This isn’t my usual sort of post. It’s a bit religous, although it’s not really about religion so much as inspired by it. This is difficult for me to post as it is difficult for me to talk about strongly religious things in public. Plus it’s a bit sappy. But something inside of me wants this to be out there. So here it is.
It is that time of year again, the ten days between the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. These ten days known as the Yamim Noraim, or days of awe, are the time we are to take stock of how we have behaved in the previous year. And they are consistently difficult for me. Self-examination is not easy, not the least because it is really hard to be honest. There is a fine line, honestly, between denial and self-flagellation; it is upon this line that truthful self-examination rests. And for me, for so many years, I have come down firmly on the side of self-flagellation. I would obsess, over and over, about the things I did wrong and how I could be so much better. . And eventually it stopped really being about self-improvement and started being some sort of contest about how bad I could feel about myself. If there were a being-hard-on-yourself olympics, I would win the gold medal. I resolved to do better next year by being even more hard on myself until I felt so guilty that I would never do anything wrong. Needless to say this didn’t work. I had lost sight of the point. Because teshuvah, the Jewish concept of repentance, in fact doesn’t even mean repentance. It means “returning”. It’s not about beating yourself up about everything you did wrong, or having to somehow “pay” for those mistakes. It’s just about acknowledging that you made mistakes and trying to find ways to return to the beautiful, pure, loving soul that is always a part of you.
So I have been starting, over the past few years, to work on self-improvement rather than self-castigation. It’s a process. I sometimes think that even just wanting to be a better person fulfills the requirements of teshuvah. But those tiny steps towards becoming a better you still matter. And I do think that it is important to note that Jewish tradition requires you to be your best self, not some cookie-cutter ideal. There is a focus on authenticity, working with what you have been given, and making the most of your unique talents.
I am taking a somewhat different approach this year than I have in the past. This year I don’t just want to work on improving myself, but I really want to work on figuring out what is holding me back. I think it’s so easy to say things like, I don’t volunteer enough because I’m not generous, or I get annoyed with people because I’m not compassionate. But sometimes when I dig deeper I realize the reason I get annoyed with people is because I am so compassionate that it frustrates me that I can’t help them. I don’t need to learn to be more compassionate. It is so important to get to the heart of the matter, because it’s so easy to spend all this time working on the wrong thing.
I find that what holds me back most is not being my best authentic self. Trying to force myself into the mold that someone else has poured for me. The more I exhaust myself with struggling, the more I become short-tempered, impatient, and withdrawn. When I do the things that make me thrive, the joy I feel tends to shine through and I am naturally more inclined to be a good person.
It seems like it should be so easy. Do what makes me happy and I will pay it forward. But it’s not that easy. There are, of course, a lot of reasons why I can’t just do what makes me happy, not the least of which are economic pressures on me to work at a job that makes money. But there is also a lot of social pressure, social ideas which have been drilled into me for my whole life. Doing the things that I enjoy is SELFISH. Being selfish is bad. There are these voices in my head telling me that following my heart is hurting other people. Being a writer doesn’t cure cancer, and I’m so smart, I should cure cancer. Some of the voices are outside of my head, like my daughter telling me that if I take a shower that I’m not playing with her and I’m making her sad.
It’s not a new revelation. People have been saying it for years. Heck, I tell people this all the time at work. Sometimes you have to be a little selfish in order to be selfless. If I make time for myself, I might not spend as much time with my daughter, but the time I spend will be more quality. If I work at a job I really enjoy, I won’t be so exhausted at the end of the day and I’ll have energy to volunteer. It’s something I’ve heard and heard and heard and couldn’t internalize. But over the past year I’ve started to learn to internalize it. It’s hard, because it challenges all sorts of beliefs that I’ve held for a long time, and also possibly means dramatic changes in my life. But it’s time.
A major thing that holds me back is the constant social expectations of women these days. How does one reconcile them? Be an attachment parent. “Lean in” at work. Always look stylish and well groomed (and make sure your children are as well). Prepare healthy food for your family and avoid processed food. Do this on a budget. Work out regularly. Have an active and interesting social life.
We need more hours in the day. Seriously, I’m tired just looking at this list.
Being my authentic self means being able to ignore all these cultural cues and figure out what works for me. Because nobody can do all of that. I really mean this. Anyone who thinks that there is some perfect woman out there who does all of those things and still sleeps is just wrong. Or, if there is a woman who is doing all of those things she is probably not very happy. So I have to let go a bit. Give something up. Let myself be imperfect, but happy. For me this means spending more time with my child. I don’t need to be a CEO. I don’t want to be a CEO. I don’t even need to be successful in my career. . I would like to work little enough that I have time to cook for my family, do yoga classes a few times a week, and sew halloween costumes and maybe some other stuff here and there. I would like a career that I find fulfilling, possibly something I would consider a hobby but would still make me money, but if I didn’t have to work at all that would be fine with me. I will never be super-fashionable or impeccably coifed because I just don’t care. And I’m never going to go to balls and galas and clubs every night because I just don’t want to. I’m kind of a homebody, and getting dressed up sounds fun but really just stresses me out. Unless it’s a costume party. Then, I’m there.
I hope that other people can read this and feel empowered. Because we all have to, I’m going to say, lean out. And then we have to respect each other for the things we choose to do and the things we choose to give up. Your choices aren’t going to be the same as mine. You might hate to cook and love to work. Staying at home with your kids all day might drive you bonkers. Maybe you really thrive on being stylish and well groomed, and getting a manicure just makes you happy. Oh, and all of this goes for men, too, of course. Some men want to be Mr. Mom. I don’t care. Love your kids, love your life, do what you love. When that gives you just a little more energy, try to use that energy to make the world just a little nicer for everyone else. That’s all I care about.
For those of you who are Jewish, G’mar chatima tovah. And for everyone, I wish you a year full of blessing and joy and authenticity.