, we are scared.
Usually, we can ignore these aspects of reality. But some experiences shove them in our faces. Parenthood shows us how little we know and control: we don’t know what our children will be like, we can’t undo their future challenges, and we can’t always give them what they need. Other people surprise us and change on us, defying the definitions we had formed. God’s voice may utter understandable words, but God Itself is by definition a mystery.
When we are forced to face our limitations, we can choose one of two courses. We can accept life out of our comfort zone. Or we can run away from reality, by pretending that our fleeting impressions are consistent, controllable truths. We create assumptions about what we don’t know and enshrine them in the temple named “fact.”
I realize now that the Israelites didn’t create the Golden Calf despite their encounters with God: They created it because of them. God, in all His mysteriousness, touched their lives. He forced them to acknowledge just how little they knew about the vast, ever-shifting world. And so they did what humans do at such times; they tried to create a knowable, tangible reality to rely on. They tried to create a new comfort zone.
You, my dear Golden Calves, resemble the idol I named you after. I created you because its easier to assume than to acknowledge the unknown. It’s easier to imagine that I can control my experience than to constantly remember my limitations. You are my crutches in this big scary world, and the walls that keep me comfortable, but also small and confined.
By the way, I don’t call you “dear” arbitrarily. I am rather fond of you, and grateful for the comfort you offer. After all, one’s comfort zone, regardless of its costs, feels safe.
But I am a daughter of Abraham, the iconoclast who chose an inscrutable God over safety, The man who chose to follow enigmatic commands far into the “land which I’ll show you.” And so, grateful or not, I will continue to seek and unmask you. I will continue to take that red pill.