Sunday, January 26, 2014

Name it!

Recently I attended a learning session titled, "Aaron's Silence and Yaakov's Angel:  Labels and the Search for an Integrated Self."  It was an incredibly rich discussion; the one downside was that it was Shabbat and I couldn't write anything down!  But, I've been mulling over a lot of the ideas for the past week or so, and I want to share a few of them here.

It's clear that names are very important in the Torah.  One of Adam's first tasks is to name all the animals; Abram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah once they have earned that recognition in Hashem's eyes.  In parasha Vayishlach, Jacob has his famous encounter with an angel, and we see again the significance of names.

Then he [the angel] said, "Let me go, for dawn has broken."
And he [Jacob] said, "I will not let you go unless you bless me."
He said to him, "What is your name?"
He replied, "Jacob."
He said, "No longer will it be said that your name is Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with the divine and with man and have overcome."
Then Jacob inquired, "What is your name?"
And he said, "Why do you ask my name?" And he blessed him there. (Bereishit 32:27-30)

Although there's certainly a lot to explore in the "Jacob-to-Israel" transition, the discussion we had in the workshop centered around Jacob's desire to know the angel's name, and the angel's refusal to disclose it.  In this episode, the angel is widely understood to represent Jacob's estranged brother, Esau, and all of the negativity associated with that figure.  When Jacob asks the angel to name himself, he is really wondering, "Who ARE you?  Where do you get your power?"  And, while appearing to dodge the question, the angel actually gives Jacob the answer:  his strength comes from being unnamed, from being elusive and unknown.  Unlike Jacob, who allows himself to be seen, the angel gathers his negative power by keeping everyone in the dark about who he is.

This same dynamic plays itself out in our lives whenever there is a problem that goes unnamed and unaddressed.  To name something is to make it known and real.  When there is a conflict or crisis brewing, our instinct might be to pretend it's not there and hope it goes away.  However, by not naming it for what it is, we actually allow it to gain momentum and power in our lives.  When we can bring the struggle out into the light, we diffuse the negative energy it builds up around itself.

My eating disorder went unnamed for nearly four years before I was willing to put a label on it.  I thought, if I keep saying there's no problem, then there will be no problem.  In actuality, my refusal to acknowledge my struggle meant that I did not get the help I needed, which only made the problem more severe.  At some point, I became willing to say that I had, "issues with food."  But it wasn't until I was able to call it, "anorexia," that I actually started to work on recovery.

Communities, too, need to be willing to put names to difficult issues.  An eating disorder in secret is still an eating disorder, just like a battered woman who covers her bruises is still being abused, and an alcoholic who hides the bottles still has a drinking problem.  When we pretend these issues don't exist among us, we actually add fuel to their fires by building up the secrecy and shame surrounding them.  In contrast, when we bring a problem out into the light and say, "Here's what we're dealing with," we diminish the shame and the mystery.

There's significance to the fact that Jacob only triumphed over the angel once night gave way to dawn.  In the dark, evil has the advantage.  But once things are exposed in the light for what they truly are, we become able to avoid traps and pitfalls and can begin to repair what is broken.  My wish for us all, as members of communities and as individuals, is that we not be afraid to name our struggles.  Let's bring light into the hidden corners and allow healing to begin.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Slow and Steady...

I'm not usually one to get super wrapped up in dates, anniversaries, and the like, but tomorrow might be an exception:  January 13, 2014 will be the tenth anniversary of my discharge from residential treatment--my first-ever treatment for my eating disorder.

In my last post I talked about the nonlinear nature of recovery, and I think my own journey is a prime example of that.  After that initial round of treatment, it certainly was not a "straight shot" to recovery for me.  If I needed to pick a word to describe my recovery process, I think it might be, "slow."  Not in a negative, "OMG WHAT IS TAKING YOU SO LONG?!" kind of way (although there certainly were moments of that), but in a, "deliberate, tentative," kind of way.  Any advancement was preceded by lots of serious thought, risk assessment, and just general getting used to the idea.  Whenever I tried to take on too much, I usually panicked and lost some ground.  In the end, the only way for me was the slow way.  Little by little.

Of course, Jewish tradition has a thing or two to say about this.

In last week's parasha (Beshalach), the Exodus reached a climax with the splitting of the Sea of Reeds. The Children of Israel crossed over on dry land, while their Egyptian pursuers perished when the walls of water came crashing back down.  In that moment by the Sea, the Jewish people acknowledged the tremendous miracle they had just witnessed and their faith in Hashem was unparalleled.  However, despite the magnitude of everything that had just transpired, the Jews did not proceed on a linear path to faithful devotion to Hashem.  Why?  Perhaps they had taken on too much, too soon.

The Midrash (Mechilta) teaches that before the Splitting of the Sea, the Jewish people practiced idolatry, just as their Egyptian neighbors did.  Idolatry, as we know, is one of the most serious transgressions in, if the Jews were steeped in idol worship, they must have been on a pretty low spiritual level.  But, then they quickly transitioned to being the recipients of Divine salvation, witnesses to a vision of Hashem that was so great, it surpassed even that of the prophet Ezekiel (and that was a pretty intense vision).  So then what happened?  Did the Jews manage to hang on to this highest level of spirituality?  No, they did not.  In fact, it was only shortly thereafter that the Israelites began to question whether or not Hashem was truly with them--and this weakening of faith made them vulnerable to an attack by Amalek.   Clearly, going from zero to sixty was not a sustainable path of progress.

In this week's parasha (Yitro), the Jewish people receive the Ten Commandments from Hashem at Sinai.  The fact that there are TEN Commandments stated individually, and not just one huge one, suggests that growth is meant to be a step-by-step process.  Instead of taking on everything at once, we are meant to focus on just one Mitzvah at a time, ascending the spiritual ladder in a slow, gradual way.  If we try to jump from the ground to the top rung of a ladder in one leap, we will almost certainly fall.  But, if we take things one rung at a time--in Torah, and in life in general--we can make it to the top safely.

So, as I reflect on the "slow and steady" journey of my last ten years, I'm comforted to know that this gradual method of ascent has proven throughout our history to be the surest way to go.  To everyone who is anywhere at all along his or her personal recovery path--take it as slow as you need.  There's no point in rushing.  You'll get there!  May we all have the courage to proceed, little by little.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Running and Returning

3...2...1...Happy 2014!

The truth is, I really don't get that excited about New Year's Eve.  (Who spent it on the couch watching "Finding Nemo" with a high school buddy?  This girl.)  As my father is fond of saying, "If you've seen one ball drop, you've seen 'em all."  Nevertheless, I know this time of year does energize many people, particularly when it comes to one long-standing ritual:  making New Year's resolutions.

My feelings about New Year's resolutions have run the gamut, ranging from, "Fun!" to, "No, thanks!"  Now, I approach them with a more tempered attitude, which I could label, "Proceed with caution."  It's not that I think January 1st-inspired goal setting is inherently a bad idea, but I do think it can lead to feelings of negativity if not approached carefully.  How many of us have ever set a goal, fully intending to march toward it in a linear fashion, only to fall short and then feel like a complete failure?  I cannot even begin to count the times when I've thought to myself, "EVERY YEAR I say I am going to be better at X or accomplish Y, and yet, here I am saying that AGAIN.  Why haven't I gotten this right yet?" (In other words:  "There must be something wrong with me.")  Needless to say, this line of thinking is not particularly motivating. 

Setting New Year's resolutions is a lot like the process of teshuva, and since that is such an important idea in Judaism, it's not surprising that our tradition has a thing or two to say about realistic self-improvement.  In Chasidut, there is an expression called, "ratzo v'shov," literally, "running and returning."  The idea is that nothing in life is a straight shot; rather, everything proceeds in a back-and-forth movement.  We sleep and awaken; day becomes night; rain gives way to sunshine.  According to Rebbe Nachman, understanding this to-and-fro pattern of the universe is essential to proceeding successfully along the path of teshuva.  

"Ratzo v'shov" explains why a person sets a lofty goal and then inevitably stumbles along the way to achieving it.  When the person realizes that she/he has not succeeded in the way she/he wanted to, the person feels despondent and demoralized.  It is only when she or he understands that progress is meant to be incremental and that facing struggles is part of the journey, that the person becomes ready to try again.  Rav Ephraim Kenig gave a shiur based on Likutey Moharan 6:4 in which he explains:

"When a person ascends so high in his spirituality and feels so close to G-d (ratzo, running), he needs to know that he is still far and has not attained G-d, as it were.  On the other hand, the idea of shov, returning, is when a person is in the lowest of depths, feeling like nothing, thinking he will never get up again.  The Yetzer HaRa says, 'You should know yourself already.  You will never change.  You will just keep making the same mistakes over and over again.  Why even try to get up?'  It is here where G-d says, 'I am with you in this place, let us ascend together.'"

This concept of ratzo v'shov is essential to making healthy resolutions, particularly ones that pertain to recovery.  I frequently meet people with eating disorders (and parents of people with eating disorders) who express a fervent hope that the path to recovery will be linear.  Despite everyone's best intentions, I have never met a single recovered person who has actually had a smooth, linear path to recovery.  Whether one calls them, "slips," "bumps," "relapses," or something else, rough patches are part of the process.  That's just the way it is--but this isn't necessarily a bad thing.  No matter what obstacle causes you to stumble, you are never back at square one.  And even in those low places, there is something to be learned and strength to be gained.  The key is to ignore the negative voice that says, "You will never be better than this," and instead tune into the voice of Hashem, which says, "I am with you, take My hand. You can do it."  

As we set goals and strive to meet them, let's keep in mind that it's normal to trip and fall--but it's possible to trip, fall, and still get up and reach the finish line victoriously.  In 2014, may we find our stride in the rhythm of ratzo v'shov and use it to propel ourselves ever forward, to our better selves.