See You Next Fall

Are you able to have a nice trip?

I think of myself as an adequate ice skater. I am proficient enough to go around the ice with my family and enjoy it. My ankles still turn in and my feet ache afterward, but my skill level is satisfactory enough for my occasional ice endeavors. There is one thing I aim not to do. I dread falling. The bump. The sting of the ice on my hand. The awkwardness of others seeing me go down. I skate and and I try very hard not to slip. Despite my trying, I often slip at least once a session.

Recently I went ice skating (in the summer!) with some of my family. As usual, I was trying not to fall. For most of the time I was successful. And then…plop…I hit the ice.

When I got back up, I noticed that I felt a degree of freedom. I was able to skate faster, have more fun, and be more relaxed. Soon, I fell again. This time I laughed at myself. “Falling is not so bad,” I said to myself. “ It’s also normal for many novices. And it doesn’t hurt too much. Besides, who is really watching me?” I continued.

As I contemplated my skating, I observed that when I was assiduously trying to protect myself from falling, I couldn’t enjoy the ice to its fullest. Part of my attention was focused on staying up. I couldn’t appreciate skating while I was also concentrating on not falling.

When I reflected on my ice skating experience further, I reached new appreciation of an age old Jewish tradition that elevates failing and falling. The verse in Micha (7, 8) states, “Let my enemies not delight over me because I have fallen – I have risen.” The simple meaning of the verse is that the speaker is exhorting his enemies not to rejoice over his decline, because he already bounced back. But the seminal work Shaarei Teshuva (Gate 2, 5) quotes a tradition from the Sages to interpret the verse differently by splitting it. The second part is is its own statement, “Because I have fallen, I have risen.” The speaker in the verse means, “Had I not fallen, I would not have reached the heights that I did.” In its new interpretation, that meaningful statement is a clarion call to look at failures as facilitating improvement instead of providing setbacks. It is an important mandate to normalize failure and use it as a catalyst for religious growth.

My experiences on the ice helped me with an additional perspective and deeper understanding of, “because I have fallen I have risen.” When I was distracted by trying not to fall, I couldn’t allow myself to be fully involved with the skating experience. Protecting myself was the inverse of immersing myself. But once I fell the first time, I allowed my defenses to dissipate. Had I not fallen, I would not have been able to embrace a fall as an event that I should expect. When I slipped, the wall began to crumble. I didn’t need to skate an Olympic 10, I was just going to enjoy the ice. Had I not fallen, I would not have been able to rise to the occasion of enjoying the experience. I would have still been protecting myself instead of immersing myself.

As we skate through life, we might dread failure and falling. Yet, If we unduly focus our energy on propping ourselves up and not allowing ourselves to fall, we might be stifling our accomplishments. Thomas J. Watson understood this as he charted his path to success in founding IBM. He coached the world, “if you want to succeed, double your failure rate.” If you are exceedingly cautious about falling, your energy is being used for protection and perfection instead of rising and realizing. That seems like a pretty slippery situation to slide into.

Drive Slowly In The Passing Lane

This too shall change…if you help.

King Solomon elicited a challenge from his subordinates. He dared them to create jewelry that could both relieve sorrow and temper mirth. Most that heard the challenge saw it as insurmountable. Yet, one loyal servant thoughtfully produced a ring with simple phrase, “gam zeh yaavor – this too shall pass.” These words are both simple and brilliant; they pithily summarize the temporary nature of most experiences. King Solomon was overjoyed and handsomely rewarded his insightful subject.

When one is experiencing the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, or any feeling in between, it can be helpful to recall that many strong emotions are short lived. Even a situation that is prolonged will probably will not last for one’s entire life. “Gam zeh yaavor” provides a reminder that difficulties often blow over and opportunities don’t always remain.

Although King Solomon, or any other Jewish leader, is not actually recorded as having coined that phrase, its phenomenal ability to express a deep philosophical idea made it attractive to leaders such as Abraham Lincoln (here, in closing) and led to widespread use. Most would probably expect it to be found somewhere in Scripture or in Rabbinic literature, although it does not appear in any classical Jewish source. (For more on its origins and use in Jewish and non-Jewish sources, see this brief article by Dr. Shnayer Z. Leiman.)

Yet, sometimes “gam zeh yaavor” can provide an inappropriate allure. It can shield us from acknowledging and appreciating the facts and the feelings of the present. We can misconstrue “gam zeh yaavor” to endorse an attitude of ignorance and irresponsibility in the face of struggle. If we find ourselves in difficult circumstances, it can be significant to appreciate the gravity of the situation, explore means of ameliorating it, and move in that direction. It can be powerful and helpful to fuel ourselves with the knowledge that adversity usually blows over. At the same time, it is pragmatically and emotionally important to take the bull by the horns, analyze our responsibilities, and act to change our current reality.

This duality was personified by the behavior of Admiral James Stockdale, the highest ranking American to be held hostage in Vietnam. He was subjected to extraordinarily difficult prison experiences, and finally regained his freedom after eight trying years. Stockdale explained that he took a two-pronged approach to his life in captivity. On the one hand, he realized that he needed to remain brutally aware of his current reality. His life was next to meaningless to his captors and he needed to exert extraordinary effort just to remain alive. He had to have his wits about him and appear reasonably obedient to the guards. He had to exercise constant vigilance and devise his own methods of physical survival. At the same time, he hoped and imagined that one day the war would finish. He fostered confidence and optimism that he would survive and be united with his family. This dichotomy became coined “The Stockdale Paradox.”

Stockdale’s tempered optimism allowed his to survive his brutal imprisonment and return home. He eventually became a lecturer at the Hoover Institute at Stanford and was also nominated as a vice-presidential candidate. He was able to hold the beauty and sweetness of hope, yet did not allow it to shake his full awareness of the brutality of his reality.  That balance is essential to thriving in life. Optimism can sometimes obfuscate reality, and realism can sometimes eclipse hope.

This dialectic approach also distills the basis of most psychotherapy. One usually needs to appreciate some aspects of his current reality to make therapy meaningful. It is important for him to acknowledge an impediment so that he can reach out and so he can internalize the discussions he has with is therapist. At the same time, he can usually most effectively engage in the psychotherapeutic process armored with hope that his situation can change.

There is great wisdom in realizing that “gam zeh yaavor.” There is also great importance in being aware and mindful of a current situation and its demands. Combining future perspective while embracing current reality can sometimes seem to take the sagacity of no less than King Solomon.

Oiling a Change?

Shift into “How” with a resounding question mark.

Do you know how to change your car’s motor oil? I don’t. When the indicator light is on in my car, I bring it to a mechanic. He changes the filter, puts in new quarts of oil, and usually attaches a clear colorform-like sticker to the top left of my windshield.

I don’t know how to remove the oil, dispose of it, or replace the filter.

But there’s one thing I am sure of. As long as I keep on saying, “I don’t know how to,” that will still be true.

What if I decide that I want to be independent of the gas station and do my own oil changes? I might explore how to do it. I could research it online, ask a handy neighbor’ s advice, or watch a mechanic several times. Perhaps I would do all of those.

A powerful shift would take place as I journey from being unaware to accomplishing. I would go from saying, “I don’t know how to change the oil,” to “How do I change the oil?” Instead of making a statement, I would begin to ask a question. When I would make that shift, I would be speaking volumes. By changing from a statement to a question, I then allow myself to entertain the possibility that I can do it. My sedentary nature becomes activity when I change around a few words and I go from declaring that I don’t know how to to inquiring how to.

Sometimes the most significant transformations in life are represented by moving from a statement to a question. When you ask “How,” you are digging yourself out of the quagmire of helplessness to vistas of possibilities. That shift is the key to any successful endeavor, change, or accomplishment.

When you say “I don’t know how to,” the punctuation is a period. The sentence is over. There is nothing more to discuss. Intervention, learning, or change can only begin to happen if you append an inquisitive, somewhat mischievous hook to its top. It turns into a question mark. One might say that the goals of teaching and psychotherapy are to put that crooked mark on top of the period.

Consider trying this exercise. Next time you find yourself stating “I don’t know how to” do something, change around a few words. Cut of the first three words, “I don’t know,” and begin your sentence with “How.” That seemingly small word shift opens up a universe of possibilities. It dramatically declares to yourself that there are ways for you to do it. Even if you don’t have the requisite skills, knowledge, or acumen, you are indicating that it’s something that you can theoretically accomplish.

Positive experiences begin by changing “I don’t know how” to “How do I?” The boring period becomes an exciting, daring and perhaps impish question mark. That phraseology and bold punctuation mark is the harbinger of being able to achieve.

I still don’t know how to change my oil. I am complacent with keeping that as a statement. But if I want to, or to oil any other change, I would need to make a word shift. I would discard the “I don’t know” and begin with “How do I,” ending with a question mark that hints that a world of possibilities is dawning.

Let’s Start at the Very Beginning…A Very Good Place to Start

What is your personal Genesis?

The first book of the Bible is called Genesis because it deals with the genesis, or creation, of the universe. The name has its roots in the term used by our Sages, “Sefer HaYetzirah – the Book of Creation.” Nachmanides (Introduction to Exodus) comments that the name refers to another formation as well. The Jewish People was founded as Abraham concretized monotheism and transmitted his beliefs to his son Isaac and grandson Jacob. Then, the twelve Tribes of Israel began and laid the groundwork for a nation. Nachmanides elaborates that the Patriarchal lives microcosmically foretold the development of Jewish history. Events that transpired on a miniature scale to the first Jews portended events that would occur again to their offspring. This was national genesis, the creation of a people.

This can be true in the individual realm, too. An aspect of your personal psyche was created long before you were. Your parents, and their personalities, principles, and tendencies, have influenced you since we were born and throughout your life. One answer to “who are you?” is “the child of your parents.” Your genesis began with their creation.

Recognizing that how you assimilate life, manage problems, make decisions, and deal with others is influenced by your parents and your upbringing can be enlightening. That awareness might provide you with greater insight into who you are and where you have been. It might also help you better understand your current life situation and how you can change it.

At the same time, there are pitfalls and roadblocks that you might encounter when you travel down memory lane. It might be exceedingly difficult for you to trace a negative reaction or behavior to parental influence. We are culturally, religiously, and societally inclined to honor and protect our parents. Discovering that something adverse about yourself has its roots in your parents’ behaviors might seem like you are disrespectfully besmirching them. Sometimes, even people that have grown up in homes with severely deficient parents still find it hard to criticize them or see their negative influences with clarity.

A way to approach this resistance might be to suspend your judgement of your mother and father. You might find it productive to think about your parents and how they interacted with you as an observer. You might find it productive to curiously investigate some of their patterns of behavior, reactions, and parenting methods and see how it made you who you are. Your goal might not be to judge them, but to strive for a greater understanding of who you are because of them. The approach of the observer might allow you the freedom to explore your parents and their influences on you without your feeling compelled to pass judgement on them or their actions.

Also, a drawback to exploring and trailing some negativity about oneself to mom and dad is the blame game. There is a certain ease and freeness that might come from dumping your problems on someone else. Noticing that part of who you are comes from your parents can create a degree of scapegoating onto them, which might translate into shirking your own responsibilities. You might contend to yourself that if unfavorable aspects of your psyche were molded so early in life, you must be almost powerless to change them. Even if you were to consider modifying them, it must take a superhuman effort to do that – and you are only human.

It might be worthwhile considering that the aim of understanding where your personality and behaviors come from is not to shift the responsibility to your parents. Instead, greater understanding of “Me’ayin Basa – from where you came” might expose layers of thinking and default behaviors that you maintain as axiomatic. Seeing those thoughts and actions as resulting from your parental modeling and influence might make it easier for you to mold them and adjust them.

This week, we conclude the communal reading of Genesis. Perhaps is it meaningful to thing about your own genesis and how your parents have influenced who you are. Whatever stage of life you are in, it might provide you with a new genesis and a magnificent future in your own book that is still being written.

Consorting With the Enemy

She is guilty by association

Did you ever hear of Timna? She was an extraordinarily outstanding biblical personality who had private conversations with each of the patriarchs. Timna was authentically religiously motivated – designated by the Sages as having true Yiras Shamayim (fear of Heaven). Yet, she became resigned to history at best with anonymity, and perhaps with ignominy.

Timna was a princess in the biblical Horite Dynasty. She deeply desired to convert to the Abrahamic religion. She visited Abraham and he denied her that opportunity. She waited several years and then went to make the same request of his son Isaac. Following his father, he turned down her request. Timna then proceeded to ask the third patriarch to convert her. She requested from Jacob that he let her join the nascent Jewish people. He also demurred.

Timna maintained her yearning to associate with the People of Israel. She renounced her royalty and engaged herself as a concubine to Eliphaz, son of Esau and grandson of Isaac. She explained that she was so desirous of connection to the Nation of Israel that it was more preferable to her to be a lowly concubine in the house of Esau, wayward son of Isaac, rather than a princess to the Horites (Talmud Sanhedrin 99b).

Timna’s about-face is mysterious. Imagine a young American man who was motivated to join the Israeli Army. He was inspired by the Jewish people returning to their homeland after two millennia in exile, surrounded by enemies and fighting the odds. He reached out to the IDF recruitment office, and they politely refused his application. He was disappointed, but had tremendous resolve. He contacted them the next year and they again denied him that opportunity. He was slightly discouraged, but reached out a third time to the recruiters. They still did not allow him to join the Israeli Army. Yet, he still craved a bond with the dream of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. So, as a last resort, he enlisted with the Palestinian Authority. He explained that it was better for him to have some relationship with the Jews in Israel instead of completely abdicating his dream!

Timma was no different. She so desired to connect to the Patriarchs and then ended up consorting with the archenemy, the malignant and belligerent house of Esau?

Timna set a laudable goal. When she encountered roadblocks, she consoled herself with the belief that she was continuing her lofty aim. Her plans were unfruitful and she altered her destination, but she maintained the identical passion, desire, and motivation that she originally had. Unknowingly, she had crossed the line, with her expression of deep yearning now directed toward ignoble goals. She convinced herself she was getting closer to the patriarchs. In reality, she joined the enemy.

There might be a bit of Timna in all of us. We can aspire to goals that are significant, lofty, and important. Sometimes, it becomes evident to us that these goals can’t be met. It can be painful to admit that we need to adjust our aims or reorient our targets. If we do so, it might mean coming to terms with the fact that we failed or made mistakes. Instead, we might surreptitiously change our objectives, but not allow ourselves to realize that we made an adjustment to our original plans. This defense against accepting reality and changing with it can stymie and stifle us, our satisfaction, productivity, and happiness.

It can be exceedingly difficult for us to navigate life journeys. Unknowingly, we can follow paths that we had set, even after they go awry. It is sometimes significant to recognize that different situations arise that might requires new approaches, new strategies, and new goals. Although adjustments can be difficult to swallow, they can result in the long term satisfaction that can come from being more aware of one’s situations and realities, and the goals of being honest and truthful to oneself.

Timna renounced her royalty and her reality. She abdicated her throne, and with it, her honestly to herself. Part of us wants to join Timna. Perhaps we can allow ourselves to see our reality, and with it, discover our own internal royalty.

Identity Theft

Will the Real Andrew Please Stand Up?

Andrew was an actuary in a reputable firm. He felt that he found his “dream job.” He was well versed in actuarial science, so his work, although taxing and challenging, was not grueling and stressful. He worked hard, but was happy with his hours. He had time to study Torah in the morning for an hour and half before he had to go to work, and he had a full night seder (scheduled period for Talmud study). He also was able to be home for supper with his family, and his firm was understanding about his Jewish practices, such as yomim tovim (Jewish holidays)including chol hamoed (the intermediate days of Passover or Sukkos where work is permitted in case of necessity) and not shaving during sefirah and the three weeks (times of communal mourning where it is customary not to shave). He was at his firm for eleven years and presumed that he would be there until he retired or decided he wanted a change.

Suddenly, Andrew received news that left him flabbergasted and speechless. Although his work was exemplary, the firm was told by its Board of Directors that it had to cut costs. His direct boss was given the arduous task of figuring out who would be asked to leave. The boss called in Andrew and told him that he had to leave. He was going to be given a generous severance package, but could not return the next day.

Andrew left the firm that day, but the firm did not leave him. He was hurt, stunned, shocked, and insulted. He mourned the injustice he experienced and the unfair calculations that led to his dismissal. Andrew began to feel depressed, anxious, and generally out of sorts. He didn’t know how to make head or tails out of his experiences and his new situation.

Andrew did not want to share the bad news of his dismissal with anyone, but he mentioned it to one friend. That afternoon, his friend showed up at his with a gift – Who Moved My Cheese. Andrew sat down to read it immediately. The more he read, the more he felt that the book spoke to him. He liked it so much that he read it twice. He felt happier, more content, and ready for action. He was so enthused that he reached out to two colleagues he knew in other firms to find out if there were any openings.

By that night, Andrew was back to his doldrums. He kept on verbalizing some of the lessons of Who Moved My Cheese. “Change happens,” he told himself. “I can adapt,” he remembered. But he began to feel worse and worse.

Andrew’s reactions are expected, and are in accordance with years of research. Psychological literature spanning a long period of time has suggested that job loss results in low self-esteem, anxiety and depression. Some researchers (Mendolia, 2014) have highlighted that the major blow suffered after job loss is not because of financial setbacks (Andrew had a great severance package), but because of the emotional and psychological hardships that losing one’s job creates. Current research (Mendolia) even highlights that job loss affects one’s spouse’s mental health. Likewise, the spousal reactions are usually not because of the financial hardships that losing a job sometimes creates. Furthermore, the latest research (Solove, Fisher & Kraiger, 2015) demonstrates that when one is able to uphold his self-esteem after job loss, it is not only easier to manage the joblessness phase, it is also easier for him to obtain another job reasonably quickly.

Andrew met with a psychotherapist to help him with his anxiety and depression and sense of loss. Together, they began to explore the meaning Andrew attached to his former job, to his losing his job, and how Andrew internalized those. As they met, Andrew began to understand that he saw the job as a large part of his identity. It was how he defined himself and how he viewed himself in the eyes of others. It also was a large part of how he saw his own religious identity, since his former job had created time for his to study and to take off for yom tov (Jewish holidays). As Andrew met more with his therapist, he understood that he saw his job as a central to who he was. He worked with his therapist to trace the foundation of how his identity developed (they discovered it predated his job at that firm) and alternate ways to see himself. As with many psychotherapeutic cases, the acute situation that caused Andrew to begin appointments with his therapist was unfortunate, but the self-awareness, self- knowledge, and self-understanding that the therapeutic interventions explored and developed was a great gift for Andrew.

Andrew took advantage of his severance to take time off and explore who he was even more. He met with his therapist twice a week and probed the depths of his identity and existence. After the six months, he began to reapply to jobs. Some were in actuarial science, and some were completely unrelated to it. Within a few weeks he found his new “dream Job,” but he realized that it was really just a job. The dream was within him.

 

References

Mendolia, S. (2014). The impact of husband’s job loss on partners’ mental health. Review of Economics of the Household12(2), 277-294.

Solove, E., Fisher, G. G., & Kraiger, K. (2015). Coping with job loss and reemployment: A two-wave study. Journal of business and psychology,30(3), 529-541.

The Density of Destiny

The Powerful Lesson of the Long Neck

We recently discussed different ways one can approach and encounter change. A method of acceptance and adaptation is outlined and illustrated in Who Moved My Cheese. An additional technique is to challenge and actively modify your situation and environment, as highlighted in I Moved Your Cheese. In the most recent post, I discussed that both attitudes might be valuable and complementary. It is integral to consider your specific life situation as you explore which of the models to internalize.

In a related vein, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, a foremost contemporary Orthodox scholar and philosopher, addresses this broad issue in his essay entitled “Kol Dodi Dofek” – Listen – My Beloved Knocks. In that beautiful composition, those same concepts take on deep meaning in dealing with suffering and evil. Rabbi Soloveitchik contrasts two approaches to evil, fate and destiny. Rabbi Soloveitchik articulates that the suffering of righteous people has been a question which the greatest of prophets, including Moses himself, queried of G-d.

Rabbi Soloveitchik expounds that Judaism provides an approach, not an answer. The approach urges one to differentiate between man being an object or a subject. An individual who faces a hardship can sometimes see himself as an unfortunate person acted upon by the unpleasant and unsavory events of life- an object. His reaction is to see the evil as his fate, where he is helpless, shocked, pained, and crushed. When one sees negative events as suffering that he is to endure passively, the result can be tremendous mental anguish, which may result in unanswerable theological or philosophical questions, anger, anxiety, or depression.

On the other hand, Rabbi Soloveitchik continues, Judaism advocates a different approach to evil, one which is silently heroic. A man might not be able to alter his situation. Yet, within the confines of his circumstance, he can aim to understand, plan, and regulate his actions and reactions, and perform within his situational boundaries, becoming an active subject. He can master his own behavior, calculate his behavioral responses, and analyze what the situation demands of him, transforming pathetic fate into majestic destiny.

The primary intent of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s philosophy is to explain that Judaism often mandates specific behaviors in response to emotionally difficult experiences. In his view, a Jewish man of destiny does not seek to modify a situation that he cannot, but examines what behavior the Jewish faith demands of him at the time. On occasion it can be introspection so that he improves his behavior, the recitation of the required brachah (blessing) on negative tidings, or observance of rites of mourning. One can rise to majesty by remaining steadfast in his religious beliefs and actions, and creating his own spiritual destiny within a physically immutable situation.

This approach can be broadened outside the realm of halachically (Jewish legally) demanded actions to explain a general response that one can espouse when he is faced with a struggle such as insufficient finances, poor educational opportunities, or difficulties in relationships. If the situation is incontrovertible, he must maneuver within its margins to accept it, deal with it, and create a best case scenario. In other circumstances, his most appropriate effort might be to challenge his circumstances and attempt to change them.

Sometimes, a man’s persistence and optimism demonstrate both his acceptance of change and his defiance of its supposed limitations. Consider this majestic manifestation of destiny, discussed by Dr.Viktor Frankl in a postscript to Man’s Search for Meaning (Postscript 1984 – The Case for a Tragic Optimism):

Jerry Long, to cite an example, is a living testimony to “the defiant power of the human spirit,” as it is called in logotherapy. To quote the Texarkana Gazette, “Jerry Long has been paralyzed from his neck down since a diving accident which rendered him a quadriplegic three years ago. He was seventeen when the accident occurred. Today Long can use his mouth stick to type. He ‘attends’ two courses at Community College via a special telephone. The intercom allows Long to both hear and participate in class discussions. He also occupies his time by reading, watching television and writing.” And in a letter I received from him, he writes: “I view my life as being abundant with meaning and purpose. The attitude that I adopted on that fateful day has become my personal credo for life: I broke my neck, it didn’t break me (note the play on words making a potential object into a subject –SM). I am currently enrolled in my first psychology course in college. I believe that my handicap will only enhance my ability to help others…”

If [suffering] is avoidable, the meaningful thing to do is to remove its cause. For unnecessary suffering is masochistic rather than heroic. If, on the other hand, one cannot change a situation that causes his suffering, he can still choose his attitude. Long had not chosen to break his neck, but he did decide not to let himself be broken by what had happened to him (again the object – subject change – SM).

After reading Frankl’s book and contacting Frankl, Long became a friend and then a colleague, of Frankl. You can see Dr. Jerry Long, Jr. and Dr. Viktor Frankl discussing some of their experiences together in this moving video. Long accepted that his cheese was moved, yet might be considered to have broken free of the maze that the cheese was in altogether, transforming what some might have seen as a confining, miserable fate into a heroic, magnificent, destiny.