Monday, May 27, 2013

Born With Purpose

Birthdays...on the surface, purely delightful; in reality, so much more complicated.  I don't know that I've ever had an approach to birthdays that wasn't at least partly tainted with anxiety:  I clearly remember crying on my ninth birthday because I WOULD NEVER. BE EIGHT. AGAIN. (Yup...I was that kid.)  Fast forward to my twenties, and I still received my birthday with mixed emotions; only then, it was due to the mire of anorexia and depression in which I found myself stuck.  Every year, my birthday would roll around and I would feel a deep pull of sadness as my own emotions failed to match those of my family and friends.  My parents' excitement was the hardest for me to assimilate:  they were celebrating a wonderful child they loved, and I felt like that child didn't really exist.  While I was grateful and comforted by their enthusiasm for my life, part of me remained convinced that I didn't deserve it.

Well, yesterday I officially entered my "early thirties"(!), and I approached the day feeling hopeful that maybe this would be the year when I would feel only (or at least mostly) happy on my birthday. After all, I've been through a lot of therapy, and I'm now in solid recovery and have a life that I enjoy and am proud of in many ways.  And yet, as the day neared, I felt myself getting on the old, familiar emotional roller-coaster of self-criticsm and guilt.  Luckily, I still happened to be working my way through Toward a Meaningful Life: The wisdom of the Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson by Simon Jacobson, and the chapter titled, "Birth," may have saved my relationship with my birthday.

The Rebbe's idea is simple, yet profound:  Your birth was the moment in which Hashem knew the world could not continue without you.  At the time you were born, Hashem put you on earth for a specific purpose; that moment was the beginning of your mission on earth.  Jacobson expresses the Rebbe's philosophy as follows:

"Many people seem to feel that because we didn't choose to enter the world, our birth is a stroke of coincidence or serendipity.  This couldn't be further from the truth.  Birth is G-d's way of saying that He has invested His will and energy in creating you; G-d feels great joy when you are born, the greatest pleasure imaginable, for the moment of birth realizes His intention in wanting you..."


When I actually sat and thought about that--that Hashem put me here on purpose, to bring something to the world that only I could bring; that He created me with love and care and joy--I mean, I actually felt goosebumps.  That's not to say that I then rushed out to buy party hats and streamers, but I did spend some time thinking about what Hashem might have had in mind when He created me...when He breathed my soul into my body, what was the hole in the world that He was hoping I would fill?  How can I use the many, many gifts with which I've been blessed to not just imagine a better, more sacred world, but actually help create one?

My suspicion is that for many of us in recovery (and for many other people, too), birthdays are a mixed emotional bag.  I offer this teaching of the Rebbe's in the hope that if your birthday approaches and you feel there's nothing to celebrate, you remember that even if you don't think you're special, at the moment of your birth G-d felt nothing but joy.  He created you filled with purpose and Divine light...and all of it is still inside you, just waiting to be let out.

So, as another year of my life begins, I feel profoundly grateful to all the people whom Hashem has put in my life to help me along my path:  my amazingly devoted parents and family; my friends who nourish me with both fun and authentic connection; my students who fill me with passion and purpose; my teachers who believe in the power of my mind and heart...and, this little community here, because through our collective energy we release a little more light into this world.  May we all be blessed with such supports and able to use the gifts they give.


"Birth is G-d saying you matter." -- The Rebbe


Sunday, May 19, 2013

What About Love?

Recently, I made a new friend--which, let's face it, is something that becomes exponentially more difficult after graduating from college.  I always get excited about new friends, because a) they don't happen that often, and b) I often wish I had more of them.  As a textbook introvert, I have a small number of very close, deep friendships, but I tend to run into trouble when those few friends go out of town or can't be reached by phone.  So, the promise of an authentic bond with a new person feels exciting and refreshing, but also brings along with it some feelings of caution.  Despite my craving for close connection, there were many years in which friendships definitely were not my most successful endeavors.  Even now that I am in recovery, when I enter into a new relationship I always have in the back of my mind the thought, "Don't make the same mistakes you used to make."

During my eating disorder, one of my biggest liabilities in relationships was my neediness.  At that time, I had very, very few friends--there just wasn't room for many of them in my life alongside anorexia.  I was desperately lonely, and as a result I clung tightly to anyone who promised connection.  Since I had so little self-worth I usually felt incredulous when someone actually wanted to be my friend...and then I lived in fear that one wrong move on my part would sabotage the entire operation.  I went overboard trying to endear myself to others via what one of my friends calls the, "Love Me, Love Me Dance"...and every time one of my emails or phone calls went unanswered, I experienced utter devastation and was certain that I accidentally had done something terrible, that the friendship was over.  I hated myself for being so needy, yet I couldn't help it--that hunger for love was so wide and so deep that I felt it would never be satisfied.

Many years of therapy and a few lasting, precious friendships later, I am relieved and happy to say that I no longer approach relationships with anywhere near that degree of clinginess.  As I've gained a genuine sense of self-love, I've found that I'm much more able to connect with others in a way that feels healthy.  And yet, remnants of former insecurities remain, and I occasionally still worry that friendships I hold dear will one day vanish.  I know how to manage those anxieties and understand that they are not, in fact, grounded in reality...but, there they are, nevertheless.  Recently I read something in the book, Toward a Meaningful Life:  The Wisdom of the Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, that offered me some insight into the link between self-love and loving others:

"If you don't find a way to love G-d, to love the G-d that resides in your soul, you will find yourself in a constant search for love.  We may even turn to unhealthy forms of love to replace this lack of inner love."

To me, this makes perfect sense:  when I didn't love myself at all, I needed others to do all that loving for me--and there was no amount of "other-love" that would satisfy the void inside myself.  Now that I do have a healthy dose of self-love in my life, now that I recognize the
G-dliness within myself, I'm free to enjoy--but not cling to--positive connections with other people.

Recovery is all about learning, and some lessons I learned the hard way.  There were relationships of mine that suffered in large part because of how I approached them.  But, although there was a time when I truly hated myself for "ruining" those connections, I don't feel that way anymore.  Was it unfortunate?  Absolutely.  Was it the best I could do at the time, with what I had?  Yes.  And, going through this evolution of how I approach relationships has made me more able than ever to tune in to myself and assess how I am contributing to a connection:  too much, to little, or just right?  It's not a perfect science and sometimes there are adjustments to be made...but, I also know that I'm not in danger anymore of reverting to my old imbalanced system.

Recovery is a tough journey, and I wish that all of us have friends to walk it with us.  I hope that we can all achieve a genuine degree of self-love and self-worth that will make those connections possible!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Get Out of the Rut

Although Shavuot technically is one of the major Jewish festivals, it's not a holiday that I grew up hearing a lot about.  Probably this is because, aside from staying up all night learning and eating ice cream (yay!), Shavuot doesn't require much in the way of ritual.  There is no frantic house-cleaning, no fasting, no costumes, no traditional gift-giving.  And yet, Shavuot has become one of my favorite holidays as an adult.  What it lacks in typical markers of festivity, it makes up for in themes:  Shavuot is a time for recommitment and rejuvenation, for getting ourselves out of whatever spiritual ruts in which we've found ourselves.

Perhaps I find it particularly meaningful because my Hebrew birthday is Sivan 4, just two days before Shavuot begins.  I'm not really sure what one is technically supposed to do on one's Hebrew birthday, but I like to use this time to do a sort of spiritual self-assessment--a re-clarification of priorities, an acknowledgement of progress, and a rededication of effort in areas that are still lacking.  This dovetails beautifully with the themes of Shavuot...and also, I've realized lately, of recovery.

When the Jews received the Torah at Sinai, it was a MAJOR monumental that it would have been impossible to sustain that level of intensity for the thousands of years that were yet to come.  How were the Jewish people supposed to remain energized once the excitement and novelty of receiving the Torah wore off?  The answer is Shavuot:  our annual acknowledgement of reaccepting Torah and of figuring out what that means to us, in this moment.  In this way, the process of receiving Torah becomes actively ongoing and our relationship with Torah--and with Hashem--remains dynamic and exciting.  Shavuot gives us an opportunity to reestablish the basics as well as to add layers to our practice so that it reflects our continuing growth.

Recovery works in much the same way.  That initial commitment to recovery is exciting, but let's be honest--miles down that path, it's easy to get stuck in a rut.  These are the times when we might not be regressing, but we're also not progressing--we're just sort of hanging out, not feeling particularly energized.  This is when it's helpful to reassess our personal definitions of progress in recovery.  What we once considered a monumental leap forward might be old hat by now, and we might need to set a new goal as a way to keep the process from getting stale.  Personally, I believe that "full recovery" is not a fixed point, but an evolving state of being, as what we need to feel satisfied and nourished by life is bound to change with time.  Similarly, no one is ever "done" accepting Torah--it is a process that needs to be revisited year after year, with new goals and fresh energy.

This year on Shavuot I invite all of us to (gently) reassess ourselves:  Where are we Jewishly, and where are we in recovery?  How can we reinvigorate ourselves and move forward?  I hope that all of us can find ways to recommit ourselves to our processes and to grow in directions that we find fulfilling.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Being Ready to Receive

In nine days we will begin our celebration of Shavuot, the commemoration of the day when Hashem gave the Torah to the Jewish people.  I really love this holiday and its theme of recommitment...I even love staying awake all night learning Torah, despite my usually strict adherence to an early bedtime as mandated by the teaching profession.  There is something about listening to the Ten Commandments being read aloud at the break of dawn that gives me goosebumps every time.

I came across an article by intellectual giant Adin Steinsaltz that (I think) beautifully captures the important distinction between Hashem's giving of the Torah, and the Jewish people's receiving of it.  Although they clearly go together, they are not the same event.  Steinsaltz points out that while the giving of the Torah was a one-time, top-down event, the receiving of the Torah was--is--an ongoing process that occurs from the bottom up.  Although the Jewish people were willing to accept Torah right away, evident by their declaration of, "All the words that Hashem has spoken, we will do and we will hear!" (Shemot 24:7), it actually took a long time for them to be able to commit to living out the words of Torah.  The Jews always knew they wanted it, but they just weren't ready right out of the gate.  It took time for them to truly absorb what they had been given.  Steinsaltz explains:

"The receiving itself is not just a matter of passively listening to the message of Torah; it is an act of committing oneself to absorbing the poetry and the principles, and carrying out the commandments all the days of one's life.  To begin with, there had to be a certain receptive state of mind--'We shall do and we shall hear'--in order for the Torah to be given.  On the other hand, the inner meaning of this formulation of readiness only became evident later, as expressed by the words of Moses forty years later when, in taking leave of the people, he said, 'And G-d did not give you a heart to know and eyes to see and ears to hear until this very day' (Deuteronomy 29:3).  And indeed, only many generations later could it be said that the people of Israel had developed a heart able to know the Torah designated for them."

Now, while I would never fully equate recovery with receiving Torah, I do think there are some genuine parallels we can draw in the sense that both are drawn-out processes that depend on a gradual increase in readiness.  In recovery, we might know what we need to do long before we are ready to actually do it.  Although our treatment team gives us the tools, it might take an extended period of time for us to muster up the fortitude to use them.

For most of my recovery I worked with one outstanding nutrition therapist. There was a period of time many years ago in which I became frustrated with my compulsive need to measure everything I ate.  Each time I brought it up, my nutritionist would suggest stopping the measuring.  Although intellectually I knew it was a great idea, my response was always, "Mmmm...nah, I don't think so."  This went on for months, until finally I entered a session with her and said, "I want to stop measuring!"  Even then, we both knew I wouldn't be able to go cold turkey--so, she coached me through letting go of measuring one food item at a time.  My nutritionist was ready to hand me Freedom From Measuring long before I was ready to receive it...but she understood that, and was patient with me throughout the entire process.

I really wanted to be able to recover immediately, just like the Jewish people had every intention of fully accepting Torah.  But the reality is that recovery is not a linear process, and neither is receiving Torah--both are ongoing and challenges do pop up along the way, requiring us to shift and reaffirm our commitments.  However, just as Hashem was--is--patient with the Jewish people throughout the evolution of our ability to receive, so too should we be patient with ourselves as we find our ways through recovery.  It isn't only the end result that matters--it's the entire process of getting there.  As Shavuot draws near, I invite all of us to assess honestly the progress we've made over the past year, and to recommit to the journey!