Early in the movie Slumdog Millionaire the main character as a participant on Who Wants to be a Millionaire needs to answer the question: What motto is inscribed on India’s national emblem? The answer stuck with me: Truth alone triumphs.
In Jewish tradition there is a similar phrase “The seal of the Holy One is truth.” (Talmud Shabbat 55a). The Hebrew word for truth-Emet- is constructed of three letters Alef-Mem-Tav. Since Alef and Tav are, respectively the first and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet the teaching follows that truth has to the whole truth from beginning to end. It would have been a fine teaching if the Rabbis would have let it be—but they then add that Mem, being the middle letter of the Hebrew alphabet, signals to us that truth has to be not only from beginning (Alef) to end (Tav) but also in the middle (Mem)—the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
If we want to tell nothing but the truth–there is a problem with this teaching. The letter Mem is the 13th letter of the Hebrew alphabet. (The letter M in the English alphabet is also the 13th letter in its sequence—as close to the middle as one can get in an even number of letters totaling 26). In an alphabet of 22 (Hebrew) letters how is the 13th letter in the middle?
As with any good question is it good to sit with it for a bit. I have sat with this question for over twenty years. Perhaps tonight it is time to suggest an answer.
We have just finished another fall semester of learning and among the many classes offered was Who Are You? in which we explore the concept of soul and mask. It came as a surprise to me when I googled earlier this week “masks we wear” that the lead article was authored by New Zealander cricket player Martin Crowe. I quickly realized that I knew little of his world of cricket, let alone much about the “second most popular sport in the world.” It led me down a path to the most famous cricket player in the world, Sachin Tendulkar, and I wondered where I had heard his name before. Sachin Tendulkar it turned out was the wrong answer to a later question posed to the main character in Slumdog Millionaire—but only now I understood why it would have been a tempting answer for a young Indian man. In the film, the question posed is which cricketer holds the record for the most first-class centuries? The answer was Jack Hobbs (answer D—final answer) and not Sachin Tendulkar (answer C).
Now to Martin Crowe. If Indian superstar Sachin Tendulkar is the most famous cricket player in the world, Martin Crowe is the most famous cricket player in New Zealand. Mr. Crowe’s comments on masks follow in what I dare say is a dense and paradoxical piece stemming from his personal experiences with cricket. He starts with what he characterizes as a deep, thought provoking observation of Mark Twain: “The two most important days in your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why.”
Mr. Crowe reiterates: “Why are we here and who are we?” He provides the following response:
The more fortunate ones have an inbuilt belief as to why they exist. They flow through life. There are also many who discover that for much of their lives they are unsure. Then one day they realise that, in fact, who they are is masked. They reach the point when enough frustration is enough. Only at that point does the real truth surface; the mask must be removed.
Confusion is the opposite of clarity. The mind, and thoughts that come thick and fast at you, are muddled, twisted and distorted. You search for clues as to how to go forward at any moment, and as you decipher it all, you can become untrusting, unsure, and uncertain as to the clues you find. The higher the expectation of life, the harder it is to work out.
Where does the core of this confusion grow? My feeling is that it grows in the first decade or so of your life. Then it becomes cemented between the ages of 15 to 20. From there you learn ways to wear the mask. As your body and mind reach maturity you realise the mask is necessary. The higher you expose your confusion, the more the mask becomes permanent.
My mask was firmly in position by the age of 22. I had tasted Test cricket for two years, played 13 Tests, averaging 21. I was supposed to be one of the best young players in the world. Expectations were high and I wasn’t meeting them. I cried a lot, moods ebbed and flowed, emotions ran hot. My dream as a boy of scoring a hundred at Lord’s was fading fast.
Then I found a mask, and I began to fake it until I made it. Part of the mask was to copy great players to hide my own inadequacies. The other part was: I was created from a fast-tracking system and had no emotional stability, so I had to make up time fast. As time went by I completely lost touch with that warm-hearted kid from Titirangi. Instead I became an aloof, intense, moody son of a bitch from New Zealand.
I made it, just. I scored the hundred at Lord’s, I notched up hundreds around the world as my dream world wanted me to. I loved batting. But I grew to hate myself and the mask I wore. Off the field I was totally lost. As the expectations of a nation climbed, I knew the mask was not going anywhere. It had to stay on until the job was done.
There are truths we can be certain about. The Alef and Tav of our existence; the truth of our birth and the truth of our death. What happens in-between (or in-betwain) is the why of our existence. Perhaps, as Mark Twain would have it, there is a day or an hour or a minute that we discover the why. I would offer that the letter Mem is chosen to represent the middle letter of the Hebrew alphabet because, truth be told, we never know when (or where) the middle is. It may come to us early in life or much later on in life. It is though ever-present.
A man, who had just turned 50 was proclaiming at a dinner party, in a sober and somewhat depressed manner, that he now had lived more than half his life. I was summoned over by a friend to speak with him, a spiritual emergency requiring the aid of a kabbalah paramedic. The man reiterated his symptoms, adding, “it is all downhill from here.” He did not have an appreciation yet of the misplaced Mem.
Who knows when we come to the realization (or full realization) of the why? A beautiful answer is provided by Mr. Crowe in his opening line (above): The more fortunate ones have an inbuilt belief as to why they exist. They flow through life. Indeed, that is what the letter Mem represents. Mem is the letter for water (Mayim) and the letter for the days of our life (Yamim). The Mem is not the destination. It is the why we travel on to discover our truth. Today is the middle of your life.