Friday, March 25, 2016

Hearing Haman

Every year at around this time I face the Purim Challenge; that is, finding personal meaning in a holiday that doesn't particularly resonate with me.  This year I'm a little late to the game...I struggled with it for days leading up to Purim, and only got inspired at literally the last minute, as I attended the "Last Minute Megillah Reading" on Purim day at my shul.  Nothing like taking it down to the wire!

Right before the reading started, the man doing the leyning made the usual request for no talking during the reading because of the requirement to hear every word of the Megillah.  I love any excuse to not talk, so that totally works for me.  Usually, the only noise heard during the Megillah reading is the racket made by the graggers and other noisemakers when Haman's name is read.  But yesterday, when Haman was mentioned for the first time, I started to connect the dots:  we only make noise immediately after Haman's name, not during--we don't drown him out.  Instead, we hear his name as we must hear all the other words in the story.  We register our displeasure, but we don't erase him.

This seems like an effective way to face our own personal stories, which are (most likely) dotted with names, places, and events we'd like to blot out.  The problem with that is, if we erase those parts of our stories, the narratives lose a lot of their significance.  I mean, where would the Purim story be without Haman?  If we take him out of the mix, there would be no villain and therefore no need for the heroism of Mordechai and Esther.  The opportunity for triumph would be lost if we took out the crisis.

When I think about my own story, I would LOVE to take a huge eraser and rub out my entire four years at college, which I will always associate with the birth and rapid rise of my eating disorder.  I live in a city with lots of universities, and as I walk around and see all the undergrads and campus buildings, I wish I could do that part of my life over in a totally different way. But since I can't, I just do my best to have very little present-day connection with the university I attended.  Whenever it comes up in conversation, I would love to drown it out with a gragger!

But maybe this is not the best way.  After all, without the struggle born in those four years, I never would have started the journey I'm on--one that has given me insights and skills that I would never want to trade for an easier path.  Maybe the best approach is Purim-style:  hear the hard parts, register your displeasure, and appreciate them as necessary for the journey.

Just as we can't effectively erase parts of our narratives, we also can't erase parts of ourselves.  We all have elements to our personalities that we dislike or find shameful: the judgmental, envious, fearful, spiteful, resistant, insecure parts (to name a few).  It's probably fair to say that we are each a little "Haman-esque" in some ways, just as we also have within us elements of Mordechai and Esther.  I cannot even count the number of times I have thought, "I hate that I'm like this!" when I catch myself exhibiting any of the above traits.  But maybe these elements of our personalities should not be hated and drowned out; maybe they need to be heard and better understood.  Sometimes our most difficult attributes need the most love and compassion before we are able to see how they fit into the Big Picture that is us.  We say we "hate" Haman, but we also have to acknowledge that he gave us a key piece of our collective narrative and provided us with one of our first experiences of national triumph.  What would we have missed out on learning, if Haman had never entered the picture?  Perhaps there is also much to learn from our seemingly less desirable traits, if only we can approach them with gentle curiosity.

A local artist named Deb Koffman expresses this much better than I ever could, in her piece titled, "Some of the Parts."  She has given me permission to include it here.  You can see more of her work at  Hopefully this piece inspires you to integrate all of your story, and all of your parts!

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Reckoning

This past Shabbat we finished the book of Shemot, which ends with parasha Pekudei.  The word pekudei can be translated as, "reckoning," and the parasha opens with the following verse:

אלה פקודי המשכן משכן העדת אשר פקד על–פי משה עבדת הלוים ביד איתמר בן–אהרן הכהן

These are the reckonings of the Tabernacle, the Tabernacle of Testimony, which were reckoned at Moses' bidding.  The labor of the Levites was under the authority of Itamar, son of Aaron the Kohen.

What follows is a detailed list of all the gold, silver, and copper that people donated for the construction of the Tabernacle.  Moses kept track of every contribution and how it was used, a biblical version of what we might now call, "transparency."

Coincidentally, during the same week in which we read Pekudei, I was also reading Brené Brown's new book, Rising Strong, and happened to be on the chapter called, "The Reckoning."  (Brief book evaluation:  not my favorite of hers, a little sound bite-y, but I'm still a fan.)  In this book, Brené explores the process of "rising strong" after a fall, and the first stage of doing so is what she calls The Reckoning--engaging with our feelings and getting curious about why we have them.

Brené says:

"I don't think we can learn much about ourselves, our relationships, or the world without recognizing and getting curious about emotion.  Fortunately, unlike navigating using dead reckoning, we don't need to immediately be precise in order to find our way.  We just need to bring our feelings to light.  We just need to be honest and curious.  I'm having an emotional reaction to what's happened and I want to understand is enough for the reckoning."

For me, this resonates strongly.  Even as a child, I would have emotional reactions to things and would immediately judge myself harshly for what I considered, "wrong feelings" (usually anger or fear).  I never got curious or wanted to understand; in fact, I never even really talked about it because I was so sure that my feelings made me a bad person.

When I was a freshman in college, it didn't take me long to figure out that I was miserable.  I didn't get curious then, either.  Instead, I told myself that there was something wrong with me because everyone else was happy and I was not.  Keep it to yourself and deal with it, was pretty much my philosophy.  "Dealing with it" meant exercising and dieting away my pain; in short, developing the eating disorder that would control my life for most of the next decade. I shut down all my feelings and all my connections in an effort to protect myself, but didn't stop to think of what this might cost me.  As Brené Brown says, "...shutting down comes with a price--a price we rarely consider when we're focused on finding our way out of pain." Truth.

And now?  Now, my first response to an emotional reaction is sometimes still judgment (old habits die hard), which nearly always leads to shame.  The difference is that I now recognize that this is unhelpful, and instead I try to "observe" my feelings neutrally.  Then, usually in therapy, I can do the work of getting curious and figuring out why I reacted the way I did.  For me, doing that work in the context of therapy is hugely important because the support of an objective observer (my therapist) helps me to avoid the shame traps that are easy to fall into when I'm alone.

Reckoning with emotion--acknowledging our feelings and approaching them with curiosity--is a lot of work and often feels harder than shutting down.  But I've found that this is deceptive; in fact, the reckoning often leads to a way out of the feelings, whereas shutting down pretty much ensures that I'll stay stuck in them.  My eating disorder was all about shutting down; recovery is about open and honest emotional exploration.  I don't think it's any coincidence that since I've been engaged in the process of emotional reckoning, I've developed more satisfying and authentic relationships--with others and with myself--than I ever did in the entire time I struggled with anorexia.

Sometimes it seems like we are the only ones who feel what we feel, with the intensity that we feel it.  This is false. Everyone has feelings; some people just prefer to deny them.  I propose a different approach:  get honest, get curious.  Strive to understand your emotions, rather than stuff them away.  It's healthier, and it leads to more resiliency and greater insight.  If you're brave enough to engage in The Reckoning, you might just find that you are stronger than you thought--and you will begin to see a way out of the darkness of the icky feelings and back into the light.