Tuesday, February 4, 2014
Self-improvement is not for wimps. There are many days when I love it, and there are days when I hate it. As hard as I try to keep my head up and stay on track, one situation will come along that will punch me right in the gut, constantly testing my ability to say the right words at the right time.
Personal excellence is all I think about; that is of course- when I'm not worrying about my emerging adult children even if they're working hard and paying their own bills, or when I'm stressed out thinking about how many people will actually read (and benefit from) what I write, or when my heart starts racing every time I look at my "things-to-do" list. I truly believe that I can make myself happier by becoming a better version of myself, and that being involved in the daily study of Mussar, personal excellence, and self-improvement is the only way I can live a happy life.
I'm the type of person who loves a good challenge. Maybe it's my innate competitive spirit that comes from my mother's words still echoing in my ears "no matter what you do - be the best you can be." Or maybe I was just born with a Type-A personality that forces me to my computer at 4:00 a.m. Bottom line is- when push comes to shove- I'm at my best, and that's what I'm working towards.
What does that actually mean, "the best me?"
Does it mean that in every situation I am involved in, I will say the perfect words that will make every person happy, comfortable, and all will be peaceful, loving, and harmonious? HA! Who am I kidding? Am I delirious? Or do I think I have super-powers? That's impossible!
I expect a lot of myself. I've been involved in personal excellence for a very long time now. I was in encounter groups when I was 18, I've been in and out of therapy of since then, I've been through 12-step programs, I taught yoga, meditation, learned hypnosis, and in 2008 found Mussar- the answer to all of the above.
So how is it possible that after all these years of working on myself, I still lose my way?
Recently, I had an incident, one for which I am totally embarassed, ashamed, and dread saying out loud, but here goes... I yelled at my Hungarian Holocaust survivor mother-in-law for putting an uneven ratio of noodles to cabbage in the dish we were preparing together for Shabbos. The words came from somewhere inside of me that I do not recognize. How could I do such a terrible thing? What kind of person am I? What is the matter with me? I felt like a monster. Literally. It was as if someone else was inside of me causing me to have an out of body experience, as if some alien creature had entered my physical form and was spewing these words out of me, but it wasn't. It was me. Okay- I was rushing, I was tired, I was stressed out, but that does not permit my mouth to release harsh words to another human being, especially 1) to someone I love, 2) who is elderly, 3) who deserves a higher level of honor and respect based on the horrors she had already experienced, and 4) she was helping me. I still shudder when I hear my own words. I cringe.
That's the part when personal excellence is the most challenging. Instead of turning my back, ignoring what happened, or covering up my hurtful words, I have to be brave enough to look them straight in the face and own them. They were my words. As horrible as I feel when I hear them in my head, as much as they make me squirm in my seat, and make my skin crawl, they are my words. They came out of me. I have to own them. I have to face myself and my own flaws. It doesn't matter that I was tired, cranky, stressed out or rushing to beat the incoming Shabbos clock. There are no excuses. I am left with me.
I could have tried to pretend that it never happened (which was my strongest desire). I could have kept busy and then overcompensated with kindness if I even dared to open my mouth again. I could have just prayed that she didn't hear what I said, or that she was distracted thinking about something else, or know (the truth) that she is such a righteous woman she would immediately remember only the good I have done for her, and that she would let my dreadful words float into outer space.
But none of that mattered. I had to own it. That's why personal excellence/self-improvement stinks sometimes. I am the only one that can halt the squirming inside of me, stop my skin from crawling, and force this alien creature out of me. I have to face myself. I have to repeat the harsh words that involuntarily flew out of my mouth, and then I have to acknowledge that I said them. So I did. As soon as the alien left, I was myself again. I gathered my senses. I shook the cobwebs out of my head, gave myself a few light pats on the cheek (even though a smack would have been more appropriate) and went over to this righteous woman and begged her to forgive me. I hugged her tight and continued to apologize over and over again. "Please, forgive me, I am so sorry I said that. That was terrible. I am truly sorry." She hugged me back and told me, "It's fine, forget about it." She meant it.
I have high standards for myself and people expect a lot of me. They should. I write, teach, and only speak about becoming the best I can be, so how is it possible that I still can't control my words so they will come out just right every time? I can't. I am not perfect. I strive to be my best, but I mess up. It's not ok, but it happens. However when it does; I must not run away from it, pretend it doesn't exist, go into denial, ignore it, or hope that everyone involved gets a temporary case of "relationship amnesia"..... I am a Mussar student, trying to become a better me. That part only comes out when I am brave enough to face my own flaws, my ugly words and not turn my back on them, but to reach out and beg for forgiveness, and sincerely mean it.
Shabbos was beautiful, and the meal was delicious. My mother-in-law and I sat across from each other. Our eyes met when we watched as the cabbage and noodle dish was passed around the table. It was perfect. I smiled at her and she smiled back at me. I pray that one day I will be the wise and righteous woman that she is.
Happy Birthday Anyuka! *******************************************************************************
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