Barukh ata Adonay, Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al sfirat ha-omer.
Blessed are You, Adonay our God, ruler of the universe, who makes us holy with mitzvot and gives us this opportunity to count the Omer.
Today is day twelve which is one week and five days of the Omer. Hayom yom shtem-es’re she hem shavua ehad ve hamisha yamim laOmer.
Today is Hod be Gevura, gratitude within strength, humility within might.
This is the moment when I realize how ridiculous my pride in my basic traits is. I am not intelligent because I did something. It is a gift I was born with. I can be proud of what I do with my intelligence – but having it? The best I can do is enjoy it and feel grateful. Sometimes, I get caught up in all the ways that the universe has been unfair to me. I have this issue and that and I have that problem and this and all these things make so much more difficult for me. I just need to remember that it’s that same universe that gave me all those positives too – I have a lot of strength, I have many capabilities, there is so much that others cannot do with ease that I can – look, I write this stuff as a hobby! Today, I remember my abilities and feel grateful for the gifts I’ve been given.
Today, we stop looking at our shortcomings, and focus on our strengths – with gratitude!
You know, I don’t actually have a problem with pride. I know, as Jews we are commanded to be humble, to remember that all the good things we have and all the good things we do come from God, and that’s what it is all about, and not to focus so much on ourselves. Nevertheless, I think there’s a lot to be said for pride, and the glow it can bring of a task well accomplished. It’s our way of giving ourselves the positive feedback and encouragement that we need and deserve. It’s lovely. Oh, it can be taken to extremes, but it doesn’t have to be. Well-guided pride is a tool that can help.
When things aren’t going well, that same pride can be used to work just a bit harder, to get a little more done. It can help us overcome obstacles and push through seemingly unsolvable problems. It’s again fairly useful. However, it’s when it, in itself, becomes an obstacle to dealing with a difficult situation that needs to be examined. And sometimes, it does.
Embarrassment is something everyone deals with, and it can be a serious problem. It can create distance from one person to the next as more and more topics become too embarrassing to mention. It can waste our time and resources (no? never spent time going from one place to another looking for somewhere you won’t be seen while you do that embarrassing thing?) It can keep us from doing activities we enjoy or ones we might enjoy because we’re too embarrassed to be seen doing something so poorly. It can keep us for asking for help, when we need it, even if that help is medical. It’s stupid and it’s harmful, and it’s a trap I fall into far too often.
I like positive feedback, and I want to be seen a certain way – accomplished, successful, kind, etc. I don’t want to be seen as weak and needy, and that leads to that embarrassment when I am feeling weak and needy that keeps me from asking for help. If I don’t show anyone how messed up this mess really is, no one need know, right? They can keep thinking of me as a super-fantastic mega-successful always-patient individual. I like that. So, I don’t ask for help, I get more and more frantic, and I wonder nothing is working.
Of course, different areas cause embarrassment to varying amounts for different people, both on a cultural and personal level. While for one person, any topics about body or physical intimacy are embarrassing, for another it’s stuff connected to work and money that makes them blush. There are cultural aspects to this as well. I know that the level of pride and privacy, embarrassment and distance is different in certain cultures. The advantage of these differences is that it’s easy for me to see when someone else is being ridiculous, letting her embarrassment get in the way of asking for help that she really needs.
It is not a minor problem. It can cause break-ups when two loving people are just too embarrassed to admit they’re wrong and ask for forgiveness or another chance or even some loving time together. It can cause one to lose out on a wonderful job because one is too embarrassed to apply. It can cause a misdiagnosis – I once heard someone talk about the number of times embarrassment has led to actual death, because people would rather suffer huge amounts of pain than be embarrassed in front of their doctor.
Breaking through pride – setting it aside enough to ask for help – is still not easy. Because pride does have benefits, embarrassment is real, and no amount of wishing it away will actually make it disappear. It takes courage and strength to open oneself up, to take that risk, to ask for help. It’s so worthwhile, though. So many of us are waiting to be asked, hoping that we can help out with whatever difficulties arise. When it happens, especially in a difficult, embarrassing situation, the request can be a bridge that connects two people, and like any bridge, helps us get across problems and obstacles.
There’s a tenderness and vulnerability that comes from that asking, and a responsibility on each and every one of us to respond with kindness and care. It doesn’t matter how minor the request, puncturing through embarrassment and replacing it with sharing and communication is worth it. There are many places where it’s good to be risk averse – why risk when you can see the problem coming, can take proper precautions, can avoid it? This is a place where the risk is a good one. Asking someone else for help in an embarrassing situation is risky – the other person may laugh, may say no, may be annoyed at assumed closeness – but it’s also beautiful. This is a place to take the risk.
I pride myself on being reasonably good about this one (yes, that was on purpose). I think I’m rarely embarrassed. I ask for help often and accept help cheerfully. Yet still, there are areas where I could do better. I get embarrassed with kids and admitting mistakes to them, for example, even when it may be useful to do so. I am more likely to be embarrassed with people who have criticized something I do in the past. Embarrassment exists for me too. I know better, though. It’s one of the character traits that I work to improve, year after year, Elul after Elul. I refuse to die of embarrassment. I’d rather ask for the help I need, even if it does make me blush.
Well, I wrote about forgiveness on Elul 2 (before I got into the BlogElul list thing) and so it makes no sense to me to do it again today. Maybe I’ll use ‘Act’ – the Elul 2 word – as my inspiration today – or maybe I won’t. Yesterday’s trust work was exhausting. I wish I could just stop. I often wish that, you know. When things get hard or overwhelming, I wish I didn’t have to do anything – I want to just get under my covers and hide away from a world that seems to be too much to bear. I remember when I used to do that – when I would seriously not go anywhere for a day or two, not because I was sick, but because I just couldn’t make myself do it any more – it was too much.
Over time, I learned many ways of dealing with that feeling – everything from breathing to writing, to-do lists to schedules, meditation to planning. I freeze a lot less. I slow down sometimes, but I don’t stop. Not giving up, continuing to do that next tiny little step (and on days when I’m overwhelmed, my to-do list has everything from ‘tie my shoes’ to ‘write the next line’) has become a defining part of who I am by now. Dogged determination is my answer to that sense of overwhelmed confusion, of inability and fear, of exhaustion and despair.
Now and then, I work on taking it further. Can I keep doing the things I need to do but do them all cheerfully, mindfully, paying attention to and appreciate the details involved? Sometimes. Sometimes, I can rise to that level and my speed increases, and my to-do list changes to have major items on it (‘organize room’, ‘apply to 10 more jobs’, ‘blog’). Life is better and more fun. I like it when I manage this level.
I don’t always though, and that’s perfectly fine. Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate my ability to do the next thing. It’s a strength, and one that I value in myself. During Elul, it’s good to have traits which can start from a position of strength and only go to greater strength. And while my lists and schedules limit spontaneity, it’s a trade-off that I’m willing to accept. When I’m feeling mindful and flexible, I can put the spontaneity in as I actually have extra time to work with. When I’m feeling low, I might sometimes take a proffered alternative activity as a welcome break. So, I am not finding the lack of spontaneity a problem. With my life as it is, I am rarely if ever bored.
Given that I’m fairly slow physically, a bit distractable, easily overwhelmed and forgetful, my ability to organize my time so that I can act effectively is a skill that I can work with. It’s not perfect – I can certainly enjoy myself more, be better focused and so on, but it is something to be proud of. This Elul, it’s nice to be able to recognize strengths as well as weaknesses, and to use them as a springboard to further growth.
Yesterday, I wrote about khutzpa – and as I was in a house with no internet, I couldn’t send it out, so you are getting two posts at once (how Shabbat appropriate is this? Remind me to do more Shabbat resting this year) and I figured I may as well stick with the topic. Why? Because khutzpa – that supreme self-confidence that powers our crazy but beautiful actions – khutzpa is necessary.
Last year was a hard year for me as a teacher. I wasn’t sure if I was doing a good job, if I was reaching my students. There was rarely the gratification of an explanation leading to sudden bursts of understanding and comfort with a topic that had seemed overwhelming. The feedback from students was limited and some of it, pretty negative. So, I lost my confidence in my ability to be that teacher – the inspirational one that one remembers 30 years later, the one that changes the direction of your life with his wisdom and the way he has of saying things, the one that inspires your writing. (Thank you, again, Mr. Waldman – you remain the best of the best.) I still had the need to teach, the need to give – but without the confidence that it was good.
And oddly, it became less good. I could teach less when I didn’t believe in myself. I found myself being more impatient with my students, being more confusing in my explanations, being more random in my preparation. I started doubting my choices of vocation, of life. I thought – well, I have lost my confidence and there is nothing I can do about this and I am stuck with this ugliness. Only, I am not.
Today, I know I am a terrific teacher. Yes, I can improve. Yes, I have much to learn. However, I am a great teacher. Furthermore, I am great at all sorts of things that up to now I thought I wasn’t very good at. Organization, cleaning, style, meeting people, dancing and singing – these are now things I am good at. I am not perfect, and I am not as good as many people, and there is room for growth, yes. However, I am done being weak in all sorts of areas. It isn’t working for me. As of today, I have no areas of weakness. I have decided so and thus it will be so. I have done so, simply by an act of will.
I didn’t believe the ‘act of will’ thing would work – but oddly, it does. When I say it, firmly, definitely, clearly – to as many people and as many times as possible – I get that khutzpa, and with that khutzpa, I can write. I can teach and work and learn and grow. I need khutzpa to function. I refuse to live in the land of humiliation for even one more minute. I am *good* at what I do. So now, when I apply to job after job after job (which I do), I treat each application as an opportunity – a chance to say one more time that I am terrific. The more I say it, the more I believe it – I *am* terrific. If the world gives me different feedback, I will use it solely as a tool to improve and become more terrific, not as information about by lack of talent or worth in an area.
This last week of job search and writing has been transformative for me. I found my khutzpa again. You, who were hoping for a more humble me – sorry. It’s just not happening. I rock. I’m good at what I do and I’m going to keep on doing it.