The Dual Art of Rising to the Occasion

We need a psychology of rising to the occasion.”

  • Martin Seligman

Staffs and Reeds

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” If anyone knew the truth of this, it would be the author of this quote – Helen Keller.

In the Torah portions, “Mattot-Masei,” the Jewish people were on the cusp of entering the Land of Israel. While this would be at last the joyful fulfillment of God’s ancestral promise, it was not going to be all “milk and honey.” It was quite the opposite; actually, as the Jews who entered into the Land were headed into cycles of trial and suffering that would last for years to come.

At this critical time, God referred to the Jewish people as “mattot” which has the dual meaning of both “tribes” as well as “staffs.” Wooden staffs are unbending, unyielding, straight and strong. Thus, God was imbuing the Jewish people with the very qualities they would need in light of the turmoil and challenges ahead.

While the word mattot was used from time to time, the most common word to describe the Jewish people was not mattot, but “shevatim.” Like the word mattos, shevatim also has a double definition – “tribes” or “reeds.” Unlike wooden staffs, however, reeds are thin and flexible. Reeds are rooted, yet able to withstand external elements by being supple. In general, since God typically uses the word shevatim, one could surmise that embodying the qualities of the flexible reed is our natural or preferred state.

By referring to the Jewish tribes as “mattot” at this particular juncture, however, we should understand that sometimes – as in times of war, upheaval and chaos – we have to stiffen our resolve and embody a very different nature. There are times when being a reed does not serve us. There are times when being a reed actually hurts us. And in such times, we must become like “mattot.” We must become a solid staff. So the question is: When do we become what?

Three Hours and Twelve Minutes

 Recently, the news brought horrors from abroad and close to home. As we were reeling with the news of the massacre in a gay bar in Florida that took place over a horrific three-hour period, we learned soon after of the brutal murder of a French police officer and his wife (in front of their three-year-old child). For twelve infinitely long minutes, the murderer chillingly filmed their torture, while issuing warnings to Europe of Isis’ intention to turn it into an imminent graveyard.  

Not to be an alarmist, but we could be on the brink, once again, of facing significant challenges. The flip side of adversity, however, is that it is the birthplace of greatness, and when we rise to the occasion of formidable challenges, we can achieve great heights. When confronting evil and hatred, we must rise to the occasion and stand as one with the strength of the wooden staff. As Winston Churchill said, “Never give in…never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”

Looking for the Good

On the other hand, when it comes to our interpersonal relationships and interactions with people outside of our comfort zone, we would be well served to be flexible, to put aside our differences and embrace our commonality. Eventually “close to home” as opposed to “over there” will be indistinct, as hatred anywhere must be perceived as hatred everywhere, and everyone’s backyard becomes a global reality.

When I have empathy for the sufferings of others as my own, I will be inclined to commit acts of benevolence, compassion and bravery. And while I must keep my eyes open to the horrors of this world, it’s just as important, if not more so, to see what is so very good. Otherwise, we will lose the best of what drives us forward.

In an article called, “The Optimism of Uncertainty,” Howard Zinn wondered how it’s possible to stay involved and happy in a world where the efforts of caring people often pale in comparison to what is done by those who have power. And he answered it thus:

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places- and there are so many- where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of the world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

Driving home, I was listening to the news. Overwhelmed with sadness and anxiety, I silently asked God to show me signs of kindness and compassion. As if on cue, I noticed a homeless woman begging in the middle of a hot street, and I saw an arm shoot out of a car window to give her a bottle of water.

Fred Rogers said that when he was a boy and would be afraid of scary things in the news, his mother would say, “Look for the helpers.  You will always find people who are helping.” When we see pain and suffering, we must, even to the point of bending over backward, do what we can to ease it. When people hurt, we must heal. When it comes to the root causes of pain and suffering, however, and those who inflict it, we must stand tall against them. God tells us we have a dual nature. We must use our heads and hearts to know when to be what

Internalize & Actualize:

  1. Write down a challenging situation you are currently facing and if you have been handling it like a staff or like a reed. Would it perhaps be better served by switching approaches? What do you feel will make the biggest impact in transforming this situation to the positive?
  1. When terrible things happen it is easy to lose sight of anything positive that is happening around us. Think about something difficult you have experienced, and then write down five good things that happened during this experience. They may pale in comparison, but focus on them. Then write down how you are feeling when you think about something uplifting alongside something so negative.
  1. Finding the good in those we struggle with is likewise a challenge. Think about someone you have a difficult time getting along with, and write down the characteristics and qualities that bother you about that person. Then alongside each aspect you find negative, write something that is positive about that quality (ie. Stubborn = someone who stands by their beliefs and feelings).

 

Keeping Your Why Nearby

imagesIt is said that that the definition of insanity is to repeat the same thing and hope for a different result. Nevertheless, today, I joined Weight Watchers for the umpteenth time, with gritty determination that this time it will be different, and as I sat in the unfamiliar room, I took stock of my surroundings while waiting for the meeting to start. On the wall hung a poster with the slogan: “Keep your why nearby.” Worth the price of admission right there, I thought, as the crux of any endeavor is to align what we do with why we do it.

If I could sum up the directive of Eikev, where Moses uses his remaining days to instruct, inspire, and strengthen the Jewish people as they were about to cross the Jordan River without him, it would be those same words: “Keep your why nearby.” As long as we were still in the desert, we lived in a sort of cocoon, not just with each other, but also with the overt presence of God. We were cared for with daily open miracles. Foes were vanquished; transgressions punished.

Like a newborn emerging from the womb, however, we were headed to an entirely different reality and experience. We wouldn’t see an obvious connection between our actions and subsequent reward and punishment. We would face individual and national challenges where we would have to rise to the occasion or fall dismally apart. And so, whether in the heat of battle, the challenge of the market place or the grind of daily living, we could come to feel disconnected from God.

And instead of dwelling together in an orderly encampment around the Mishkan (the portable Tabernacle), we would become spread out over the land; eventually throughout the globe, as we would be forcibly exiled from the homeland we were about to conquer. How would we remain a unified people connected to each other under those circumstances? How would our hearts break when we hear news of Jews being murdered thousands of miles away, and what would we be willing to do about it?

What is Your Why?

Says the famous visionary Simon Sinek, “Everyone has a Why. Your Why is the purpose, cause or belief that inspires you to do what you do.” During the 40 years of wandering in the desert, we were learning laws, laws, and more laws. Why? What was the point of it all? Declares Moses; the point is to love God, to attach to God, to emulate God and to walk in His ways. But what does that look like outside of the desert? It looks like acts of loving kindness to each other: taking care of the needy, the poor, the widow, etc. Unless these tenets drive the “why” of what we do, the “what” will be rather inconsequential.

Give and Take

The stone tablets of the Ten Commandments are rounded at the top. It is not a coincidence that these shapes allude to a woman’s breasts. Kabbalah teaches a beautiful idea that God’s giving the Ten Commandments to the Jewish people is like a mother nursing her children. Just as an infant needs to suck, however, so does a nursing mother need to give milk. And so the role of giver and taker is as one; giving and taking need each other for fulfillment.   When we give to the poor, for example, it is not a one-way street; the giver and recipient are part of a bigger reality that embraces them both. Thus my life does not revolve around a self-centered “I” but encompasses a greater communal and shared identity; and those of my actions, which are rooted in empathy, will have a greater and more meaningful impact.

The Why of Relationship

How does this play out in relationships, especially marriage? Successful and happy marriages are based less on conflict resolution and more on sharing (and consciously keying into) a mutually created culture of a shared “why.”

According to relationship expert John Gottman:

Marriage isn’t just about raising kids, splitting chores, and making love. It can also have a spiritual dimension that has to do with creating an inner life together – a culture rich with symbols and rituals, and an appreciation for your roles and goals that link you, that lead you to understand what it means to be a part of the family you have become….Developing a culture doesn’t mean a couple sees eye to eye on every aspect of their life’s philosophy. Instead, there is a meshing. They find a way of honoring each other’s dreams even if they don’t share them. The culture that they develop together incorporates both of their dreams. And it is flexible enough to change as husband and wife grow and develop.[1]

And so the poster on the wall reminds me that if I want to achieve a certain result, keeping my “why” nearby will keep my values in the foreground so that the choices and decisions I make are congruent with my goal. Without a strong commitment to my own “why” my behavior will be haphazard and ineffectual. Simon says: “Values are not simply posters on the wall. In order for a culture to be strong, your values must be clear and your values must be lived.” So what is your “why,” how will you keep it nearby, and how will you honor the shared cultures of your life?

[1] John M. Gottman, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (Three Rivers Press: NY) pps. 243-244.

What’s Love Got to Do With It?

Being that women made up roughly half of my law school class (and this was in the 1980’s – back in the last century), and that one third of the current U.S. Supreme Court justices are women, I don’t think much about gender equality in the law.   Historically, however, while there were exceptions, most law schools did not admit women until the early 1900’s. When I discovered that fact, my thoughts were, “Wow, it was only about 60 years before I went to law school that we couldn’t get in.” Notice the personal pronoun. Even though I didn’t experience this personally, I emotionally perceived this as a shared “we” experience.

Similarly, I live in a neighborhood, which I jokingly refer to as an “upscale shtetl,” yet I know that that several decades ago when my great aunt was looking to buy a house in this area, Jews in general (we) were not allowed to live here. Again, since I identify with this group, I feel the right to take on their experiences as my own.

In Va’eschanan, Moses recounts the experience of Mount Sinai, by reminding the Jewish people:

You approached and stood at the foot of the mountain…Hashem spoke to you from the midst of the fire, you were hearing the sound of words…He told you of His covenant that He commanded you to observe, the Ten Commandments….”[1]

This speech by Moses, however, occurred shortly before the Jewish people were to cross over to conquer the land of Israel. This was the second generation; they weren’t at Mt. Sinai!   Hearing these words, however, the Jewish people were to understand that the Jew of the past is the Jew of the present and that the “me” becomes “we.” Later on in the Torah, Moses tells the Jewish people that the Covenant is binding on everyone who was standing there that day – as well as anyone who was not there – thus binding the Jew of the future.

So as I read these words, which are over 3000 years old, the “I” becomes “them,” for Jewish mystical tradition teaches that even though our bodies were not physically present at Mount Sinai, our souls were.   I don’t know about you, but this shared spiritual memory is a “feel-good” moment. However, this ends satisfaction abruptly when Moses goes on to forecast a dark future:

When you beget children and grandchildren and will have been long in the Land, you will grow corrupt and do evil in the eyes of Hashem, your God, to anger Him….Hashem will scatter you among the peoples, and you will be few in number among the nations where Hashem will lead you.[2]  

Having seen countless movies where the leader makes a passionate and rousing speech to boost morale, Moses’ chilling prophesy on the eve of battle had to be a real downer. One has to wonder why the Jewish people didn’t opt to stay in the desert and not bother. After all, what’s the point in displaying enthusiastic valor for a battle that is ultimately for naught? And while I was also not there to commit the acts of idolatry that got us booted out of the Land, as a Jew in Diaspora, I am living the consequences of their actions. Just as I enjoy the spiritual benefit of having heard the word of God at Mt. Sinai, surely I bear some of the burden of those who did not head those words generations later. Not such a feel-good moment for collective experience. But then Moses consoles us with a vision of future redemption:

From there you will seek Hashem, your God, and you will find Him if you search for Him with all your heart and soul. When you are in distress and all these things have befallen you at the end of days, you will return unto Hashem, your God, and hearken to His voice. For Hashem, your God is a merciful God, He will not abandon you nor destroy you. He will not forget the covenant of your forefathers that He swore to them.[3]

After all, as Moses emphatically reminded the Jewish people, not since the beginning of time itself was there anything like what the Jewish people experienced, such as the miraculous Exodus for example; nor has there ever been a people who have directly heard the word of God. And why would God do these things? Because Moses also tells us that God loves us. There is an endgame here. A loving God set these things into motion – not to end in futility and for nothing – but for us to go through a necessary process of disconnection for the sake of connection, a stronger bond forged in the fire of experience and growth.

If we can hold these multiple realities as our own experiences, we can apply a great lesson to our relationship with God, and with our loved ones.   Every intimate relationship starts out with great fanfare, connection, and hope for a loving, happy and bright future. And every close bond has moments of broken faith, bewilderment and despair, where one feels exiled from the sacred space of relationship. That’s the moment of choice. Do we accept the chasm in the relationship as the new norm, and adopt a relationship reality that hardens over time into an endurance test? Do we accept defeat, play the victim and walk away?

Or do we search our hearts and souls to find a way to turn towards the relationship and restore connection? While not every relationship is capable of being sustained, many do not reach their full potential because one or both people do not know how to how to renew their faith in each other.

It’s Not a Question of Love

After we experience a fight with a loved one, and we calm down, we know that somewhere deep down, we “love” this person, and sometimes we will even bravely admit it: “You know, I do love you.”   So why isn’t that enough to end the conflict and restore connection?   We take for granted being loved by our loved ones; what we aren’t so sure about is whether they like us.  Do they love, appreciate and admire us? And in the case of God, we all know people who even in the face of extreme personal tragedy maintain their certainty that God loves them. But does God like them?  

In our personal relationships, we have work on the deep friendship that is critical to intimacy and trust, which lays the foundation to stay afloat even in the waters of conflict. Without a sense of mutual respect, regard and gratitude, love alone does not carry the day. Says Zach Britle in his post, The Phrase That Helps couples Heal After a Fight:

Maybe you’ve heard that love covers a multitude of sins? Maybe that’s the problem. The ‘multitude of sins’ is what erodes the integrity of a relationship. You see, it’s not necessarily the gigantic betrayals that destroy a relationship but rather the little, day-after-day ones that chip away at trust.

Because of my personal baggage, I had a hard time believing that God loved me. I finally overcame that hurdle when I accepted the idea of a loving and beneficent Deity. But then what? Love is universal; we are even commanded to love our neighbor. But we’re not commanded to like him – because liking someone can be more complicated and challenging than love. My relationship with God became personal when I realized that God likes me as well.

As the Master Plan plays out over the millennia, and as we live out the dynamics of our relationships, we will experience innumerable instances of disconnection and reunification as part of the process itself.   The best thing you can do for your relationships is to communicate and show the people you love all the ways you like them as well, thus laying down a foundation of positive regard and good will. When I notice all of the ways that God shows up in my daily life with moments of personal spot-on cosmic synchronicity – “God winks” – as they were, the foundation of an abiding trust and everlasting friendship carries me through the rocky bits.  And that will do for now.

   

[1] Devarim/Deuteronomy 4:11-12.

[2] Devarim/Deuteronomy 4:25-27.

[3] Devarim/Deuteronomy 4:29-31.

Having Faith in Faith

itrustYou’re on a cruise ship – a sinking cruise ship – when you see you chance to leap to the safety of a rescue boat, and you take it.   From the security of the raft, you look back sadly as the ship rises vertically in the water before it’s pulled down beneath the surface. All of a sudden, you remember that with you on this vacation, were your three best friends, and with a sense of guilt and shame, you feel awful that in your moment of panic you totally forgot about them, and you pray that they are safe.   You are no hero; but you aren’t a criminal either, in that you are not responsible for their lives.

OK – now imagine the same scene. Only this time, as you look back at the sinking vessel, you suddenly remember that you brought your spouse and two children on this cruise. This time, can you justify forgetting your family because of panic? In his book, “Doesn’t Anyone Blush Anymore,” Manis Friedman uses this example to explain why we ask for forgiveness on Yom Kippur for sins that we committed from a “confused heart.” As Rabbi Friedman explains, when it comes to forgetting our relationship with God, we cannot offer the defense of “panic” or “confusion,” because, like the family on board the cruise ship, some relationships are too deep for panic. And yet we do it all the time.

The book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) starts out with Moses giving an overview of the events since the Jewish people left Egypt. In the retelling of one of the lowest moments of that period, the “incident of the spies,” (where the Jewish people were afraid of entering the Land of Israel after hearing the fearful report from the infamous spies), Moses pointedly reminded the people how they spoke slander against God. “Because of God’s hatred for us did he take us out of the land of Egypt, to deliver us into the hand of the Amorite to destroy us.[1] Really? As if the whole thing – the Ten Plagues, taking us out of Egypt, the splitting of the sea, defeating enemies in battle in the desert, the manna, etc. – was just a cosmic setup by a vicious deity, to be slaughtered by a different enemy.

The Mindset of Anger and Anxiety

In an excellent article, titled, “How Threat Emotions Cause Us to Misread our Partner,”[2] Dr. Lemmie unpacks the anatomy of the mindset of anger and anxiety. When we feel threatened, our limbic system is activated. We secrete stress hormones and direct blood to our core (to minimize blood loss) as well as oxygen and sugar to our limbs (for fighting).   Neural activity increases in our brains, generating threat emotions and, as a survival mechanism, we look for additional signs of danger. The adage, “better safe than sorry” causes us, however, to interpret neutral behavior or ambiguous threats as definite ones. Our thinking becomes narrow – we think in terms as “always” and “never,” because our brains are too reptilian, too primitive at that point for nuanced thinking such as, “sometimes,” or recalling instances when the opposite is true. We also overlay the past onto the present. When we have been previously hurt, we assume we are being hurt in the same way in the present – even though the person and the circumstances are completely different. To compound things further, as our rational brain function diminishes, we circle own wagons and come to the quick and easy conclusions that we are certainly in the right, and it is our spouse, partner, friend, family member, or God, who is our foe and who hates us.

Whipped into a state of fear by the spies, the Jewish people were flooded with threat emotions. Ironically, the ensuing cognitive distortion caused them to make the fatal error, sealing their death warrant in the desert. But was it fair to punish the Jewish people for their panic? Are we expected to put our blind trust in God and our relationships? Is that safe? Is that reasonable? Is it even possible? Or should some relationships be too deep for panic?

Unconditional Good Will

David Fohrman describes faith as a steadfast quality, an unflinching willingness to trust even as we confront our deepest fears. Moses wasn’t angry with the Jewish people for having been afraid, but for choosing to forget all of the instances when God was there for them. Says Rabbi Fohrman, “In Moshe’s worldview faith doesn’t come from nothing, it comes from observing things about your beloved that makes them trustworthy.”[3] Drawing from the Maharal, (the medieval Jewish commentator) Rabbi Fohrman explains the three prongs of a rational basis for faith in God: “If I know that you love me, that you feel empathy towards me, if I know that you have the power to help and I know that you really get what it is that I need, then I can trust you.”

It is at the moment of fear and panic where the challenge of faith of faith occurs. It’s a huge act of will to resist the temptation to slide into the primitive reptilian state of flight or fight, and instead to remain fully cognitively human, to acknowledge the fear and yet choose to trust the relationship. Says Rabbi Forhman:

Trust is always hard, to steadfastly place yourself in the arms of your beloved, even as your beloved reassures you that they will take care of you through the darkest night, through the greatest terrors, it is a tough thing. When you steadfastly place your fate in the hands of someone who loves you, when you abandon yourself to them, you achieve a dizzying kind of intimacy with them. That intimacy as rewarding as it is, is also scary. It is a kind of leaving yourself behind, a kind of merging unabashedly with another. There is no more hiding, what of my sense of self, am I losing it all to you?

That is the basis of real intimacy, the place of deep connection, growth, and transformation. Conversely, the cost of the anger/anxiety mindset is not just the loss or prevention of intimacy, but that it hardens us, eroding and ultimately destroying our relationship potential.  

Do not turn a blind eye, but a knowing eye to God and to the people in your life who have earned your trust. Learn the warning signals of being triggered. Take note when you hear yourself thinking or speaking about your loved one in a negative, harsh and critical light. Don’t take your own interpretations of events so darn seriously and stop mentally rehearsing your grievances. Be curious and empathetic to the feelings of others. Consciously recall positive instances and attributes and for goodness sake, get your gratitude going and give your loved ones the gift of unconditional good will and positive regard.

Don’t Kill Connection

While threats to survival may at times be real, when we allow paper tigers to destroy our relationships, then we are allowing a sense of panic and confusion to destroy that, which should be too deep for panic. Misapplied, our striving for safety generates the greatest harm of all: the loss of love, intimacy, and connection – just the very things that make life worth living in the first place.

[1] Devarim/Deuteronomy 1:27

[2] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/me-first-we-first/201203/how-threat-emotions-cause-us-misread-our-partner-4

[3] https://www.alephbeta.org/course/lecture/devarim-what-does-it-mean-to-have-faith

How Warriors of the Heart Get It Done

images

“The difference between peak performance and poor performance is not intelligence or ability; most often it’s the state that your mind and body is in.”  Tony Robbins

Grit. Moxie. Holy chutzpah. And now this – “Sisu” – one of the latest terms making the rounds in Positive Psychology circles. Sisu is a Finnish word that has no direct translation but embodies the qualities of bravery, empowerment, inner strength, and the crazy recklessness that inspires someone to take on something in the face of incredible odds (kinda like Pinchat the Zealot – before zealotry got a bad name).

I know this is not exactly an academic source, but I liked the definition I came across in the Urban Dictionary: “It doesn’t take Sisu to go to the North Pole; it takes Sisu to stand at the door when the bear is on the other side.” Unlike resilience, hardiness and the search for meaning – which are long game ventures – Sisu is urgent, the bold undertaking of a mission that could be kamikaze, were it not for a micro slim chance of success. Sisu is the very opposite of analysis paralysis. But don’t get me wrong; it’s not a fool’s errand, but rather a heroic and noble gesture for something quite worthy.      

Don’t Do This at Home

This week’s Torah portion is named Pinchat, after the man who acted heroically at a crucial time when the leadership was frozen with indecision and inaction.   In killing Zimri, who was engaged in a flagrant shocking public display of sexual immorality, Pinchat risked forfeiting his own life, for he acted without authority, and Zimri was the leader of his tribe.   There was neither punishment nor retaliation, however, for Pinchat’s brave and selfless act stopped a plague that God had brought against the Jewish men (for their complicity), and Pinchat was inducted into the lineage of the High Priesthood.

Unfortunately, some can misconstrue this episode as validating violence for a so-called “sacred cause.” The caliber of Pinchat’s character, his selfless agenda, and love of the Jewish people raises the bar way above most of our heads. There is an applicable lesson to be learned, however, for there are times when the elements of Sisu and the traits of Pinchat can serve us very well.  

Do This at Home – The 5 Second Rule

How many times have you had an instinct to call someone you haven’t spoken to in a long time, felt the urge to do an impromptu act of generosity big or small, thought of   telling the stranger at the checkout line that you thought her haircut was fabulous or wished you could have interrupted the person who was badmouthing a friend? How many times do you wish you could have acted, but didn’t, and then the moment was over, and the opportunity gone, sometimes forever?

Often, when we get the urge to do something (good, that is), our brain starts to come up with excuses or reasons why not it’s not a great idea, or no biggie if we let it go. We pass the homeless person on the street and while our first inclination may be to drop a dollar in his bucket, we know we don’t have easy instant access to cash, and really, it’s not a good idea to start to root around in one’s purse or wallet, after all, when you’re walking in the city you should never display money out on the street, I mean one’s purse or wallet could easily get snatched if you get distracted, and come to think of it, that homeless guy looked a little drunk or high, and…and…and by now you’re halfway down the block anyway. Oh well. You meant to help.

In an interesting book called “The Five Second Rule” by Mel Robbins, Robbins posits that the moment we have the instinct to act on a commitment or goal, we have a 5 second window of opportunity before the brain shuts us down. When we hesitate to act, the brain interprets that as danger or uncertainty, and it devises ways to be protective. When inspiration hits, states Robbins, before you hesitate you should immediately count backward 5-4-3-2-1 and then move physically. The backward count (as opposed to forward, where you can keep adding to the numbers) is finite and acts as a “pattern interrupt.” The point is to interrupt the ingrained patterns of thinking that keep you from acting and to train your brain to act while disconnecting from feelings that drag you down. After all, no one really feels like acting outside his or her comfort zone. And by moving, the change in physiology disrupts the inclination to remain inert.

I had drafted an email to someone asking for feedback on one of my blogs. Because I considered this person to be way above my pay grade, I was afraid to send it, and the email sat in my drafts folder day after day, where I would edit and revise it, ad nauseum, waiting for the bravado of perfect words.  An insomniac, I was listening to “The 5 Second Rule” as an audio book, and all of a sudden, I thought of this email and I got fired up with the courage to send it. Before my brain could convince me to wait until morning to send it (and then never), I counted 5-4-3-2-1 and then I immediately got out of bed, went to my computer and pushed send (without further reading or revising).  

Sisu the Moment

Emilia Lahti, who studies Sisu and how it applies to our lives explains: “It is not so much about achievement as it is about facing your challenges with valor and determination….Sisu provides the final empowering push, when we would otherwise hesitate to act.” The instant I sent that email I felt a sense of exhilarated freedom, because at that moment the power resided in me, not in someone or something else, and whether the individual I sent it to will ever read my writing or respond to me is pure incidental gravy.

Chances are something is popping up into your mind right now as you read these words and it doesn’t have to be heroic or death defying. It could be the apology you’re embarrassed to make, the medical procedure you’re delaying to schedule, or words of love you don’t have the courage to say. Before your brain can convince you of all of the reasons not to act, count 5-4-3-2-1 and then get up and do the thing your heart tells you that you need to do.

If he had thought about it even for a moment, Pinchat could have come up with lots of reasons to stay under the radar and steer clear of the conflict. After all, the conflict was neither his responsibility to fix nor his mess to clean up. Jewish history is filled, however, with people who followed their instincts without having the time to think it through, and they just did what had to be done. Had Pharaoh’s daughter not reached out the instant she saw Moses’ basket floating by in the Nile, he could have been lost forever. Had Nachshon not jumped into the Sea of Reeds, the sea may never have parted and we could have been slaughtered on the shore by the Egyptians.

Says Robbins, “The moment you move is the moment you discover your strength. The best time to do it is when your heart tells you to. Life becomes harder when we hold our greatest selves back by listening to fears and convincing ourselves to wait.”

Never leave something important unsaid or undone. With a little Sisu and the ability to count from 5 to 1, little acts of heart-based courage and instinctive acts of valor could transform your life and relationships in a big way.

 

References:

http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=sisu.

Mel Robbins, The 5 Second Rule: Transform Your Life, Work and Confidence With Everyday Courage, (Mel Robbins, 2017).

http://jamesclear.com/sisu-mental-toughness.

3 Ways to Transform Curses into Blessings

“Love covers up all iniquity.”

-Proverbs 10:1

indexFrom a Curse to a Blessing

“How goodly are thy tents O Jacob, thy dwellings, O Israel.” “Ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov mishk’notecha Yisroel.[i] This verse, which is this week’s Torah portion, Balak, is said upon entering a synagogue, is part of the daily Morning Prayer, and even if you don’t recite it, you may know it, as it is one of the most famous verses in the Torah.

And so, one would think that these words of praise were uttered by God, or by Moses, or at least by someone “very holy.” And yet, these words emanated from the mouth of a notorious Jew hater, Bilaam, who was hired by Balak, (the newly-appointed King of Moab), to curse the Jewish people in the desert.

Three times, Bilaam tried to curse the Jewish people, and yet each time, he blessed them instead. Prior to the first two attempts, Bilaam and God had a “conversation” whereby God either instruct Bilaam what to say or put the words directly into his mouth. Despite his pure hatred and single-minded intention to cause harm, Bilaam could only utter words of blessing and praise for the Jewish people.

Therefore, before the third and final attempt, Bilaam decided to take a different tact, since these “conversations” with God were not going his way. This time, Bilaam concentrated on the so-called faults and transgressions of the Jewish people, trying to discredit them so as to overcome God’s benevolence and whip up a host of spiritual negativity against the Jewish people.

A Godly Lens

And so, after he was all fired up, Bilaam lifted his eyes to blast the Jewish people once and for all with his “evil eye.” But when he raised his eyes and looked – truly looked – Bilaam noticed how the placement of the tents was designed for the utmost respect for privacy and dignity. He saw orderliness. He saw righteousness. He saw goodness. And he was moved. Incredibly, The Torah states, “He changed his mind to be like God.” And in so doing – even if it was a very temporary shift – Bilaam saw a new reality, a Godly reality, and his curses were transformed into blessings.

So, the question is, how could such words of praise come out of Bilaam’s mouth and of his own accord? It’s true but a not-funny joke, that if a notorious anti-Semite says something nice about the Jews – then it must be true. It’s just human nature – we have a hard time believing certain ideas when they originate from sources very close to us. After all, how credible is it when we sing our own praises? Thus, if a gentile praises the Jewish people, that’s good, but if a Jew-hater genuinely and effusively praises us? Wow – what could be better?

Loving Ourselves

Now let’s take a deeper look and find a lesson we can apply to our lives. Besides our tendency to discount positivity from close sources, I think that most of us have a hard time being kind and benevolent to ourselves.   When is the last time you checked in on the inner dialogue in your head and your running thoughts and feelings – about you? I decided to pay attention to my inner voice the other day, and I was shocked at how intolerant and cruel I can be to myself.

Many of us have a hard time liking ourselves. We think it’s selfish and egotistical. But if I don’t like myself – why should you like me? If I don’t value or love myself – why should you?   We are also afraid that if we have self-compassion or like ourselves, we would never change because we mistakenly think shame is the best impetus for growth. And so, we can become our own Bilaams – in effect, cursing ourselves. I can assure you, however, with 100% certainty, that shame and blame are never the paths to sustained change or growth. Ok, you may ask, so what is?

When Bilaam decided to “change his mind to be like God,” that’s when the transformation happened. That’s when the curses turned to blessings. I believe that’s the key. In our Morning Prayers, we acknowledge that the soul God placed in us is pure. Further, we are made in the image of God, and we have Godly souls. When we don’t judge ourselves favorably, we are insulting our Creator.

Seeing is Believing

Ponder this. The more I love myself – my real self, my Godly self – and the more order, righteousness and good that I see when I look inside, the more I will naturally align my actions to be congruent with that vision. So, may I suggest the following:

Step One: Notice the toxic inner talk. But please don’t criticize the inner critic or you’ll stay in the same loop. Have compassion and understand that it’s a habituated form of thinking. Don’t get hooked – it’s not you. Rather, it is a bad and unconscious habit, and increasing your awareness of this bad habit will help you break it

Step Two: Counteract the negativity with positivity – lots of it. In Five Steps to Better Relationships, I wrote about the Losada Principle and the Gottman Relationship Ratios. In a nutshell, we weigh negativity more than positivity, and so to maintain loving and benevolent and thriving relationships, we must offset critical or negative comments with three to five positive ones – or suffer the consequences. I never realized that it applies to our own self-talk as well! And so, every time you hear yourself making a negative comment to yourself, offset it with three to five positive comments that are constructive

Step Three: Give yourself permission to see yourself with Godly reality. As Marianne Williamson has says, “Maturity includes the recognition that no one is going to see anything in us that we don’t see in ourselves…. Joy is what happens when we allow ourselves to recognize how good things really are.”

And when we can live from this joyful place, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. Imagine a world where all curses were transformed into blessings, where we looked with inner and outer eyes that only saw order, righteousness and good – and not for a brief inspired moment – but as the natural state of continuous connection to our Source. Let’s start now.

Internalize & Actualize:

  1. Using the steps above, every day this week write down every negative thought you had about yourself. At the end of the week, look in the mirror and read them aloud. Pay attention to the language you use and the way you speak about yourself. If you wouldn’t say these statements to someone else, then stop saying them to yourself.

 

  1. Look through the statements you wrote down from the week. Take one that kept repeating or that was the harshest. Now counteract it with three to five positive statements. Write them below. Ideally, do this for every negative statement you made during the week.

 

  1. This one may be hardest as this may not yet be your reality. But the more you start to envision it, the sooner that shift will change. Write down how you want to see yourself and to do so, envision that you are speaking to yourself as a soul and not who you are in your body. If you could speak to your essence before you even came into this world, in your perfected state, what would you see and say?

 

 

 

 

 


[i] Bamidbar/Numbers 24:5.

Mystery and Uncertainty – The Power of Wow

images

“In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar.

― Richard Feynman

At certain times, such as when negotiating a divorce settlement or custody agreement, even otherwise relatively reasonable people can start to circle the drain of minutiae in the quest of the impossible – the desire for certainty and guaranteed outcomes. They tend to forget that life doesn’t work that way. Perhaps, as their lives and families are unraveling, they look in desperation to regain a sense of control, hoping that the legal document that comprehensively anticipates every variation and situational hiccup will against all odds create a predictable and smooth future.    

I didn’t know (and I’m not trying to be funny here – OK, maybe I am a little) but apparently, the aversion to uncertainty and ambiguity, and the “need for closure,” is an actual psychological term that refers to a person’s strong desire and motivation to have definite answers and knowledge.  And so I must warn you – if you score high on the Need for Closure Scale (and there is such a thing), then you are probably not going to like this week’s Torah portion, Chukat, which is the term for those Torah laws for which there is no rational basis.

In Chukat, we read about the laws of the Red Heifer, the quintessential mind bender in that the same ritual that causes purification also causes spiritual contamination.   Even the wisest of them all, King Solomon, had to proclaim this law (and I paraphrase) “not figureoutable.” While some of you might maintain that the adherence to a religion that has a whole body of such laws makes for dimwitted blind followers, I would beg to differ. For it is the inability to live without mystery and uncertainty that makes Jack a very dull boy – and ironically, creates narrow-minded fixed judgments.  

The need for closure drives answers to ambiguous situations; that doesn’t mean, however, that the answers are correct, nuanced, or able to change with new information. For example, the existential uncertainty that juxtaposes a benevolent God with human suffering creates discomfort, and so someone with a high need for closure may decide that God doesn’t exist or lacks power or compassion. And then they leave it at that, for two things characterize this syndrome: “urgency” (the need to come to a quick conclusion) and “permanence” (the need to make it last).

Lets Talk About Love

In relationships, the need for closure and certainty is necessary to create intimacy (into-me-see). We want to ease tension, and in knowing our beloved, we close the distance between us, for it is the nature of love to create connection and togetherness. But too much certainty and familiarity will kill desire and vibrancy. In a fascinating TED talk, The Secret to Desire in a Long-Term Relationships, Esther Perel explains that we also have a need for separateness, autonomy, and mystery. And what keeps a relationship passionate and alive, is when our partners are at times, separate, momentarily elusive, a mysterious stranger we want to get to know, so that our reunification is a discovery.

If any of you have attended an Orthodox Jewish wedding, then you have witnessed the “bedecken,” the ritual which takes place right before the marriage ceremony, when the groom enters the room, looks at his bride and then covers her face with her veil. While many point to the story of Jacob having been “tricked” into marrying Leah instead of his beloved Rachel as the origin of this “checking” under the veil – that is not its purpose. Rather, the groom is acknowledging and committing to both aspects of his wife: when she is unveiled (known and revealed) and when she is veiled (unknown and covered).

As said by Charles Dickens, “A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.” Capitalizing on that fact, the family purity laws of Jewish marriage are based on cycles of the known and the mysterious, the permitted and the longed for. When separation is ultimately for the sake of unity, then mystery is not a case for alarm or discomfort, but rather, it generates curiosity, excitement, and vitality. In other words, such a relationship is dynamic and vibrant.  

The acceptance of Torah by the Jewish people at Mount Sinai is compared to a wedding ceremony. Thus, we became eternally betrothed and committed to the parts of God that are revealed, as well as to the parts of God that are covered. Therefore, the chukim, the laws for which we can find no rational basis, do not undermine our relationship with God; rather, we rejoice that our Beloved is at times ineffable, unknowable, and mysterious. Thus, it is not our job (nor is it possible) to investigate and analyze God like an object, but to unite with God as a whole Being.

Mark Batterson, author of, “In a Pit with a Lion on a Snowy Day: How to Survive and Thrive When Opportunity Roars,” sums it up nicely: “Embrace relational uncertainty. It’s called romance. Embrace spiritual uncertainty. It’s called mystery. Embrace occupational uncertainty. It’s called destiny. Embrace emotional uncertainty. It’s called joy. Embrace intellectual uncertainty. It’s called revelation.” In the end, ironically, the only certainty is uncertainty. Wow!

 

Help! I’m Dealing with a Narcissist!

images“When the healthy pursuit of self-interest and self-realization turns into self-absorption, other people can lose their intrinsic value in our eyes and become mere means to the fulfillment of our needs and desires.” – P.M. Forni, The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude

In my early days of being a divorce lawyer, I wanted to refer a troubled client to a therapist I knew, and I asked if she had experienced treating clients who were married to narcissists.  “Hah!” she exclaimed, “Everyone tells me that their spouse is a narcissist.”  The therapist was right, and since then, I realized it is a common accusation.  But these days, outside of the divorce arena, we seem to hurl that term at every and anyone with whom we have a disagreement of a difference of opinion.  And the narcissist is always the “other guy.” If I had titled this article, Help! I’m a Narcissist, no one would read it, or it would be forwarded to someone else to read, because the joke is on the narcissist – he or she is always the last to know.  So, how do you know if you – or someone you love/hate is a narcissist?  Here are some typical signs:[1]  

  1. Feels a grandiose sense of self-important.
  2. Has fantasies of being famous.
  3. Is convinced he or she is unique and special.
  4. Requires absolute devotion and admiration.
  5. Has a sense of entitlement.
  6. Cannot show empathy.

Korach – the Ultimate Narcissist

Korach, for whom this week’s Torah portion is named, was a cousin to Moses and Aaron.  Earlier, when God doled out the priestly honors, Korach was not singled out in a way that was commensurate with his grandiose sense of self.  After the “incident of the spies,” the Jewish people knew they were not going into the land of Israel but were condemned to die in the desert, and it was a period of crisis and unrest.  Korach figured the time was ripe for him to overthrow Moses and Aaron, and he was able to manipulate 250 prominent leaders to take up his cause. 

At first blush, Korach’s challenge sounds legitimate: “The entire community is holy, and God is within them; why do you raise yourselves over the congregation of God?”[2]  Basically, if everyone is holy, what makes Moses and Aaron different from anyone else? 

Holiness does not mean sameness.  Each of us possesses unique qualities and gifts, and we are assigned roles and tasks to express and fulfill our individual missions.  Korach’s claim of “separate but equal” was only to foment resentment and enroll others to his cause (and to their unfortunate deaths).  In truth, Korach only regarded himself as “holy” and “worthy;” Moses and Aaron were merely objects in his way, and assuming Korach would have achieved his goal of a takeover, his 250 “comrades” would have to be subservient to him.

In the Box versus Out of the Box Thinking

Whether or not one is a “full-fledged narcissist,” difficult encounters with others can bring on one or more narcissistic attributes. The Anatomy of Peace,[3] describes this as “In the Box” versus “Out of the Box” mindsets or worldviews:      

      In the Box:  I see people as objects. They are a vehicle for what I want, an obstacle in the way of what I want, or irrelevant to what I want (sense of entitlement).  They don’t count like I count (sense of being unique and special).  When I’m in the box, I can’t see what’s going on for the other person – nor do I really care (lack of empathy).  I get into the box to justify myself.  I blame or judge others, become “right” or see myself as different from them, which is the way I see the world.  And I loop others into my self-serving visions (fantasies of power) to feed my ego (need for devotion and admiration).    

      Out of the Box:  I see people as human beings, as others who have personal needs, wants and desires – just like I do.  They count like I count. From this worldview, I get that they have fears and dreams – just like I do.  I wonder what they need to feel OK.  Instead of taking hardline positions, I can allow myself to talk about problem solving and meeting needs (including theirs).

The Korach Within 

            But Korach is not just “the other guy.”  When we become triggered, or feel threatened, it’s almost instinctive to jump into that box, to hunker down, and to protect ourselves in our self-absorbed denial of any perspective but our own.  What happens then, is that the other person reacts by jumping into his or her own box as well, creating a vicious downward spiral of negativity. This behavior does not end the conflict; it only prolongs the war.  The next time that you are experiencing an upset do an internal check for any of these enumerated narcissistic characteristics.  And ask yourself – Am I “in” or “out” of the box?  Then choose where you want to be.

 

[1] Based on, What is a Narcissistic Sociopath and How to Spot One.

[2] Bamidbar/Numbers 16:3.

[3] Put out by the Arbinger Institute.