Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Struggle for Wholeness

Since I started learning Torah, my friends and teachers have been telling me that the power of Torah is that no matter how many times you read it, you can always find in it something new.  At this point, I haven't read the entire Torah enough times to really test that theory, but this week I'm getting the sense that it holds water.  Last year I blogged about the episode in this week's parasha, Vayishlach, where Jacob wrestles with the angel.  (A quick recap for those unfamiliar with the text:  After using deception to claim the birthright that was intended for his older brother, Esau, Jacob fled from his homeland and remained in exile for around 20 years.  Finally, he hears that Esau is coming to meet him and Jacob prepares for the reunion with a good amount of fear and anxiety.  The night before he is to see his brother, Jacob has a dream in which a mysterious being wrestles with him until the break of dawn.)  I really love this story, and as I started reading the parsha for the second time, I felt a little disappointed that I'd already written about that section of text...but then, I found it:  something new!

While reading the psukim about Jacob and the angel, I was drawn to the following midrashic commentary at the bottom of the page:

We can imagine Jacob saying to himself, "Until now, I have responded to difficult situations by lying and running.  I deceived my father.  I ran away from Esau.  I left Laban's house stealthily instead of confronting him.  I hate myself for being a person who lies and runs.  But I'm afraid of facing up to the situation."  By not defeating his conscience, Jacob wins.  He outgrows his Jacob identity as the trickster and becomes Israel, the one who contends with God and people instead of avoiding or manipulating them.  At the end of the struggle, he is physically wounded and emotionally depleted.  Nevertheless, the Torah describes him (in 33:18) as shalem, translated "safe" with connotations of "whole," at peace with himself (shalem is related to the word "shalom"), possessing an integrity he never had before (S'fat Emet).   --Etz Hayim chumash, page 201.

I often feel that part of the challenge of reading Torah is finding ways to connect with the central figures of the narrative--how can I relate to them and make their experiences applicable to my life?  Through this commentary, I discover a whole new way to relate to Jacob.  Like Jacob, I went through a period of my life when I was deceptive and untruthful.  When confronted with any type of uncomfortable situation, I chose the path of avoidance, which was usually paved with lies.  I hated how my eating disorder had turned me into someone sneaky and dishonest, but I was unable to find the strength to face confrontations or challenges head-on.  For me, recovery has meant growing into a person who is willing to bear discomfort.  It has meant finding a way to be honest even when it might upset someone else, because having a strong sense of integrity has become more important to me than insulating myself from the bumpy parts of real life.

Jacob's battle leaves him injured and exhausted, yet undeniably whole.  Recovery is similar, in that probably no one (at least no one I know) escapes it unscathed.  I have found it to be physically demanding and often painful, and it has pushed me to the outer limits of my capacity for handling tough emotions.  So, why have I put myself through all of that?  I've done it because the "me" who has emerged out the other side is a fuller, more authentic self than I ever would have been had I not engaged in the struggle.  Although recovery, in the moment, often seemed impossibly challenging, it has ended up being the process that brought me to a clearer, brighter existence.  The eating disorder gave me a false sense of protection, but recovery provides me with a path toward genuine wholeness.  I hope that each of us is able to internalize the courage and wisdom of Jacob and use this strength to further our own positive transformations--and that we emerge from it all as individuals who truly know the meaning of shalem.  


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Anxiety Comes Calling...

Whenever I sat down to think about this week's blog post, my mind would stay on task for a few minutes before being distracted by news coming in from Israel--reports of rockets, missiles, air strikes, and sirens.  No matter how hard I tried to focus on philosophical issues, I always ended up dwelling on current events in the here and now...so I decided I needed to write about that.

As much as I relish a rich political debate, I don't want to have one here.  The more I learn about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the more I realize I will never be able to sort through all of its complexity.  To be honest, right now I am relatively uninterested in the nitty-gritty details of that complicated history.  What occupies my mind is something much more basic:

People I love are in danger, and I'm not able to help them.

For me, this is what it boils down to.  In my mind, Israel is no longer just a place where a lot of Jews live.  It is the place where my friends and teachers live, where I lived this past summer, where I have learned and grown and shared and connected.  The land of Israel is a place where I feel at home, and the friends I have over there are some of the people dearest to me in the entire world.  This week, I talked with friends of mine whose lives had gone from mundane to surreal in a matter of hours; I read about rockets landing near the communities of two of my teachers; I found out that my friend's husband was called up to the army; I heard about sirens going off in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.  My best friend told me about how she and her coworkers ran for cover when they heard a siren, and this morning I started my day by reading headlines about a public bus bombing in the city where she lives. As I go about my days in my relatively safe neighborhood far across the world from the center of the action, I can't help but notice the pit I feel in my stomach or the way my breath often stops just short of actually reaching my diaphragm.  I am aware of my fear, my frustration, and my sense of helplessness--and my need to manage all of those emotions effectively in order to keep living my life.

Historically, I've not done well with handling anxiety over things beyond my control.  My mind spins and whirls around the what-ifs, and I tend to need more reassurance than usual that no news does not, in fact, mean bad news.  In early recovery I started learning about the "cognitive distortions" in which I often engaged:  catastrophizing, emotional reasoning, jumping to conclusions...those were but a few of my favorites.  For a long time, I dealt with helplessness, fear, and anxiety by exercising or starving them into oblivion.  At this point in my journey, though, clearly I need some new strategies...and this past week has given me an opportunity to practice the coping skills that I've worked hard to develop.

Here's what has worked so far:  I try to keep my consumption of news reports to a reasonable amount, as opposed to keeping Israeli news sites up in my browser for the entire day.  I don't check the news late at night, when I need to be relaxing in preparation for sleep.  I make an effort to curtail the number of emails I send to my friends--enough to satisfy my need to know they're safe, but not so many so that taking care of my anxiety becomes another problem on their plates (okay, so my best friend still gets a lot of emails...but isn't that what best friends are for?).  When I say the prayer for peace every day, I say it with more feeling, more kavannah.  I signed up for the Shmira Project, started by two families affiliated with Livnot U'Lehibanot, one of my favorite Israeli organizations.  And, I've tried to shift my focus from what I can't control to what I can...how can I bring light to the lives of the people I care about in Israel?  How can I bring light to the lives of the people I care about here?

Two hours ago, a ceasefire went into effect.  I'm hopeful that it sticks, and that the rockets that have continued to rain on southern Israel will slow to a trickle, then to nothing.  I hope that life gets back to normal for my friends and teachers, and that soon we will return to thinking and talking about matters not related to national security.  Finally, I hope that this week when I wish them all a shabbat shalom, that's exactly what it will be.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Outgrowing the Flower Pot

People who know me well could probably think of a variety of adjectives with which to describe me, but I'd be willing to bet that, "daring," would not be one of them.  (I base this assumption on the high frequency with which I have been described as, "risk-averse.")  In some ways, my cautiousness is an asset--it protects me from danger and unnecessarily risky situations.  However, lately I have been thinking that although it keeps me safe, it also undeniably keeps me stuck.

On the one hand, if I have to be stuck somewhere, the life I currently lead isn't a terrible place to be.  I have a job doing what I love to do; I live in a satisfactory apartment in a safe, clean neighborhood; I have amazing parents whom I get to see almost every weekend. I have in place many of the pieces that make up the picture of a functional, fulfilling adult life.  And, for nearly a decade, this has been enough for me.  In fact, for a long time this stable life of mine was all I wanted--as I worked my way through early recovery, I couldn't imagine that I would ever be able to do anything truly daring, nor did I want to.  Even once my recovery was more secure, I felt it would be foolish to uproot myself from the support system I'd put into place--surely, such a move would cause me to unravel.  So, I've stayed put, safe in my little flower pot of sorts, growing as tall as I've been able with roots that are limited in how far out they can extend.

But now...I think I might have outgrown the flower pot.

Don't get me wrong, I don't want to just throw away everything I've worked so hard to build, but I can't deny that I feel constrained and restricted to a life that is just okay, as opposed to a life that is great.  But, herein lies the problem:  moving from okay to great requires change, uncertainty, and a willingness to take chances.  None of that dovetails so nicely with my lifelong history of risk aversion.  When I think of making dramatic life changes--moving, changing jobs, etc--part of me feels alive, excited, and smiley while another part yells things like, "It's stupid to leave a stable situation!"  And then, there is the quiet yet persistent voice that whispers, "What makes you think you deserve to be any happier than you are?"

My recent struggle with safety-vs-growth has led me to reexamine the Midrash about Nachshon, the Israelite who was brave enough to venture into the Red Sea before it split, thereby proving to Hashem that the Jews were a people of courage.  As risks go, that was about as significant as it gets, and the other Israelites probably thought Nachshon was crazy to leave dry land to plunge headlong into roiling, uninviting waters.  But in the end, it was Nachshon's courage that allowed the Jews to survive.

This doesn't mean that taking big chances is always a good idea.  For sure, some risk-takers are met with disappointment.  But it's also true that a life of positive growth requires a willingness to step into the unknown.  An article I read on the Midrash of Nachshon explains,

"Surely risks must be calculated and carefully planned, but without an element of uncertainty nothing can be accomplished.  There is no authentic life choice that is risk-free."

Recovery, for me, is about living an authentic life, about believing that I do deserve to feel more complete and satisfied than I do right now.  What have I done all this work for, if not to grow up and out as much as possible?  As I start to make plans for the future, I hope that I am able to channel some of Nachshon's courage to take risks (calculated and planned ones, of course).  As Rebbe Nachman said:

"The whole entire world is a very narrow bridge.  And the most important thing is not to be afraid."