The story was a familiar one; however, this time, it was a young man who I knew since his early childhood. Having grown up with a few learning and behavioral challenges, Reece grew up believing he was not good enough. I remember coaching him in roller hockey in a high-stressed championship game that we lost in overtime. Reece was the goalie and he had a meltdown when he let in the losing goal. It was his stellar play that got us to the championship game in the first place and I tried to console him. I wished it would have been any other kid, because I knew Reece would take it so hard.
Fast forward to the college years – Reece went away to school and without much needed boundaries and discipline, Reece did poorly, got involved in drugs and had to come home. However, he had his music. A talented saxophone player, Reece ended up at Georgia Southern, where he tried to get on track with school. However, it was music that spoke to his soul and he became part of a band, playing around the area. I last saw Reece at an outdoor concert last summer – he seemed happy and enjoying the outdoor festival atmosphere of the August evening.
Apparently, shortly after I saw him, the band in which Reece played let him go and he was again devastated. I imagine that berating, scolding inner voice kept chanting the lie that he was not good enough….that he failed, that he was worthless. Trying to numb the pain and quiet the constant inner scolding, Reece again turned to drugs. By now, his closest friends and family became very concerned and they did all they could to support him and to let him know that he mattered and that they loved him. Reece was getting better.
Nobody knows why in the winter of 2011, Reece tried heroin and never woke up. If only Reece could have seen that he, like all of us – was imperfect and marvelous at the same time, and created in the Divine image. No matter what his challenges and flaws, Reece was indeed good enough and worthwhile as a human being. His family and closest friends loved him just as he was.
In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion desperately sought to acquire the character traits each thought that they needed to be whole and complete. The Tin Man sought a heart, the Scarecrow a brain and the Cowardly Lion, courage. Dorothy wanted to go home – a metaphor for finding her own inner source of power and self-expression. For all four of them, it was only when they faced their deepest fears, looked deep within and took back the power they denied and only saw in others, did they realize that they already had what they sought. Their quest had taken them where they started – within themselves, in spite of their faults.
Reb Tzaddok haCohen of Lublin, a brilliant Jewish thinker of the 19th century, said that each of us has some wound, a personal vulnerability – like the shattered vessels in Isaac Luria’s Creation myth. With loving acceptance – not resistance – these wounds, flaws and vulnerabilities may become our greatest gifts and the path to enlightenment. By embracing the shattered pieces of our vessel, we actual facilitate the gathering and repair of our person vessel There is a Midrash,
A young man came to Rabbi Yisrael of Rishin seeking counsel as to how he might break or overcome his “evil inclination”, or his impulses and selfish desires. The Rabbi laughed to himself and replied, “you want to break your impulses? You can break your back or break your hip, but you will never break an impulse no matter how hard you try. However, if you serve with love and sincerity, the evil in your impulses will vanish on their own. In its place will remain a passion that is pure and holy. With this passion, you will be able to serve G-d and others in truth..” What Rabbi Yisrael was saying was that if we treat ourselves lovingly and Divinely created – flaws and all and then see others as also Divinely created, then our flaws, weaknesses, imperfections and impulses will become that which makes us unique. Our wounds and vulnerabilities become that which allows us to be more compassionate, more empathic and more wanting to find our path to serve. Not all of us can be surgeons; not all of us can be sanitation workers; not all of us can be professors; not all of us can be plumbers; not all of us can be CEOs; not all of us can be janitors; yet, all of us matter and all that matters is that we contribute to others in some way.
There is no such thing as not good enough, except in advertisements or in our own heads. We can ignore the advertisements and learn to manage the little voice in our heads. Our challenges are our challenges. Our gifts are our gifts. We should accept our personal challenges, learn from them, make them our assets and then use our gifts to serve – to make the world a better place – the place that G-d would want it to be.
In the past two years, I have known of far too many suicides and drug overdoses. Nobody should have to lose loved ones that way, yet one can only wonder if our unrealistically high expectations of ourselves and others, and warped definitions of success have alienated us from ourselves and each other. When mental illness gets the better of us, it is time to seek help. It is a sign of strength, not weakness to reach out for help. When we are most vulnerable, we are most connected with each other. It is in the trenches of life, where we most relate. I have challenges, you have challenges, so that proves we must be authentic human beings.
Whenever I flip channels on the TV, I pause, sometimes with pity and sometimes with disgust when it seems like we must do the “insanity work out” in order to have the perfect body, while we do nothing to work on our negative self-image or acceptance of our bodies just the way they were created. We must take this pill or that growth hormone to stay young, while in so many other cultures, the elderly are revered and their wisdom and life experience sought out. Not winning in our culture is called losing, while no credit is given to doing our best and still sometimes coming in second.
We can medically treat biochemistry that has gone awry. However, only we can treat ourselves with acceptance of who we are – to embrace the flaws – to honor the vulnerabilities – to then seek out and follow the path that these flaws and vulnerabilities open up for us. I remember my own rabbi telling me that my less than stellar adolescence and struggles with anxiety and mild depression was what made me compassionate and able to be with others in their own suffering.
Just over a month ago, Christine Gustafson, my trusted doctor and my son Zach’s mentor, who I believe was an angel in physical form, suddenly and tragically passed away at the age of 52. This was a woman who triumphed over stage 4 cancer over 12 years ago and it was this experience that transformed how she practiced medicine for the remainder of her life. It appears that the damage caused by the aggressive radiation and chemotherapy so long ago had taken its toll and the internal organ damage shortened her wonderful life. This woman gave so much to others, with many of her patients travelling from surrounding states to get her special level of integrative medical treatment and personal attention, which often was more a combination of medicine, psychology, unconditional love and spiritual direction. I spoke with her sister at her funeral and what she shared was profound. “Look how many people so loved her that they came here today to say goodbye.. “ She then added that her departed sister struggled with knowing that she was loved from time to time.” This doctor gave so much to others, driven to heal others, using every single gift that she was given by G-d and was so loved by those she touched, including Suzette, Zach and myself, yet she struggled with knowing how much she was loved.
I recently did an experiment. I observed the behavior of two of my close friends to see how concerned they were with their so-called quirks, flaws and idiosyncrasies. I also tried to see how concerned they were about what others thought of them. Surprisingly, each one was oblivious to their imperfections and in fact reveled in life, no matter what. Only concerned with caring about others and being themselves, they charmed and instantly connected with everyone they met, almost instantly – except for one delivery man. You might have guessed that I was referring to Garcia and Gretzky, our dogs. Garcia does not notice nor even care that he has hips that are displaced causing him to struggle a bit when he gets up or that he needs a step to get up on the bed, while Gretzky simply leaps up. Garcia doesn’t care that while Gretzky sings along with a harmonica, Garcia cannot even bark a note. For them, success is just being who they are and loving unconditionally.
Know that you are loved. If not by your friends, family and neighbors, know that you are loved by the Divine Presence – the Shechinah, simply because you are here on this earth at this time. That never changes – it cannot. My friend Karen Cyzick reminds me that we are all here for a reason and that everything that has ever happened to us, though not necessarily fated, was still a lesson – a homework assignment in the school of life. Rather than being what you are not… rather than wishing you were different… rather than wanting to be more… how about just feeling OK with who and what you are? Be a human being and NOT a human doing. You are NOT what you do or what you accomplish. How about just taking care of your body because it is the temple of your soul and that you owe it to yourself to treat your soul’s temple with respect. How about having dreams and yet no attachment to them having to come true – not winning or getting what you want at any cost – to others or to your integrity? The most successful people in life – not just the wealthy – are those who have a vision, make a commitment to that vision, begin laying down the approach to the pathway and then simply change course when there are obstacles in the road.
If only our friend Reece had known that we are all flawed, imperfect, marvelous gifts from Heaven. Imagine a world where we all did? Why not begin this New Year, reveling in your uniqueness and your quirkiness? Take an inventory of the gifts you have to give to others. Rabbi Larry Kushner wrote, “ each lifetime is the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. For some there are more pieces. For others the puzzle is more difficult to assemble. No one has within themselves ALL the pieces to their puzzle. Everyone carries with them at least one and probably many pieces to someone else’s puzzle. Sometimes they know it. Sometimes they don’t.
“And when you present your puzzle piece, which is worthless to you, to another, whether you know it or not, whether they know it or not, you are a Messenger from the Most High..” No contribution to others is too small. Be yourself, accept yourself, serve others and know that your strengths are gifts. As Rumi said, “I am nothing but a flute…..listen to the beautiful music that G-d plays through me”. If only Reece could have accepted his imperfections and embraced the gift that he was – a compassionate friend to everyone he met, a talented musician, a good son and brother. Perhaps he could have better handled his failures. Perhaps he could have eradicated the word failure from his inner vocabulary.
Close your eyes and listen to the wind and nature in the trees. The wind just is…… and the birds just are. Nature is perfect only in the fact that it exists – no judgments and no striving to be the best. May the new year bring contentment and acceptance in just who you are and nothing more. Striving to be better is a lifetime journey – not a destination. Know that everything that happens to you sticks around until you learn the lesson and the lessons keep coming. Be yourself, share yourself authentically, do not hide your flaws – they are what actually draws us to you. The world is a better place because you are in it – as you are and nothing more.
Rabbi Mitch Cohen is the assistant director of The Jewish Encounter