Thursday, January 26, 2017

Why We Need Setbacks

I'm writing my first post of 2017, twenty-six days late. I've been thinking about blogging a lot, but something has been in the way--call it writer's block, or apathy, or fatigue, or maybe a combination of those--whatever it is, it has loomed in my brain, imposing and opaque, blocking all my attempts to get any thoughts into writing.

But two days ago, a dear friend messaged me and said, "Any reason you haven't been blogging? I miss your posts!" At which point, I thought, "Oh...I guess people do read it." And then I went through the motions of going online and looking up what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has to say about this week's parasha, because when I'm coming up dry on inspiration, he's pretty much my go-to.

I'll get to Rabbi Sacks in a minute, but I think it's clear what the real lesson is here: friends are our best weapon in overcoming inertia.

So.  In last week's parasha, Hashem speaks to Moses and tells him that he is being tasked with leading the Jewish people out of Egypt. Moses protests, insisting he's not up for the task, but G-d wins the argument because, you know, He's G-d. So Moses and Aaron appear before Pharaoh and plead their case, but it doesn't go well--Pharaoh retaliates by forcing the Israelites to not only make their quota of bricks, but now also gather their own straw for the bricks. The Israelites then basically turn against Moses and Aaron, accusing the two men of making their burden even harder to bear.

This week, Moses and Aaron begin bringing G-d's plagues to Pharaoh, but each one fails to do what it is intended to do: convince Pharaoh to let the Jews go. Moses does absolutely everything he can, and still, no freedom. But all along, Hashem reassures Moses that the Jewish people will go free, if Moses can just see the process through.

Rabbi Sacks teaches that the key take-away here is this: the greatest leaders are plagued by significant setbacks, but still manage to rise. This is certainly true of Moses, and is also true of successful leaders in many other fields--politics, science, the arts, business. And if this is true of our leaders, who are arguably among our best and brightest, how much more so is it true of us "regular people"? We are going to encounter setbacks, some of which will be pretty major. The key, as many a motivational speaker has proclaimed, is to not stay down, but rather to use the challenge to make ourselves stronger.

I have been in recovery for 12 years and cannot even begin to count my setbacks. The severe ones landed me in psychiatric hospitals and day programs. But there were also dozens of tiny bumps in the road--a missed snack, a forbidden walk, a resurrection of an arbitrary food rule--that I could (and sometimes did) brush off as insignificant, but that were really symptoms of a larger lapse in my recovery mindset. Any setbacks, large or small, can be demoralizing because they spark self-criticism and self-doubt: I am not really in recovery. I'm actually not doing well at all. I am such a loser for still having a hard time with this. (At least, that's my soundtrack. Maybe yours is different, but I suspect there are some similar lines.)

The key, for me, has been to allow myself a few negative thoughts but then start to take a deeper look at what is going on when I hit a bump. Am I anxious about something? Am I feeling vulnerable? Is there a particular stressor in my life and I'm using an old coping mechanism to deal with it? Once I start taking that careful look and talking about it with my people, I can actually deal with the underlying issue and avoid falling back into the eating disorder. And that whole process--encountering struggle, examining it, and adjusting for it--makes me stronger.

Rabbi Sacks cites a letter written by Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner to one of his students who was discouraged after repeatedly failing to master a piece of Talmud. Rabbi Hutner wrote:

Know, however, my dear friend, that your soul is rooted not in the tranquility of the good inclination, but in the battle of the good inclination...The wisest of men said, "A righteous man falls seven times, but rises again." Fools believe that the intent of the verse is to teach us that the righteous man falls seven times and, despite this, he rises. But the knowledgeable are aware that the essence of the righteous man's rising again is because of his seven falls.

The line I keep coming back to is: your soul is rooted not in the tranquility of the good inclination, but in the battle of the good inclination.

Brilliant, right?

We are primed for struggle, and that is what strengthens us. We cannot become great without it. We can't recover without it.  That's not to say that we don't also need times without struggle, but our souls get their juice from being squeezed a little bit. That's where we're rooted, and it's from where we grow.