Do The Math

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“If we can see past preconceived limitations then the possibilities are endless.”               

Amy Purdy

Math (if they even call it that anymore in school) was always my worst subject. Yet, when I am trying to make sense of a situation, understand someone’s behavior, or best predict an outcome, I will use that expression – do the math. Whether this is true or not, to me, mathematics represents reality as it is – without distorted perception, wishful thinking, or resistance to what merely is. Sometimes we get confused when other people give us mixed messages. In that case, I suggest turning off the volume (the voice in our head) or the words coming out of their mouths and look at the behavior only, to get the much-needed clarity. Just do the math.

The very week that my book, A Year of Sacred Moments came out, my husband met with the owner of a small publishing house to discuss a Jewish journey book he had written – and he told this man about my book. My husband and I have been practicing law together for 25 years so I was excited to think of us both becoming writers in the Jewish world together as well. Not only did this publisher give my husband a reality check about the viability of his book concept, but he also conjectured about mine. In his opinion, there is no appreciable market for my kind of book, where people prefer books that are theme oriented – not structured according to the weekly Bible chapter, and he predicted sales well under 500 copies. He wasn’t trying to be mean – not at all! Being thirty years in the book business, he was just “doing the math,” and he didn’t want me to have unrealistic expectations and feel like a failure if I didn’t hit some fantasy number in my head.  

And who was I to argue or have an opinion to the contrary? I can’t even count how many intakes I have had with prospective divorce clients who would say something like – “My buddy said that since my wife cheated on me, I don’t have to give her anything” to which I would reply, “which law school did you say your friend attended?” I’m sorry, but not everyone has a right to an opinion.   And so I couldn’t just shake off what this publisher had to say and with impudent bravado, substitute my version of market reality for his.

Nevertheless, there is another way of looking at this whole thing. I have had clients willing to spend hundreds of dollars, thousands, even, fighting over worthless items. And I’m not talking sentimental value; I’m talking used dishtowels. My struggle as an attorney was to move my clients from the “story of divorce” into the “business of divorce” as many of them get stuck in what I termed, “emotional math.”

Maybe one of the lessons of Lech Lecha is to learn a new type of math, “spiritual math.” I have to wonder, then, is the measure of the success of a Torah-based book the number of copies sold, or is it the contribution and impact it may make? And how about my experience and growth as the writer? And what effect does that have on my family and friends? We think of capital in terms of money only, but what if we expanded it to encompass social capital, relationship capital, and spiritual capital? Isn’t that what counting our blessings is all about?

A New Math

Lech Lecha is the command by God to Abraham to go from his “country,” his “place of birth” and “his father’s house.” These places are not just geographical, but also psychological: they represent the influences and biases of our society, cultures and the times our nature, our inherited genes, our dispositions, and our family of origin. While the debate has raged for decades over which primarily controls – nurture or nature – either side of this argument buys into control being exerted by an external force or circumstance outside of your control – thus a limitation.

In the city of Ur Kasdim, Abraham and Sarah were extremely wealthy and influential, successful by anyone’s math. In one of my favorite movies, The Family Man, as the angel was about to take away all of the material trappings from the billionaire Wall Street trader to teach him the meaning of life, the angel said, “You’re workin’ on a new deal now, baby.” Abraham and Sarah left their material comforts to go to a land that God showed them – and it didn’t flow with milk and honey. It was desolate. There was severe famine, and they had to set out for Egypt. Lech Lecha, however, set into motion the chain of events that changed not just the lives of Abraham and Sarah, but the entire course of human history.

The journey of actualization is to break free of limitations. But we are not alone. What Abraham and Sarah taught us that each of us has a direct and intimate relationship with our Creator. Alone, we are limited. Connected to God, and to each other, we are transcendent. To follow in the footsteps of Abraham and Sarah doesn’t mean that have to leave behind the places and people that we love, or give up our comforts or way of life. It does expect, however, that we should be willing to re-evaluate our assumptions, our priorities. When it comes to our society, culture and times, can we break free of the blame and finger-pointing and be ethical, kind and responsible citizens and members of our communities?

Are we willing to re-narrate our childhood or other victim stories with compassion for family members or others who have hurt us? As we look to our inner circle, what do we consider to be our precious commodities and what do we devalue? What do we give freely and what do we hoard? Are we squandering thousands of life hours for no return? Are we wisely investing our social, relationship and spiritual capital?  

Lech Lecha is about charting the spiritual trajectory of our lives. For God’s sake, do the math.

 

 

 

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Beautiful Enemies – A Love Story

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“A strong marriage requires loving your spouse even when in those moments when they are not lovable; it means believing in them even when they struggle to believe in themselves.”                  Dave Willis

With one question, my powerful, competent and responsible husband can turn into an evasive first-grader. Often, when I just ask my husband if he knows where some missing item might be, his instant knee-jerk response is always, “I didn’t touch it.” “I didn’t ask if you touched it,” I would respond with icy sarcasm, “I just asked if you knew where it was.” And I would think to myself, and if you would stop automatically assuming I’m accusing you of something, you could do something useful – like try to think where it could be or help me find it. It’s biblical – man’s proclivity to avoid blame.   The defense mechanism goes back to Adam, of course; husbands are practically hard-wired for it.

And Then This Happened…

I had bungled something as an attorney. A combination of procrastination and overwhelm caused me not to pay attention to something I thought was a minor issue – which turned out to be not so minor, creating a financial loss to a client – which we reimbursed. My husband, a well-known family lawyer, however, shielded me and took the blame, and was publically censured for a careless act that would cause any first-year associate to get fired.

And the most shameful part of it was that my husband wasn’t mad at me at all. He didn’t yell. He didn’t make me feel incompetent. And while I was sobbing with guilt that I had “ruined his life,” my husband laughed and said, “Don’t you know – you made my life?” But that profession of loving tenderness and unconditional grace somehow made me feel more ashamed than if he had yelled.

And Then This Happened Next…..

I noticed a book on top of a pile entitled, “Sacred Marriage” and I was reminded of the ultimate mindset one should have towards marriage and relationships in general. What my husband was saying, in effect, was that our marriage is sacred and he wouldn’t tarnish it, trample on it or hurt the relationship on account of something as secular, mundane and profane as a work-related legal matter. And I cringed thinking of how dismissive I can get over ridiculous minutia.  When one regards marriage as sacred, however, a journey of soul mates pledged to each other’s betterment and potential, then shame and blame, harsh criticism and other behaviors that infuse relationships with negativity are intolerable.

The Next-Step Marriage

In his book, The All Or Nothing Marriage, Eli Finkel describes the progression of marriage as being driven by utility, function, and necessity, to being love-driven, to a new “modern” concept of marriage as a means to self-actualization. According to Finkel, this is almost impossible bar to achieve. How can a spouse make the other feel loved, comfortable and secure while at the same time, be the driver of their improvement? How can we finesse being lover and coach, the safe harbor and the push for success? Is it fair, much less realistic, to expect our spouses to be all things?  

Um, Read Your Bible

This model of marriage isn’t so modern. In fact, it originates with the first couple in recorded history, when God created Eve to be an “ezer kenegdo” for Adam. When the Old Testament was translated into English, this term, “ezer kenegdo” was mistranslated as a “helpmate,” evoking an eternally submissive Betty Crocker. Granted, the Hebrew term has no direct and easy English equivalent, but in fact, an “ezer kenegdo” is a “helper in opposition,” a wife who assists by “being against.” When I first learned that this was my true role as a Jewish wife, I completely misunderstood it, thinking I was commanded from on High, to discover and fix my husband’s every imperfection. Self-righteously, I justified nagging as a holy mitzvah. An ezer kenegdo, however, is neither a Stepford wife nor a shrew, but a “beautiful enemy.” Allow me to explain.

In writing about leadership, Tal Ben-Shahar explains that while it is pleasant to be surrounded by those who always say yes to us and confirm and validate our actions, what is truly valuable is to have that rare and special someone who can say “no” – albeit with kindness, intellect and empathy. When critique is presented as an offering and not a demand, and when it comes from the person’s best and highest self, then even criticism can become beautiful.[i]

What Adam Didn’t Understand

Defensiveness, however, is the ego’s method of self-protection and it blocks us from hearing what the other person is saying. When God asked Adam the famous question, “Where are you?” for example, Adam’s defensiveness caused him to deflect the existential inquiry and by blaming Eve, he missed the opportunity to restore his relationship with God.

Accordingly, as Ben-Shahar notes, an indispensable component of this process is that we must also bring our kindness, intellect, and empathy to the table in understanding criticism – otherwise, our egos will perceive the person (even a loved one or the Almighty) as an enemy. Thus, the process is reciprocal and, ultimately must become mutual. “As we want all our friends, spouses and families to grow in all the possible ways we need to become beautiful enemies toward them.”[ii]

A beautiful enemy will both challenge and push you to grow, while at the same time love and accept you as you are. And so yes, we must continuously rise to the occasion and finesse these dual roles; to help our spouses and others actualize themselves, we must also work on ourselves.   I call that a win-win.   It’s a challenge but so very worth it. It’s what makes marriage sacred, so unbelievably great, and right from the start of Creation, the way it was meant to be.

[i] There is a story in the Talmud (Bava Metzia 84a), where Rabbi Yochanan mourned the death of Resh Lakish, his brother-in-law/study partner who had consistently argued against his every opinion. When he was paired with a brilliant scholar who supported his every decision, however, Rabbi Yochanan was inconsolable, crying bitterly that he didn’t need Rabbi Elazar to tell him he was right; he needed Resh Lakish to tell him he was wrong. “Bar Lakisha – when I would believe a thing would challenge me with 24 objections, and I would answer him with 24 answers, which led to a fuller understanding of the law.”

[ii] http://interesting-leadership-techniques.blogspot.com/2009/11/beautiful-enemy.html