Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Besht Knows Best

Sometimes when I want to blog, it is hard for me to think of what to write...nothing feels quite right.  But then there are other times when something hits me and begs to be written.  That's how I felt when I recently came across a particular quote attributed to the Baal Shem Tov (the "BeSHT").  I wanted to write about it right away, but first I wanted to find the original source...and that's where I ran into trouble.  Nowhere could I track down the name of the work in which the Besht wrote/said this, so I dispatched my "research team," (aka, friends who know a lot more than I do) but to no avail.  However, my research team DID feel pretty confident that it was at least a paraphrase of what the Besht actually said, so I am just going to go with that.  And if anyone out there does know the original source, please end the mystery and tell me!  But for now, we'll just call it a slightly modernized paraphrase of the Besht, and I think we can agree that it's still pretty awesome.

"There are times when G-d hides His face.  But then there are times when G-d hides His face and we don't even realize that His face is hidden; we dwell in darkness, and think it is light.  This is a double galut [exile], a concealment within a concealment."

When I read this quote, I was immediately transported back to my sophomore year in college (which was, I think it's safe to say, pretty much a disaster, thanks to my eating disorder).  I remembered a particular phone call with my parents, in which I stood in the hallway of my dorm, looking out the window, while my parents told me that if I didn't gain weight I would have to leave college and come home.  I could not believe the audacity of that suggestion, partly because leaving college might have been an option for other people, but definitely not for me...but mostly because I firmly believed that my eating disorder was what made my life bearable, and how could no one else see that?!  Incidentally, at that time I wouldn't even admit that I had an eating disorder.  So I exercised a lot--so what?  It gave me endorphins.  So I kept losing weight--so what?  It was cool to watch the number on the scale go down.  Those things kept me going.  Why did everyone else think it was such a big problem?

My perception of reality was so warped that I had exactly zero appreciation of how much trouble I was actually in.  I lived enveloped in the darkness of an eating disorder, and thought it was light.  I have never, before or since, been so completely wrong about anything.

Unfortunately, I think this is a pretty common phenomenon among people actively engaging in eating disorder behaviors--the belief that the behaviors are making life better, when they are actually doing the opposite.  Just recently I was talking with a high schooler who is working on recovery, and she admitted that she felt if she could just be skinnier or prettier, she would have more friends.  Now, this is a truly amazing girl with whom I would totally want to be friends if I was back in high school, and she is making herself sick and miserable because in her mind, using behaviors will lead to more friends.  There it is again--darkness masquerading as light.

Part of the "G-d paradox" is that He gives us opportunities to feel His presence, but because of His greatness we can never truly know Him.  If one believes that we are all, in a sense, in a state of exile from a G-d with whom we can never fully connect, then an eating disorder is absolutely a "double exile"--we become estranged not only from G-d, but also from ourselves.  And because we believe that the eating disorder will bring us out of darkness, we don't realize that it actually is the darkness, that it is making it harder for us to connect with ourselves, with others, and with G-d.

Sometimes, a reality check is needed.  The euphoria that comes with starving and over-exercising is not the same thing as happiness.  The numbness that follows purging is not the same thing as contentment.  The clinical relationships we have with our treatment providers are not actual friendships.  The eating disorder might be a shiny distraction from our problems, but it is not actually solving anything--and it is absolutely, positively, not light.  Don't be fooled.

I will be the first one to say that life in recovery is not, as the saying goes, all sunshine and roses.  But it is so, so beautiful.  I truly believe that, and I am not exactly someone who oozes positivity.  I'm a realist.  And I really know that all the "light" promised by the eating disorder is actually just exile in disguise.  The light comes in recovery, and it is better than any of the fake "highs" I felt when I was using behaviors.  You deserve to live in the light, too.  Once you really experience it, you'll never be fooled again!

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Great (Chanukah) Debate

Note to self:  Erev Chanukah is not the best time to go to the Kosher market, unless you want to be packed amongst the entire Jewish population of the neighborhood, all of whom are waiting in line to buy sufganiyot.  Live and learn.  But, hey, it's Erev Chanukah!  The kids are excited, the adults are in good spirits, and everyone is ready to cast some light into the darkness.  What's not to love about that?

Recently, I was doing a little pre-Chanukah reading, and I came across the old machloket (disagreement) between Hillel and Shammai regarding how to light the menorah.  According to the House of Shammai, one should light all eight candles on the first night and decrease by one each night thereafter.  The House of Hillel, on the other hand, rules that one should light just one candle on the first night, and increase by one each night that follows (halacha follows Hillel's ruling).  There are a couple of explanations for their positions:  one suggests that Shammai lights for the days still to come, while Hillel lights for the days that are gone.  Another explanation is that Shammai lights in accordance with the bulls offered on the altar for Sukkot, while Hillel asserts that we ascend--not descend--in matters of holiness.  It's an interesting debate, and as I was learning about it I came across an article by Menachem Feldman of the Chabad in Greenwich, CT, in which he draws a parallel between the different philosophies around lighting the menorah, and different ways to enact change in one's life.

By starting out with a full menorah, Shammai is saying that one has to combat the darkness with all of one's strength, right out of the gate.  If we go at it a bit at a time, our efforts will fail to take hold--positive change requires our complete commitment and 100% effort right from the beginning.  The good news is that every day thereafter becomes a little bit easier; since we've weakened the darkness so dramatically on the first night, on each night that follows we need a little less energy to fight it.

Hillel, on the other hand, is saying that this isn't a realistic strategy.  Now that there's no more Temple and we're in exile, it's hard to muster up the energy and bravery needed to just plunge right in with everything we've got.  We need a new approach, and that approach is:  little by little.  By building on positive change one step at a time, our efforts accumulate until we are at our full strength.  To start, all we need is one candle.  But by the end, all of our light will be burning.  

Recovering from an eating disorder requires a lot of positive change, both behaviorally and mentally. The truth is that there is room for the approaches of both Shammai and Hillel--sometimes it works to commit 100% right from the start; other times it makes more sense to gradually build up to change.  Personally, I found that being in intensive treatment was very "Shammai-esque":  a lot of change all at once, because ripping off the proverbial bandaid is sometimes easier than peeling it off a tiny bit at a time.  But when I was at the liberty to go at my own pace, I was always someone who enacted changes very, very slowly.  Like, I didn't just stop measuring all my food cold-turkey--I stopped measuring one food at a time.  As you can imagine, it took months to phase out measuring, but I did it.  And, in the end, I suppose it doesn't matter how I got there, just that I arrived.

When we're going through recovery, we need to be aware of whether we lean more toward Shammai's or Hillel's style of change and respect our own preferences, but we also need to acknowledge that there is a time and a place for both.  Sometimes, we just need to dive in and take that leap of faith.  Other times, we might choose to do it more gradually.  What I think is so cool about the Hillel-Shammai debate is that even though we have ruled in favor of Hillel, Jewish tradition has preserved Shammai's argument because it is still valuable, even if we don't follow it. There is much to learn from both approaches, so we need to keep them both in our consciousness.  So, as you gather the strength to combat your personal darkness, I wish you the wisdom to know which approach will work for you, and to go with it--knowing that either way, in the end, the darkness will surely give way to light.  

!חנוכה שמח