Thursday, January 21, 2016

What is Righteousness?

I've been working at this recovery thing for a long time--twelve years--and the longer I'm at it, the more I realize that there is always a "next step."  Even after you're physically healthy and well-adjusted, you'll likely think, "I want an even better relationship with my body," or, "I want to be even happier with my life than I am right now," or whatever version of the self-improvement tape you play in your brain.  This isn't a bad thing; it's just part of being a self-aware human being.  But it does mean making goals and trying to achieve them, and THAT means risking failure...because, let's be honest, failure happens.

Even as a seasoned recovery veteran, I am not immune to setbacks.  Recently, I made a new goal with enthusiasm and determination...and then I stopped to assess my progress and discovered that actually I hadn't made very much.  This was not for lack of trying; it's just that sometimes even when I work hard, it doesn't pay off right away.  I know this is normal, but somehow it is always disappointing. So, I reached out to a dear friend of mine and vented about how frustrated I was with myself for not being successful right away, etc. etc.  In response, this friend gave me validation and compassion, but more than that, she gave me...a Jewish source.  Yep.  Because I have friends like that.

"For a righteous man can fall seven times and rise, but the wicked shall stumble upon evil."
-Proverbs 24:16

My friend pointed out that not only does this mean that even the righteous experience failure (and often!), but also that the defining characteristic of a "righteous" person is that he or she rises after falling...and keeps trying. A wicked person fails and gives up, but a righteous person experiences setbacks and continues to fight.

But then, my friend told me something that I thought was even more interesting:  she said, it is taught that the worst aspect of the Yetzer HaRa (the "evil inclination" that we all have), is not hatred or anger or's despair.  Why?  Because when one falls into despair, one stops trying, and then failure is inevitable--not because one never had a chance, but because one stopped believing in that chance.

For me, that really resonates--the idea that the worst thing we can do is to give up on ourselves, to believe that we can never change.  When I realized that I hadn't met my goal right away, one of my first thoughts was, "This always happens!" It's natural to follow that thought with, "Well, then why keep trying?" I have often had that thought when I try to implement change, and then I do stop trying, and then, no surprise, I don't change.  And that is what the Yetzer HaRa wants: for me to stay stuck in a low place, where I am more likely to slip back into negative thoughts and behaviors.

What would it mean, then, to say, "NO," to discouragement, to rise after falling?  It would mean abandoning the easy way out--giving up--in favor of the tougher, but more rewarding, pursuit of the life we want and deserve to have.  I have often thought, and heard others say, "I know what I need to do, but I can't make myself do it."  That, right there, is the Yetzer HaRa talking.  That's the voice of resignation and despair.  But we can choose to listen to a different voice, the righteous voice that says, "Keep trying!  You'll get it!"

It's hard to switch voices, and it's also hard to take ownership of the fact that we CAN change and therefore need to work to make it happen.  But it's so, so worth it.  It helps to remember that righteousness means not perfection, but perseverance, and that's something we can all do.  Failure is uncomfortable, but it's only permanent if we give up.  Instead, we have to listen to the voice deep inside us that says, "Keep going! You can do it!  And you're worth it."

Because you are.

Friday, January 1, 2016

To Disagree, or Not to Disagree?

First blog post of 2016!  To be honest (and this may come as no surprise), I'm not a big New Year's Eve/Day person.  I don't really do massive displays of collective celebration.  I mean, am I the only one who, while watching the confetti fall on Times Square, thinks, "Wow...that's a lot to clean up"?

It follows, then, that I'm also not big on New Year's Resolutions.  But lately I have been doing a lot of reflecting about my own process and things I want/need to work on.  As we know, the truth is that eating disorders aren't really about food at all, so once the behaviors are under control, there is still a lot of "stuff" to work out.  Recently, due to a series of unintentionally confrontational interactions, I became aware of one of my "underlying issues:"

I hate disagreeing with people.

I don't use the word, "hate," often, but this is for real.  I hate confrontation of any kind; it actually makes me physically squirm to just think about it.  Also, as a recovering people pleaser, I have a hard time separating, "I don't like your idea," from, "I don't like you."  When I disagree with someone, my M.O. is to mumble something neutral and keep my real feelings to myself.  In situations when I let my guard down and actually do respond and then find myself in the awkward and uncomfortable place of being in conflict with another person, I nearly always leave those situations feeling a combination of:  shame (for having my opinion in the first place); guilt (for not agreeing with the other person); and fear (that the other person is angry with me).

This is problematic for several reasons; first, because that level of discomfort around disagreement is probably unwarranted; second, because it renders me nearly incapable of openly stating my opinion about anything even remotely controversial and standing by that opinion.  While I don't want to be someone who bulldozes others with her beliefs, I do want to feel like I have principles that I am strong enough to defend--even if it means disagreeing with someone I care about.  I want to believe--to know--that the relationships I have built with other people can withstand a bit of conflict without crumbling.

I was thinking about this the other day, after a disagreement that ended with me wanting to call the other person and make sure we were still friends (note:  I resisted the urge, and we are still friends).  As I reflected on my extreme aversion to conflict, I remembered a great piece of aggadah (a Talmudic story) that I learned with one of my teachers this past summer.  It's a long story, but hang in's a good one!

There are two key players:

  • Rabbi Yohanan:  head of a major 3rd century rabbinic academy
  • Resh Lakish:  robber-turned-Torah scholar who became the student and havruta of R. Yohanan
The text:

One day there was a dispute in the schoolhouse [with respect to the following], a sword, knife, dagger, spear, hand-saw, and a scythe--at what stage can they become unclean?  When their manufacture is finished.  And when is their manufacture finished? -- R. Yohanan ruled:  When they are tempered in a furnace.  Resh Lakish maintained:  When they have been furbished in water.  

Said he [R. Yohanan] to him [Resh Lakish]:  "A robber understands his trade."  

Said he [Resh Lakish] to him [R. Yohanan]:  "And wherewith have you benefited me:  there [as a robber] I was called Master, and here I am called Master."

"By bringing you under the wings of the Shekhinah," he [R. Yohanan] retorted.  

R. Yohanan therefore felt himself deeply hurt, [as a result of which] Resh Lakish fell ill...[and] died, and R. Yohanan was plunged into deep grief.  Said the Rabbis, "Who shall go to ease his mind? Let R. Eleazar b. Pedath go, whose disquisitions are very subtle."

So he [R. Eleazar] went and sat before him; and on every dictum uttered by R. Yohanan he observed, "There is a Baraita which supports you."

"Are you as the son of Lakisha?"  he [R. Yohanan] complained:  "When I stated a law, the son of Lakisha used to raise twenty-four objections, to which I gave twenty-four answers, which consequently led to a fuller comprehension of the law; whilst you say, 'A Baraita has been taught which supports you.' Do I not know myself that my dicta are right?" Thus he went on rending his garments and weeping, "Where are you, O son of Lakisha, where are you, O son of Lakisha?"  and he cried thus until his mind was turned.  Thereupon the Rabbis prayed for him, and he died.  -- Bava Metzia 84a (emphasis added)

Despite its rather tragic ending, I love this story because of what it teaches about the value of disagreement.  In the traditional way of Jewish study, it's a benefit to learn with a partner who challenges your ideas so that you might both arrive at a fuller understanding of the text.  The Rabbis thought that R. Yohanan would be comforted by having a havruta who always agreed with him, but in fact, he missed the constant challenging and disagreeing that Resh Lakish used to bring to their studies.  To R. Yohanan, Resh Lakish was a dear friend and valued study partner because they could disagree openly, thereby forcing them both to grow.  

As I reread this story, I found myself doing a lot of wondering: "What if I'm selling my friends short by assuming that our relationship can't handle disagreement?"  "What if people I care about actually want to know what I truly think?" "What would happen if I said what I thought, without apology?"  Maybe we would both grow.

In the end, I don't think I will ever be someone who brazenly declares her opinion with disregard for the consequences; I am hard-wired to be conflict-averse and I think that will always be my tendency.  However, I do think I can--and should--inch the needle more towards the middle.  This will require a bit of a paradigm shift away from thinking that conflict is always bad; it will also necessitate a bit of bravery and risk-taking on my part...and it's probably something I will try out with a one person at a time, slowly.  But it excites me to think that perhaps my relationships which I hold so dear will actually be strengthened, not threatened, by a bit of healthy disagreement.  The way I'm doing it now isn't working for me or for my it's time to try a new way.

I'm not making a New Year's Resolution or anything, but I am making a goal to be more authentic in my expression of opinion with my friends.  If this resonates for you, I encourage you to try it, as well.  There's no need to make ourselves and our beliefs invisible so that we don't upset other people. We deserve to be seen and heard, and our friends deserve our authenticity.  So, here's to 2016--the year of productive disagreement.  I think we can make it a great one.