After my last Hevria essay, where I took a look at the often confusing state of being a woman, I received some feedback that, while positive, also expressed dissatisfaction that I ended my essay with a neat and tidy ending of total acceptance without any sort of idea of how to actually cope with the challenges I described.
This is the kind of comment I love. She praised my writing, but at the same time, felt comfortable giving a suggestion of how the piece could be improved. And while it is often hard to hear criticism, this was done in such a genuine way that I was not only grateful that she expressed this thought, but it brought about this essay.
Over the many years that I’ve been writing personal essays, I’ve gotten into the habit of ending them with a nice little one-liner or paragraph. Something hopefully catchy, and, if I’m lucky, maybe even witty or deep.
I find it very satisfying to being able to tie things up with a concrete ending point. After all, life so rarely gives us that kind of closure. Even when I have been blessed with moments of clarity, the muddle of life has obscured it sooner rather than later.
And so, while I ended that essay with a simple sentence of acceptance, I unfortunately do not have succinct instructions about how to get from point A of acknowledging female difficulties to point B of acceptance and menuchas hanefesh.
What I can give over are some meandering thoughts and anecdotal experiences of my life. And really, when I break it all the way down, it is only because of learning Torah that I am even anything remotely resembling a mentsch. More specifically, the practice of cheshbon hanefesh (introspection), studying mussar, really applying many of the mitzvos having to do with interpersonal relationships, having good friends and mentors, and, of course, understanding that anything I achieve is a gift from G-d Himself (as uncomfortable as it is for me to type that, but that’s a topic for a different essay).
That’s the broad explanation. Now for some more specific examples. Kind of.
When I first started writing about self-improvement and stuff, I had this constant anxiety that anyone who knew me in college (a/k/a when I was a hugely narcissistic jerk) would read what I was writing and out me as a total fraud. Who was I to write about being a good person? There was no redemption for people like me. I was objectively horrible. Truly.
I’ve grown a lot through the pain of acknowledging those deficits. Recognizing my bad middos. Meeting with Rebbetzins to get advice. Talking to my close friends about what’s bothering me. Davening for help. Learning how to be somewhat aware enough to recognize when something is preventing me from functioning. Going to therapy and working through those things.
That’s the only way that I’ve been able to move forward through the many mundane challenges that I described in my last essay. It’s easier, in a sense, to deal with the major life struggles, the life or death ones, the major upheavals, than it is the more mundane ones. With the major life challenge it’s obvious that it’s something hard. You know that you need help. You know you should be davening and getting advice or whatever.
When I face struggles like feeling that I should be having guests for Shabbos, but knowing that the extra work (more food and a cleaner house, generally) will result in a more stressful erev Shabbos and a greater chance of me snapping at my kids and husband, I just kind of feel like a failure. I mean, shouldn’t I just be able to manage that?
But no, it’s a challenge for me to be honest with myself about the reality that that is a choice I need to make. To accept that at this point in my life, at this stage of my family, having guests is a pressure that I do not always react well to. The choice is that I can either lower my standards of what I’m making, or risk making my home atmosphere something negative and tense.
Acknowledging that challenge is the first step. The next step is figuring out a way to make it better. To make one less thing. To start earlier. To be vigilant about my stress level to hopefully bypass any major blow-ups. To be forgiving to myself when I fail and then to try again.
It’s the same with parenting, with trying to be the best mother I can be, but also trying to nurture my own needs and non-parenting talents. The ratio is always shifting, and there will inevitably be times when I feel like I need to be spending more time on my family and other times that I feel stifled and long to be spending more time on my own projects. I am always reassessing, recalibrating.
Since that is a constantly evolving dynamic, I’ve been able to say gam zeh ya’avor (this too shall pass) with more ease and frequency. I can recognize that a particularly stressful phase is usually just that, a phase, and that helps keep perspective. And if it’s a stress like me overcommitting to non-parenting activities, then I just know that I have to scale back and start saying “no” more, to remember that someday my children will be bigger and the structure of my time will be different.
When it comes to the challenges of being married, I’m reminded of something our Rav said at a kiddush not too long ago. He said (and I’m really paraphrasing here) that it’s a miracle any marriage works. It’s so difficult to live with another person, someone who comes from a different home, has a different (sometimes completely unfathomable) way of looking at things, who is both the other half of your soul and yet also so entirely other.
I try to keep this in mind. I try to think beyond myself, to be self-aware, to cut myself slack and to cut him slack. I try to not hold grudges. I try to tell myself that I am doing the best I can and so is he and that it’s not my job to decide if he actually is doing the best he can. I try to communicate openly. I try to express my gratitude and love. I try to avoid “always” and “never.” I fail at that, constantly. So I try to do better.
That is my basic approach to everything in life. Try to be aware. Try to be better. Try to be forgiving when it doesn’t work out. Try to figure out what went wrong so I can do better the next time. Repeat.
As a backdrop to these specific challenges, I try to make sure that I am nourishing myself spiritually and personally. Attending classes, listening to a shiur at home, listening to interesting podcasts, getting together with friends, going on dates with my husband, giving myself alone time, too.
That’s the goal, at least. This has been, like, a twelve year journey. I am still very far from where I’d like to be, but I’m also very far from where I started.
I don’t know if this is remotely helpful, or interesting, but that’s basically a summary of what’s going on in my mind, the process behind the neat and tidy structure of a well-packaged essay that may give the impression that I have any more idea than this of how to navigate life. I still have so much to learn.