Haman Let His Thoughts Hang Out…and He Followed

It might be important to think about what you are thinking about.

What’s on your mind?

That can be a hard question to answer.  Your mind is so magnificently complex that you might be thinking many thoughts at the same time. Some can be easy for you to access, and others more difficult. When you try to address your layers of thoughts honestly, you might gain insight into who you are, and some things that make you happy, sad, or confused.

You can sometimes be hiding from yourself. If you are not in touch with your thoughts, it doesn’t mean that the thoughts aren’t there. It simply means that you are not allowing yourself to focus on them. Since they are still present in your mind, they might come out at inopportune moments or through your behavior, even if you are not aware of it. That is what happened at one of the critical junctures of the Purim story.

The Megillah describes that Mordechai, the Jewish sage and leader, was supposed to be terminated on Passover. Instead, he was paraded victoriously around the city on that same day, bedecked in royal robes on the royal horse, led by his archenemy and planned assassin, Haman.

The Midrash (Koheles Rabbah 5:2) illuminates the background that pivotal story. Achashverosh, supreme ruler of the Persian Empire, had a troubling dream the night before. He envisioned Haman, his second in command, standing above him with a drawn sword, disrobing him from his royal attire, removing his crown, and attempting to kill him. Achashverosh tried to shake the dream but it recurred throughout the night. It was almost morning, and Achashverosh still struggled with his nightmare.

He was still mulling over his terrifying dream when Haman entered the royal chamber. Haman had intended to discuss the immediate execution of Mordechai with Achashverosh. Yet, Achashverosh sensed that Haman might have had ulterior motives in coming, too. He might have been trying to assault him. To test Haman’s thinking, Achashverosh asked him to recommend a procedure for honoring a loyal subject. Haman responded that the honoree should wear royal robes. Achashverosh inquired as to which ones. Haman explained that his intent was Achashverosh’s coronation robes. Haman further recommended that the man ride on one of the king’s horses. Achashverosh asked which horse Haman meant. He again responded that he referred to the horse used during coronation.  Haman added that the honoree should wear the royal crown. When Achashverosh heard that, his visage turned angry. He understood that Haman was expressing his own desire to usurp the monarchy. Then Achashverosh silently decided that the time for Haman’s own end had come. He had received proof positive that his sixth sense was correct. Haman was planning a coup. Achashverosh began to plan for Haman’s own end by telling him to prepare that royal parade for Mordechai, instead of for himself.

It is striking that Haman was unable to disguise his thoughts. He unconsciously let them to slip out plentifully. He wasn’t only filled with thoughts of aggression; his persona seemed to exude them. His aura expressed that he was planning to usurp the throne. Achashverosh instinctively sensed this, and his concerns materialized in his dreams. Haman might even have been able to successfully plan his coup if he paid attention to what he was thinking and bifurcated his thoughts from his actions. Instead, he let his thoughts and desires influence his speech and behavior, and gave himself away to the King.

This narrative is as a powerful declaration as to the role of thought and its interplay with actions. All people can generate and harbor negative thoughts or feelings. The difference between a person who leads a morally correct life and one who does not is the ability to work through those thoughts productively. Wonderful people can have not-such-wonderful thoughts. A person who wants to meet with success acknowledges those thoughts and addresses them. Perhaps he will decide to be simply cognizant of them and not let them lead him to incorrect actions. Perhaps he will try to change his cognitions. Maybe he will be more conscious of situations that trigger those thoughts. Perhaps he will embrace all of these, or address the thoughts in a different way. The only way to decide how to navigate and address thoughts is to first notice that they are there.

What often sets people that thrive apart from those that dive is not the thoughts that they have, but how they deal with them. The more you are in touch with the layers of thoughts in your mind, the more you might be able to discover and understand yourself. This can lead to a more fulfilling and successful life, which is something to celebrate, not just on Purim, but throughout the year!

From Coup D’état to Coup de Grace: The Importance of Thinking About What You Are Thinking About

Haman thought himself into oblivion. Can we do better?

What do you think about?

How you answer that might depend on how comfortable and trusting you are of the person asking. Even so, you might not know what to answer. The human mind is so wonderfully complex that you might be thinking many thoughts at the same time. Some can be easy for you to access, and others more difficult. Sometimes, when you try to answer that question honestly, you can gain insight into who you are, and some things that make you happy, sad, or confused.

If you are not in touch with your thoughts, you can sometimes be hiding keys to who you are from yourself. That doesn’t mean that the thoughts aren’t there, it simply means that you are not allowing yourself to focus on them. Since they are still present in your mind, they might come out at inopportune moments or through your behavior, even if you are not aware of it. That is what happened at one of the critical junctures of the Purim story.

The Midrash (Koheles Rabbah 5:2) illuminates the background of a pivotal story in the Megillah. Mordechai, the Jewish sage and leader, was supposed to be terminated on Passover. Instead, he was paraded victoriously around the city on that day, led by his archenemy and planned assassin, Haman.

Acheshverosh, supreme ruler of the Persian Empire, had had a troubling dream the night before. He envisioned his second in command, Haman, standing above him with a drawn sword, disrobing him from his royal attire, removing his crown, and attempting to kill him. Achashverosh tried to shake the dream but it recurred throughout the night. It was almost morning, and Acheshverosh still struggled with his nightmare.

Haman then entered the royal chamber. He intended to discuss the immediate execution of Mordechai with Achashverosh. Achashverosh sensed that Haman might have had ulterior motives in coming, too. To test Haman’s thinking, Achashverosh asked him to recommend a procedure for honoring a loyal subject. Haman responded that the honoree should wear royal robes. Achashverosh inquired as to which ones. Haman explained that his intent was Achashverosh’s coronation robes. Haman further recommended that the man ride on one of the king’s horses. Achashverosh asked which horse Haman meant. He again responded that he referred to the horse used during coronation.  Haman added that the honoree should wear the royal crown. When Achashverosh heard that, his visage turned angry. He silently decided that the time for Haman’s own end had come. Achashverosh had received proof positive that his sixth sense was correct. Haman was obviously planning a coup.

This narrative is as a powerful declaration as to the role of thought and its interplay with actions. The Midrash comments that wicked people, such as Haman, are governed by their thoughts. In contrast, righteous people have the ability to manage their thinking. The commentaries (see Eitz Yosef ibid.) explain that all people can harbor negative thoughts or feelings. The difference between a person who leads a morally correct life and one who does not is the ability to work through those thoughts productively. Wonderful people can have not-so-wonderful thoughts. A person who wants to meet with success acknowledges those thoughts and addresses them. Perhaps he will decide to be simply cognizant of them and not let them lead him to incorrect actions. Perhaps he will try to change his cognitions. Maybe he will be more conscious of situations that trigger those thoughts. Perhaps he will embrace all of these, or address the thoughts in a different way. The only way to decide how to navigate and address thoughts is to first notice that they are there.

In contrast, Haman was filled with thoughts of aggression, and his persona seemed to have exuded them. Unconsciously, his aura expressed that he was planning to usurp the throne. Achashverosh unknowingly sensed this, and his concerns materialized in his dream. Haman was not clever enough to disguise his negative thoughts and plans. Haman might even have been able to successfully plan his coup if he paid attention to what he was thinking and bifurcated his thoughts from his actions. Instead, he let his thoughts and desires influence his speech and behavior, and gave himself away to the King.

Sometimes, the difference between people that thrive and people that dive is not the thoughts that they have, but how they deal with them. The more you are in touch with the layers of thoughts in your mind, the more you might be able to discover and understand yourself. This can lead to a more fulfilling and successful life, which is something to celebrate, not just on Purim, but throughout the year!

The Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat 

Can you embrace both?

Jubilation abounded as Yisro, Moshe’s father-in-law, came from his native Midian to join the Jewish encampment in the wilderness. Moshe related to him the details of the miraculous Israelite exodus and the splitting of the Red Sea and Yisro reacted with intense emotion. The Torah uses a unique word to encapsulate Yisro’s feelings – “Yichad”. (It is so distinctive that it is a hapax legomenon – a word that appears only once in Scripture.) Rashi interprets that expression in two ways. Superficially, it is a shortened form of the more common word “chedva,” which means joy. Yisro was overjoyed at the Israelite salvation. (Other commentators suggest that the etymology is from the Aramaic/ Targum – “chadi,” which is has the same meaning. Interestingly, in contemporary Persian, the word “chadi” means happiness and is sometimes taken as a family surname). Rashi then quotes an additional, Midrashic interpretation. The word originates from “chad” – which means sharp.  Yisro developed sharp stress marks on his skin as he heard Moshe’s narration of the decimation of Egypt. Since Yisro originally came from the country of Midian, near Egypt, he felt solidarity with the stricken Egyptians and their downfall pained him.

Rashi frequently quotes more than one interpretation of a word or an idea in his commentary. It can sometimes seem like each explanation is bifurcated from the other. Here, the two approaches espoused by Rashi, one of elation and the other of distress, seem in opposition. Upon further examination, Rashi might be suggesting an integration of both approaches. (This is possibly the truest meaning of how to understand multiple hermeneutical methods, such as peshat – simple meaning, and drash – homiletical meaning. They are meant to be combined and interwoven. A similar observation is made by Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetzky, Emes L’Yaakov, beginning of Vayigash.) How can that be in the description of Yisro’s emotions?  Did Yisro react with both jubilation and grief?

The Torah is accenting the beauty and complexity of the human experience. On the one hand, Yisro experienced joy at the miraculous salvation of the Jewish people, including his daughter and son-in-law. At the same time, Yisro felt dread and terror at the punishment of the Egyptians. Yisro embraced both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, simultaneously.

We can frequently find Yisro-type experiences in our own lives. Our minds can harbor several feelings about someone or something; these feelings can even be contradictory. We often, perhaps always, experience mixed feelings for a person, situation, or object. We might appreciate some parts and dread other characteristics or facets. For instance, it is common for people to enjoy the financial remuneration they receive from their employment, but not the job itself.  Alternatively, they might appreciate both of those, but bemoan the need to leave their homes or their families.

This can even be true in one’s most close familial experiences and relationships. For example, it might be significant for a child to be in touch with the pleasurable experience of security and nourishment that parents give, as well as the restriction and demands they might place on him. It is natural to appreciate the former and resent the latter. The same can be true regarding other relationships. It might be beneficial to think about the strains of emotions people evoke within us and feel comforted that there are usually webs of them, and they can often seem to be in opposition.

Yet, it can be hard to allow ourselves the reality of all parts of an experience. It might be easier to focus on one aspect of a person or experience than on multiple pieces. It seems more streamlined and simple. The urge to simplify our thoughts and emotions might cause us to think more about one aspect of an experience than another. Sometimes it takes some effort to become in touch with the multiple feelings and emotions we have about someone or something. It is not always comfortable or pleasant, but it might be more truthful.

This might be especially challenging in a world where people portray themselves technologically and usually emphasize one dimension of themselves, and see others that way. When culture encourages choosing who to date or connect with by means of a simple swipe of the finger, it is hard to buck the trend and notice that we usually have multiple feelings about people, not simply likes or dislikes and yeses or nos.

When the Jews encamped around Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, they are described as doing so with singular mind, like one individual. Chazal describe that as “kish echad b’lev echad” – as one person with one heart. It seems redundant – if they were like one person, weren’t they of unified heart? The Torah might be emphasizing that even one individual may have different thoughts and feelings in his heart. The unique nature of the Jewish encampment around Sinai was that they were so singular of purpose there was no fragmentation whatsoever. But that is the exception that proves the rule. We can often experience many thoughts and feelings, “b’ish echad” – within our own selves. It can be difficult and untidy, and complicated – and honest.

I Caught the Cold

Sometimes it’s easier to avoid the warmth.

On an exceptionally rainy and cold winter morning, Rav Yehoshua Trunk of Kutna, a great 19th century Russo-Polish rabbinic scholar, was intensely studying with his students. Suddenly, he closed his Gemara and invited them to accompany him on a stroll. The students looked at one another quizzically. Gradually, they followed him to the outskirts of the city and walked toward the intercity road. As they neared the way, they saw a peddler laboring intensely in the mud just created by the heavy, icy rain. His cart was full of merchandise and his lone horse was powerless to free the cart and pull it to the road. The peddler was concerned that his meager investment would perish as it was exposed to the elements. He also worried that his only horse would collapse from the exertion. He forlornly looked heavenward and cried for help. Rav Yehoshua motioned to his students and they joined together to wrench the cart free of the muck and to the road.

The very grateful peddler, unaware of the identity of his helpers, assumed that he had the Providence and good fortune to encounter a skilled group of haulers. He asked them about remuneration. Rav Yehoshua responded that each of the men were to be paid a kopeck (the former Polish/ Russian version of a penny). The man then turned to Rav Yehoshua, who he presumed was the foreman, and asked him how much he wanted. Rav Yehoshua responded that he should be paid three kopecks. The man promptly compensated, and expressed his unceasing thanks as he made his way on the road to peddle.

The next day, Rav Yehoshua and his students heard vigorous pounding on the door in the middle of their studies. They opened the door and saw the peddler that they had helped yesterday, distraught. He apologized profusely for taking advantage of them. He bemoaned that he had the audacity to make use of the time and effort of a leading Torah luminary and his students for his own service.

Rav Yehoshua swiftly comforted the man. He gently explained to the peddler that he did not gratuitously make use of Torah scholars. They had an ad hoc business arrangement and he had paid for their services properly and fairly.

As I read this story recently in a Hebrew book, I began wondering about the legal permissibility for Rav Yehoshua and his students to leave their Torah study to help that unfortunate peddler. Torah study is a serious matter and is not permitted to be interrupted. Maimonides codifies the absolute significance of Torah study (Laws of Torah Study, Chapter 3, 3 -4):

There is no commandment among all the commandments that has a weight equal to Torah study. Rather, Torah study is equal to all the commandments, because study brings to deeds. Therefore, study takes precedence over deeds in every regard.

If one has the opportunity to do some [other] mitzvah or to learn Torah, and the mitzvah could be done by someone else, he should not interrupt his learning. Otherwise, he should do the mitzvah, and return to his studies.

How did Rav Yehoshua divert his attention from Torah study and direct his students to follow? I began to reason that Rav Yehoshua and his students were covered by the latter clause in the Rambam. There were probably few groups of people that could have banded together to help the poor vendor. Therefore, assisting him fell under the caveat that if the mitzvah cannot be done by anyone else, one may interrupt Torah study to perform it.

Afterward, I began chiding myself. I could have basked longer in the shine of the story and imbibed its statement about the majesty of assisting others. Instead, my mind raced to contemplate the legalistic justification of Rav Yehosuha and his students. My internal give and take was rational, logical, and contained an appropriate question. Yet, I noticed how quickly my “go to place” was to probe and understand the Halachic validity of the story.

I reminded myself of the Jewish joke that explains the difference between two similar terms used for hapless or pesky individuals, schlemiel, schlimazel, and nudnik. The pithy explanation is that the schlemiel is the one who spills the soup, the schlimazel is the one who the soup spills on…and the nudnik is the one who asks what type of soup it was.

I felt a tinge of being a nudnik. I moved away from a beautiful example of kindness, selflessness, and thoughtfulness to the realm of the legal. This seems to have been in contrast to Rav Yehoshua of Kutna in the story. Rav Yehoshua was not a prophet. He probably did not know that a specific merchant needed his help. His deep perception and attentiveness to the needs of others led him to believe that people would probably be in great need of assistance in the rain. On the other hand, my initial thought was to focus on the rational and legal exploration of the story.

Relegating the human experience to analysis and exploration in an official way is sometimes an easy route. When we examine something legally and analytically, it allows us to observe it as an outsider. It side-swipes the messiness of being human. This can prevent the exchange or experience from touching us. That might even be the reason that we run to do it. Legal analysis is complex, but is it safe. We don’t need to feel, explore, or be in touch with the world of emotions of ourselves, or of others.

I then observed that I was not alone in seeking safety in the non-human part of the story. The Hebrew book that I was studying had an epilogue: When a contemporary Torah scholar heard this story, he was perplexed. The Talmud states (Bava Metzia 32a) that since it is a mitzvah to assist one’s neighbor load or unload a struggling animal, one may not take payment for that actions. The scholar was bothered how Rav Yehoshua and his students allowed themselves to be paid for their good deed. The scholar’s reaction contained a different question than mine, but was still focused on the legalistic nature of the story. That scholar himself might have marveled at the beauty of Rav Yehoshua’s benevolence. Yet, the brief analysis in the book and its juxtaposition to the story left me with an impression of analysis instead of feeling and scrutiny instead of humanity.

In contrast, our Sages observe that the first description the Torah gives of Moshe (Moses) in Egypt was that he observed the suffering of his nation in slavery and was tormented. Moshe was sheltered in the protection of Pharaoh’s court, but went to see and experience the anguish of his nation. Importantly, the Torah describes that it was the first thing that Moshe did when he matured. Moshe’s joining the distress of his people was both a result and a statement of his maturity. Moshe’s extraordinary empathy is closely related to his success as the most renowned and revered teacher in Jewish history.

The contemporary educational system sometimes places great emphasis on analysis and legal understanding. The skills, techniques, and knowledge that one learns are invaluable in further study, and in life. Yet, they are one part of an important scholastic corpus. One’s struggle with the complexity of the human experience, both his own, and those of others, is important to keep in mind. Focus on legalisms and rationality can sometimes leave one, or his neighbors, struggling helplessly in the cold.

A Deep Sense of Sheim

Do roses always smell as sweet?

“I am so tired I can’t even keep my kids’ names straight!” How often do you experience something like that? Mixing up names can be very frustrating. You might see it as an indication of our own fatigue, stress, or lack of presence of mind. You might also attribute it to diminishing memory.

In some of the most famous lines in Romeo and Juliet, Juliet proclaims:

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet;

So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,

Retain that dear perfection which he owes

Without that title.

Her words run deep and most correctly apply when there is forethought into changing one’s own name, or the name of a loved one. Yet, when one inadvertently misnames another, the sound might not be as pleasant.

New research, published this past October, indicates that misnaming has little to do with our state of tiredness or memory retention. It seems to be a common phenomenon based on the way our brains process information. It might also indicate something about how we access that information when we are under time pressure or are distracted.

A fundamental aspect of cognition is that our brains chunk information, or group it together. We try to create orderly file systems in order to process, make sense of, and retain the overwhelming amount of information that we encounter. That is part of the reason that mnemonics work so well to help us remember things. When learning the order of operation for grade school math, “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally” makes more sense to us as a group of words than “Parentheses Exponents Multiplication Division Addition Subtraction” or even “PEMDAS.” Therefore, we can group that sentence as one, so it is more easily accessible and processed in our memories (which might be part of the reason I still remember it from elementary school).

The recent study suggests that our brains do a similar thing with names. We group people’s names in virtual file folders. We might place all children in the “children” folder. Sometimes, perhaps when we are short on time or lack focus, we access the folder, and grab the wrong file, such as a different child’s name. This same phenomenon can happen with coworkers’ names. Since coworkers are often grouped in the same folder, it is easy to access one file or name instead of another.

It seldom happens that the folders get mixed up. It is not as prevalent for someone to mistake a family member for a coworker’s name or vice versa. What if you find that you do? It might indicate that that coworker is in a “family” folder, so his name is able to be accessed instead of your family member’s. Why might this happen?

There might be other aspects of our psyche that are involved in our cognitions and categorizations, in addition to those research findings. Misnaming might indicate something about ourselves and the person we are addressing. For example, someone might be grouped in multiple areas of memory. A close friend might be categorized as a “friend” and as “family.” You might sometimes think of him as a friend. On occasion, you might use your sibling’s name for him, too. That can indicate that he is somewhat of a brother to you, as well. What if you often misname your sister with you friend’s name? That might hint to you that you have some aspects of a closer relationship with your friend than with your sister.

In addition, there might be fluidity in your mind from category to category. In large families, one might chunk “older kids” and “younger kids” in two groups. It might be that it is most common to misname older kids for one another or younger kids for one another. What about the child that is in the middle? He might sometimes be misnamed for an older sibling, and sometimes for a younger one. It might depend on his behavior or the situation and his parent’s frame of mind at that moment. Is mom seeing him as one of the younger kids or the older ones at that second?

In a broader sense, sometimes misnaming might indicate the lack of uniqueness that a person has to you at that instant. If a parent interchanges names, it might partially indicate that he loves all the children he interchanges names with equally, or that he feels that way at that time. On the other hand, it might demonstrate that he is seeing them more prominently with the identifying factor as “children” rather than as individuals.

What if you switch spouse and children, bosses and parents, or rabbis and friends? Those inadvertent switches might indicate something to you about the way you are processing that relationship at that moment. It does not have to mean that you are equating them. It could mean that there is some commonality that your mind is processing at that specific time.

The representation that a misnomer has to the user, and the one who is being misnamed, might differ based on the situation. When Juliet tells Romeo that she loves him for who he is, not for his name, she is using it as a mechanism to draw closer. On the other hand, inadvertent misnaming might create distance, or just be humorous or irrelevant to both parties.

The subjective value we give to names may wax and wane in communal and religious significance, as well. Our Sages greatly laud the Jewish people for not altering their Jewish names during their two centuries of brutal Egyptian labor and bondage, which we begin to read about this week. That intransigence was seen as a demonstration of extreme fortitude. The Jews preserved their national identity despite their being subjected to work that could have shattered their morale.  (It is interesting to note that the entire Book of Exodus is also commonly called Shemos – lit. “Names.” That is also the plural form of the word sheim – name used in this title.) At the same time, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe O. C. 4, 66) observes that in post-Exodus Judaism there have been many renowned Jews that have solely used secular names. He posits that the supreme importance that our Sages attributed to the preservation of distinct names was when there were few other characteristics that defined Jews. After the Torah was given, Judaism had its own legal system and codes, and maintaining distinct names paled in importance. Likewise, the significance of names or misnaming may depend on situational factors.

Thinking about your misnaming might provide insight into yourself and your relationships. What might be true for you at one time might not be how you are feeling at another time. Alternatively, it might ring so true that you prefer not to notice it. That might depend on if you are willing to looking beyond the name. Will that help life’s roses smell even sweeter?

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.

Great is the Enemy of Good Enough: The Overextended Parent

Shaindi is not adequately available for her kids and it troubles her.

“Aggghhh!” Shaindi says to herself. Her fourth grade son, Avi, needs help with his homework, and her second grade daughter, Aliza, cut her knee. At the same time, Shaindi is tending to her 6 month old baby, Ephi. She comforts Aliza with one arm as she balances the baby in the other. Then, still holding baby Ephi, she sits down to help Avi, but Aliza keeps on moaning, interrupting them. Shaindi begins to tear.

She isn’t upset at any of the kids. She isn’t even bothered by the tug of several demands on her at the same time. Shaindi explains that her crying is because she feels that she is deficient as a mother. Shaindi knows that children need emotional nourishment to become thriving, successful, well-adjusted adults. She makes sure to show her kids love, care, and concern as often as she can. But she feels it is simply not enough. As much as she tries, she feels like she doesn’t give enough attention, time, or demonstration of her love to any of them.

It’s not only Shaindi that feels this way. The kids seem to feel it, too.

“Mommy. How come we can’t do homework without being interrupted?”

“Mom, why can’t we have supper at a normal time like all my friends?”

“Why can’t you take care of me without holding baby?”

These are common questions she hears from her kids. Shaindi clarifies that she is not concerned about “having it together” or being a supermom. She wishes she could be worrying about that. She has more basic concerns. She is concerned about her kids’ development and future. “Who knows how they will turn out when they grow up?” she asks herself. “I hope they remember my love and they manage to mature OK,” Shaindi thinks. She wants to be the best mother that she can be for her kids…and she is failing.

Or is she? Dr. Donald W. Winnicott (1896 – 1971) was a pediatrician in London who noticed that a baby’s ability to grow and adapt well to the world was correlated with the mother’s love and care for her baby, just as Shaindi believes. Yet, as Winnicott observed this among his patients, he coined the term “good-enough mother.” He observed that if a mother was responsive to her baby’s needs most of the time, and generally held, fed, and cared for the baby, the baby developed properly and matured. The mother did not have to always be responsive, or perfect, or caring. Sometimes she could have been selfish, preoccupied, and/ or ambivalent. As long as she usually showed concern for the baby, the baby was equipped to transition through life’s developmental stages. As Winnicott stated in his seminal paper the mother needs to be “alive and real and good enough (not too persecutory).”

Furthermore, Winnicott explained that a mother’s complete attention to the baby’s needs dissipates. He suggested that, “the good enough ‘mother’ (not necessarily the infant’s own mother) is one who makes active adaptation to the infant’s needs, an active adaptation that gradually lessens, according to the infant’s growing ability to account for failure of adaptation and to tolerate the results of frustration.” That means that a mother does withdraw, and the baby’s ability to tolerate that is a fundamental way that babies grow cognitively. Ironically, the fact that the mother withdraws her constant and absolute care (maybe even a few days out of the baby nursery, as life happens!) is central to the baby developing properly and wholly.

Many have suggested that the power and insight of Winnicott’s approach and phraseology is that mothering is a microcosm of the child’s present and future. The mother’s need and desire to do other things that distract her from her baby is the best preparation for life. As he matures the infant will encounter some situations and relationships where others fulfill his needs, and others where people either don’t or deny that those needs they exist.

The good-enough mother is realistic, both as a mother and as a cultivator of future expectations. “One of Winnicott’s main contributions to psychoanalytic thought was his idea of the “good-enough mother,” the mother who sometimes responded promptly to our needs and sometimes didn’t. The beauty of this concept was that it was so widely applicable—most people had that kind of mother—and also that it bestowed some honor on her. (Those mothers typically had other children to care for, plus dinner to cook.)…[An analyst] regards Winnicott’s good-enough mother as not just good enough but the best, because she tells us the truth: on occasion we’ll get satisfaction and on occasion we won’t. We need understanding sometimes, not every time” (Acocella, 2013).

Shaindi appears to be a “good enough mother.” She spends time with her children and demonstrates her love through her actions and interactions. She is not perfect, but it seems that a mother doesn’t have to be. Furthermore, her imperfection might be beneficial. It helps her kids get ready for life’s ups and downs. Some like saying that “good is the enemy of great.” With parenting, great is sometimes the enemy of good-enough.

 

References

Acocella, J. (2013) http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/02/25/this-is-your-life-2

Winnicott, D. W. (1953). Transitional objects and transitional phenomena.The International journal of psycho-analysis34, 89.