This post is dedicated in memory of Shlomo ben Aryeh Zalman. May it be an aliyah for his neshama.
By Shoshana Rosa
The other night, a friend of mine blurted out, "You're the best."
Naturally, I was a little suspicious.
I hadn't given her a gift, complimented her, committed myself to watching her kids or cleaning out her fridge. "Why would you say that?" I asked.
She smiled, Think about it. No two people are alike, right? So, if we're all stand-alones, individuals in our own right, then how can we be anything but the best? There's no competition because there's no one we can compare ourselves to."
At this point, I laughed. Me? Compare myself to people? Measure my self worth by how well I've met the objectives other people consider valuable? Never.
Blissfully unaware of my raging thoughts, my friend continued, "That's also why there's no point in criticizing ourselves for not measuring up. If we only use a measuring stick to measure against our present situation and our future dreams and goals, why should we get depressed over the pace of our process? We're not competing with anyone... We're living for ourselves!"
There was a beat of silence, and when I realized she was waiting for a response, I told her I needed time to process.
Although most people might be sharing similar experiences like dysfunctional childhood, difficulty in relationships, health issues etc., our reactions always differ. This is because each situation carries the nuance of circumstance, the personalities involves, the context in which s/he has her experience as well as all the baggage that filters in from other, past experiences.
As a result, everyone gets to stay unique.
To anyone glum about what they haven't [yet] accomplished, I've usually been the first person to say that everyone's on a personal trek through life and comparing one's accomplishments to another's just isn't a thing. There's no space for it on the logic wagon.
This is a key reason as to why Jews emphasize process over the end goal. Life's not about reaching the peak; it's the climb, the struggle, the investment of time and money.
Yet, I was feeling a lot of resistance to my friend's words, even though I'd been saying something similar for years. Clearly, my discomfort indicated how little I believed in my own adage. What a bummer. In the back of my mind and in my heart of hearts, I finally acknowledged that all I'd ever wanted was to prove myself a success according to the standards of the people closest to me.
I wanted approval.
And I wanted lots of it.
When this friend, let's call her Naomi, pushed me to look deeper, though (and it wasn't easy), I was shocked to discover a reservoir of strength and the temerity to stand alone and try alone.
That is also when the yardstick I was used to measuring my strengths and failures by became the property of G-d, and not that of other people. There doesn't have to be sadness or anxiety in that; just a nod to the process, a passing acknowledgment.
Like T.S Eliot said:
....and so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—...
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
Self doubt, uncertainty and/or a tendency toward depression, is nothing more than shadows and mirrors. These feeling cannot harm a person but their ability to appear more sinister than they actually are makes them a lethal tool in the hands of the yetzer hara (evil inclination).
Melancholy isn't a sin in and of itself, but it is a gateway drug, a weakening of a person's resolve. And this ultimately leads to pushing him closer to the edge of insanity. And sometimes over it.
So, how can we address the issue of inner sadness?
G-d said, "I created the yetzar hara; I [also] created its antidote: Torah" (Kiddushin 30b). We have to fight the yetzar hara with every weapon in our arsenal. By weapons, I am referring to out middot (character traits). The ability to acquire meaning, happiness and authenticity in this world requires awareness of our strengths as well as our pitfalls, and it also requires Torah study. After all, knowledge is power and if one has no knowledge, one hasn't the ability to avoid doing the wrong thing. After all, "A boor cannot fear sin" (Pirkei Avot 2:5).
When this week's Parshat Ki Teitzei starts with, "If you go out to war against your enemies..." (Deuteronomy 21:10), it's not just talking about actual enemies (although the Torah can be read on a pshat, face value, level, there are layers of nuance and hidden meaning in the text). It [the Torah] is referring to our ultimate enemy, the one who places obstacles between us and the Creator of the Universe.
One suggestion on how to bulk up so that we'll be ready when the enemy comes knocking is to become self generated. Start validating yourself. Don't wait for others to fill that role.
And another thing: step up your game with the positive inner dialogue. Even modern day experts talk about how important inner positive dialogue is. The way we talk to ourselves matters. Not only does the inner dialogue we engage in shape our perception of our place in the world, it affects our emotions and motivations. It can really suck when your harshest critic lives in your brain. However, it is possible to take control of your inner dialogue if you decide to be more intentional with your thoughts and words.
A 2012 study by researchers at the University of Lethbridge found that in order to integrate positive self-talk, three steps were necessary: first, one must be aware of their inner critic. Second, one must develop strategies to transform negative self-chatter into positive self-talk. Third, they must make positive self-talk a daily habit.
Your positive self image isn't reliant on anyone but you. You can take that to the bank.