Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Being Who We Are

Sounds simple doesn’t it. But it occurred to me during a recent conversation that while most of us are comfortable being who we are, we are not always as tolerant of who “others” are being, at the moment. Now, that’s not to say that if someone is bothering you, that you shouldn’t be bothered or that correcting children goes out the window. That would be silly.
We are constantly helping children become who they will be. We guide. And that’s fine, but we don’t create who they will be anymore than we can badger people into being who we want them to be. As importantly, I can’t help but notice that when we try the latter, most of the time the measuring stick we use is ourselves. You know what I mean: The little voice in ones head that says: “I lost weight –you should lose weight”; “I work 50 hours-you should work 50 hours”; “You know what she should have done is…”! Sometimes the measure is external. Consider the phrase voted least-wanted-to-be- heard-by-a-sibling, “Why can’t you be more like your brother/sister!”
I have been thinking about this a great deal lately as we have been discussing Aaron and Moses at length in the religious school as we study Exodus. One day someone asked, “Why, if Aaron came to speak for Moses, didn’t G-d just send Aaron?” Good question. After some discussion the best answer we came up with was that G-d wanted to send the great leader Moses. Why? Because Aaron is not Moses.
This also leads me to reflect that just because someone needs support and assistance, we may just want to assist as appropriate, rather then simply replacing them. Clearly, each of us brings our own set of talents and experiences to a situation; their place is likely just as important as yours. It depends on what we place importance on. I remember as young man proudly bring up the point that, “Men have the really important jobs, you know, like flying high speed jets,” during a lesson on avoiding sexism in writing. I explained to him that I could not remember how a person’s expertise in flying a high-speed jet had affected my life directly, but offered him the opportunity to tell me how it had affected his. Then I waited. It was kind of a long wait…. I asked him to tell me who had affected his life directly and the list was long, but predictable. Topped, of course, by his mother. I tried to explain that it had to do with what one values- or in this case what he thought he valued, as clearly there was a discrepancy. (I sent him away with a lot to think about and, as a side note, his mom seemed to really like me when we met on parent’s night.)
Our evaluations depend on what we value. (Shaded at times by what we come to take for granted.) A slight shift can change our perspective. The grass is always greener, somewhere else (or sometimes with someone else.) At least until we are standing on it, then it looks pretty much like grass.
In the Torah sometimes Moses’ name appears first and sometimes Aaron’s does. The Rabbis tells us that this is because they are both important. One is not more important than the other. Their cooperation is, in part, the vehicle of their success.
As someone joked in a very funny voice while we were studying, “I’ve met Moses and you’re no Moses!” We all had a long laugh. The type that make you feel a little winded at the end and refreshed. Good thing G-d doesn’t require me to be Moses, or anybody else for that matter, just a good version of myself.
No, I’m no Moses and neither are you.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Reflections After Passover

As we brought our things out of the basement and reassembled the kitchen, as we know it, I had to ask my husband: Why do we have all of this stuff? Of course I meant it in a rhetorical way. Clearly if anyone was responsible for the accumulation of stuff in the kitchen (okay, and pretty much anywhere else in the house), it would be me. In true ‘good husband’ form he didn’t say as much, but I did detect a slight rising of the eyebrows.
Even when I was younger, I saw clearly that too much stuff was somehow bad for me. While I wouldn’t wish on myself the life I had when I could pack pretty much everything I owned into a car trip or two, it made life simpler. In retrospect, I can’t believe that we used to leave the couch for the next tenant, sometimes in a negotiation, sometimes as a ‘surprise’. Anyone who has ever moved a couch, especially a pull out, up three flights of narrow stairs would be forgiving.
I’ve never been much of a gadget accumulator. I laugh every year at the new appliances by Ronco-Although I really did enjoy his commercials on some level. I can recall things like the omelet maker-I have one of those; it is called a frying pan. Or the egg scrambler-I also have one of those- mine is the first generation-it’s called a fork. If you are a collector of gadgets forgive me, I just enjoy joking about some of them that may not have caught on. I like cooking knives and antiques, especially carved wood, so I have my own guilty pleasures.
Influenced by my youth, I still clear out my closets at least once a year. Sometimes this has worked against me. I donated a perfectly good pair of Doc Martin shoes that were great in the snow, before I packed to move. I can’t remember why I thought this was good idea. Like anyone, I have some sorting regrets. But I don’t miss the two beds, the big Oriental rug, three bookcases, a lot baking stuff, the wine rack, the list goes on, but you get the idea.
Please don’t get me wrong. I like stuff as much as the next guy. I had my Converse All Stars from eighth grade well into my early twenties. (I never did grow into them-Thank G-d.) I like my bread maker and my waffle maker. In fact, I like them a lot. I even like the toaster, although I do wonder sometimes why we have it out given the cultural and I’d guess age changes in eating bread. I used to eat bread every morning.
Having minimized the household stuff reminded me of an earlier time-and if I can’t say life was simpler, my household surely was. I look at pictures and am amazed at the space I had in such a small apartment, but I don’t remember feeling like we were under furnished.
Maybe the drusha the Rabbi gives about the raising of bread being like our egos, flipped on its head, best expresses this experience. I wonder at how Abraham must have felt when G-d commanded him to leave Ur and how the Israelites felt when they left Egypt and all they knew behind (even though they were headed for something better.) Not that my experience is the same, but it makes me feel a little closer to understanding, and maybe that’s the idea. It’s not that I want to go without things; it’s that I remember that I can. Not in the “once Pluto was a planet and potatoes were a vegetable” days of gone, but maybe a little bit. More of a memory that once I slept on the floor because I didn’t have a bed or managed without a car or had a total of four plates, and we were still somehow happy. And okay, once you get a bit older a bed is not a luxury item, and certainly now I would prioritize owning one. But some things are a luxury and I find it easy to lose sight of that. As I moved everything back into its place, I was reminded.
Maybe I can keep this in mind until next Passover and by doing so, keep my ego in check. This doesn’t mean there is anything at all wrong with financial success and stability. Nor does it mean that we should decide how much is enough for other people. We cannot and should not take another’s personal inventory, but we can take our own.

Oh Deer

I’m sure everyone had heard about the Rabbi and I hitting a deer. More accurately the deer hit us. Really. I know people say this all of the time, but the deer hit the passenger side of the car first, leaving a big dent. Afterward, the Rabbi and I discussed a probable message. What were we (or I, as the deer hit my side of the car) supposed to learn? First, deer should play in the NFL, because impressively enough the deer got up, and after smashing the side mirror and putting a hoof though a headlight, she ran off into the sunset, literally. (Okay, well almost, it being standard time, it was on the darker side.) My knee jerk reactions are often of the silly variety: the Rabbi needs to have his car painted day glow orange; Deductible? Where is that deer? I’m going to run it down again! But what was I seriously supposed to think?
It came up a second time at the Rabbi’s lecture in Westminster. “Sometimes an accident is just an accident,” the Rabbi said. “You could drive yourself crazy trying to figure it out.” This was good advice, I thought, especially if one is perseverating on an unknown, especially one that looks like it might remain unknown. But another part of me felt it best to figure things out before G-d threw another deer at me.
During our ride, I was turned at an angle. Although I think I am perceived as being soft spoken, I don’t have any opinions the Rabbi hasn’t heard, in some cases, a couple of times. I was ‘sharing’ just such insights about something when the deer hit us and I bumped my arm; I can’t remember what that something was so I guess it’s not that important. Maybe that’s the message.
Maybe the message is that of resilience: I cried because I thought we killed the deer. And the Rabbi felt terrible. After all, the thing did bounce off the windshield a foot in front of me; it’s eyes wide and frightened. It turned out, thankfully, all that was unnecessary. The deer did just get up and run away. Maybe it means that all the stress and fuss over what can’t be changed is unnecessary; either the deer will get up and continue its life, or it wont.
I used to have a professor that used to have us give oral reports. Those students who had difficulty with that sort of thing balked. But he used to tell them, “What the worst thing that can happen? You can die and then it will be all over.” That sounds terrible, I’m sure, as it did to the student whom were trying to negotiate. However, the point would be that it wont kill them; people, like deer, are resilient.
Like many things, maybe the message is a matter of perspective. Jeremy Kagan wrote in “The Jewish Self, “A renowned genius once asked a student, “What are you watching when you sit on a hillside in the late afternoon as the colors turn from yellow to orange and red and finally darkness?” He answered, “You are watching the sunset.” The genius responded, “That is what is wrong with our age. You know full well you are not watching the sunset. You are watching the world turn.”
Whatever the message, one thing is clear: G-d is a teacher and we are the students. Rebbetzin Lori from the pod cast “Lori almost Live” suggests we ask ourselves, “What is G-d teaching me?” and advises, “Your first reaction-That is the answer.” We may not care for that particular answer, but that’s it. That seems like the good advice to me. If we ask ourselves everyday: What did we learn? We become students of life. Even if we do this only when an event stands out to us, we become students of life.
Now, go do your homework!

Great Expectations

Expectations are a funny thing. They have certain power. If you expect more from yourself and others, it is believed that they/we will achieve more. Somehow, we will rise to these expectations even when they are only implied. Maybe that’s true, to a degree anyway.
Consider negative expectations. There is a term in psychology known as self-fulfilling prophecy. It means loosely that when you expect negative behavior from a person or group of people, you can usually find it or cause it. Having said this, our finding of it has very little to do with the group or person’s behavior in general. We find it because that is what we are looking for at the time, so it stands out clearly, whether induced or implied. Also so much of what we believe about people is not reinforced by their actions, rather by our interpretations of what they say or do. Like when you buy a new car; there is a consciousness about that make and model, and suddenly you notice them everywhere! (If I say “mustache” will you see more of them? Or will you put it put of your mind? Lets see how many mustaches you notice in the next month.)
What’s worse, we often fail to notice the strengths of a person when we are so very busily looking for flaws. The man who forgets birthday presents or doesn’t act as romantically as they do in movies or books maybe an excellent provider for his family, he many help his children nightly with their homework, and maybe sensitive enough to call his wife not only when he is late but when he has time at lunch, on his way home, or from the market to see of she needs anything more. All of this could be overlooked if one is focused on anger and resentment from unfulfilled expectations. In this situation, the wife wont notice the bag of diapers and the can of coffee in his hand, only that he is not holding roses.
In relationships we have expectations. However, when the other person doesn’t know about them this can lead to trouble. There are oodles of websites and other lists of topics you should talk about-and agree about -before getting married: career, residence, children, religion and more. This doesn’t mean that there wont be some fine tuning once you get there, but it sure beats finding out the big stuff later. How many times has someone got mad at you because you didn’t meet their expectations-and you didn’t know about them? If you have ever been on the end of the argument that sounds like, “But I didn’t know you wanted me to…” you know what I mean. When the answer is, “You should have known,” it’s even worse, a zero sum game. And that’s not fair.
We should make clear our expectations. Especially if we really do want them met. (I do think there are people who uses argument, disappointment, and victim stance to manipulate and further other goals, i.e. you disappointed me now you owe me, but that’s a whole other article.) I think it was Walter Dire who used to say that the best way to get what you want is to be able to ask for it. And while I’m not a great fan (my friends and I used to call him ‘master of the obvious’ when he did fund raisers for PBS; sorry any Dire fans) he does make a lot of sense here. If you have expectations for someone, then you must be able to clearly articulate what you want and negotiate a change. This is standard: Teachers often write the goals and objectives on the board for their students to make clear what it is they are expected to learn in the course of a class or in a set of lessons. Often we are given written job descriptions at the beginning of a new position, which outline the expectations and duties of that particular situation. Safety rules and rules of behavior are often posted on shop walls. New rules are often highlighted in student handbooks.
Too often expectations change and the results are dissatisfaction. However, it doesn’t help to air these grievances to the public at large, especially at the exclusion of the person or persons, who could actually effect a change. Some expectations are not reasonable or achievable: Once I had a boss ask for a project that wasn’t due for two more weeks. She met me in the ladies room to tell me she wanted it NOW and followed me to my office, directly. She was raving and sure I wouldn’t be finished. She was right. But she was right because she caused it to be that way. If she came and talked to me I am sure I could have moved up the date for her, but with no notice… Likewise I had a student who was wonderful and talented in many respects.
Unfortunately, he only wrote one sentence per line rather than standard paragraph form. He was autistic and rather than see his growth year after year, and it was substantial, the state only saw this writing problem and he took the MCAS, a state requirement for graduation, year after year.
So have high expectations of yourself and the people around you, but in the interest of fairness to others and living an ethical life be clear and, as importantly, honest and reasonable about your expectations.