I wait for Elul every year because I’m a person who obsesses over (self) growth. But this year Elul creeped up on me and tapped me on the shoulder; politely, of course. But I still jumped.
As summer zips to a rapid end and I brace myself for the incoming holidays, and the different atmosphere autumn inevitably brings, I wonder how exactly to go about Elul this year. And yes I know, I’m running out of time, but better late than never. This time a month ago I told myself I’d set aside time everyday for meditation and reflection. I planned to journal frequently and make lists and write music. I mentally set myself up for a productive month; a meaningful, homemade close to summer that I would feel good about. I planned to map my way to a closer relationship with the Infinite. I planned to take a day trip out to the field and spend as much time as I needed looking for the King. But how does that saying go? Man plans and G-d…?
Instead, Elul brought me a bad case of Apathy, of busy days with earlier and earlier sunsets. Of crowded trains, soupy skies, and limited moments of real, genuine concentration. Of feeling rushed and panicked for no reason, of self-doubt, and disbelief; of feeling trapped and stuck and blocked.
They say Elul is a happy time, but happy is not the word I would use to describe how I’ve been feeling. I haven’t felt productive, or constructive, or all that hopeful.To be honest, I haven’t felt much, other than pressure; a great internal pressure and a deep sense of criticism. All internal of course, from myself and not elsewhere. I wake up and rush to shul, rush to work, rush home, and rush back. I pack as much as I can into each empty moment — a podcast, a phone call, a poem. Anything to keep things busy and active. Anything to feel stimulated and alive. Anything to help me avoid reflection. To avoid thinking about Teshuva, about return. Return where, to who. To where, and why? And what for? Elul and nihilism do not belong in the same sentence, yet here they are.
When did I get so critical of myself? So afraid to take risks and make mistakes? Who told me to be this harsh? I am consistently one to notice the learned behavior of others, but I laugh and feel oddly light-hearted as I begin to poke holes in my own. How easy it is for me to notice the crooked pictures self-hung on my walls; how quick I am to get discouraged when learning something new seems to take ages. Addressing failure is second nature to me; a behavior that came pre-installed in the software.
How hard it is to catch a break from myself. I wipe the spilled milk up with my sleeve and hope no one sees me wasting perfectly good milk. I catch my mind wandering from the page of my book and tell myself it must mean that I’ll never understand the plot. Yet I am forgiving of sharp comments from friends and family; they didn’t mean it like that. And I let it all wash over me like a briny tide.
I don’t hold grudges, I don’t hate people, I forgive on demand. I’ve taught myself to love other people, to be understanding. To unconditionally give the benefit of the doubt. Except when it comes to myself. I lay awake at night thinking of moments I could’ve been kinder, more empathetic, more emotionally intelligent. I think of moments I talked for too long, or offered unsolicited advice. I think of moments where I could’ve been a better version of myself. I waste a lot of time worrying that I’m not reaching my potential and maybe I never will. Because in all seriousness, what if I don’t? What does that mean for me?
And Elul: Elul makes it all so much worse. What could be worse for the Self-Critical than an entire month dedicated to self-reflection? Aren’t I reflective enough? Aren’t I critical enough? Don’t I care enough?
Here I am, cringing as I attempt to flip my perspective upside down. As I turn the self-criticism dial to the right, and wonder would it would look like to spend the last few moments of Elul thinking about love instead. I do not practice self-love, not actively the way others may. I’m convinced that many do not understand self-love; I certainly do not. But I know it’s quite far and away from the way the media portrays it — with bubble baths, and mental health days, and exercise. Self-love, to me is an internal game; a self-defined practice that must mean more than simply adopting a more carefree attitude. There is no ego, no conceit. I tell myself, I’m too critical to love myself, too critical to accept who I am and who I am today, as opposed to yesterday or the day before. But that’s exactly what self-love is. It’s acceptance; a genuine, empathetic breed of acceptance that runs deeper than a brief moment or two of fleeting forgiveness.
Elul is about love. Loving each other, loving our neighbor, putting others first, and putting G-d first. It’s about growing through love, and not through hate or poisonous criticism. It’s about accepting the people we were last year, and using that acceptance to propel ourselves forward. Because we should love ourselves too much not to accept who we are and where we’re at. Because we love each other too much to sacrifice the people we have the potential to be. During Elul, G-d is near and wants us near. G-d wants us to love each other, settle our disputes, and open our hearts to goodness instead of biting self-criticism.
What does it look like to achieve self-love in Elul? To love our mistakes, to trust that they’ll lead us somewhere happier, that perhaps they were constructive, and if we treat them correctly, we’ll be able to turn them into merit. No one ever said the world was built on criticism, self-hatred, and self-imposed pressure. In these last few moments of Elul, I pray that I’ll be able to shift my perspective; to accept that if I can be forgiving of others with little effort, then I must be forgiving of myself as well.
* Thank you Ilanna for encouraging me to write about love.