The Guilt of Gratitude

About a year or two ago, I read a book called, The Happiness Project. I am sure you’ve seen or heard the hype surrounding this larger-than-life experiment in gratitude. At first, gratitude came easily to author Gretchen Rubin, a sarcastic and often silly women looking for the more in life we all seek. Then, as gratitude’s time-tested experiments and real-world crap collided, things became more desperate and difficult for Gretchen. And, as in all books with a happy ending, she discovers sticking with gratitude in a multitude of ways really does bolster your happiness quotient.

For me, this book was just meh. Gretchen seemed trite, often times rude in her quest for trying out different sides of gratitude. But, in general I believed in her message – taking time to find the good and being grateful for it will lead to an overhaul in your general view on life. Since reading that book and really since Oprah coined her phrase ‘gratitude journal’ years ago, I’ve often tried to incorporate more thankfulness into my life.

When times were bad and paychecks lean, gratitude for loves in my life got me through. When I suffered loss or pain, focusing on my multitude of gifts (like coffee) and amazing children cheered me up. And then, as all good things were going great – gratitude somehow, someway transitioned into another beast altogether- guilt.

I am not certain when this happened or why. But, suddenly we finally had a savings account for the first time in our lives, our family was growing up and sleeping through the night (!), my business was booming and it finally seemed like everything was in synch. I was overwhelmed with so much gratitude that I looked around at others less fortunate and felt tremendous and utter shame.

Why should I deserve so much happiness? What have I done to deserve a great home, healthy kids and a giving husband? Was I any better than others dealing with loss, divorce or sick children? Of course, the answer – a resounding no – I was no more deserving and no better than anyone else. I was just luckier in the draw in that particular part of my life.

I think back to a time when I was young. I went to an elementary school in an insular and strict private school environment that taught the mantra ‘You will get what you deserve’. I grew up believing that breaking any rule would bring an onslaught of hellish fire and I may be struck by lightening at any moment. Skip a class? You will get expelled. Eat on a minor fast day? Your stomach will surely hurl itself into oblivion. This led to an onslaught of fear and loathing both for my little world at school and contributed to my heightened anxiety as I was growing up. I never wanted to do anything “wrong” (by whichever standards I was following) or make a mistake for fear of what may lay in wait.

In my mind it was simple –I f you were good, good things happen to you – if you are not good, well watch out…

But, as I became an adult and saw the world around me make plenty of good or bad choices the ultimate question came to the forefront – Why do bad things happen to the good people? It made no sense.

Then, I read another book, this one much more meaningful to me than the Happiness Project – The Garden of Emunah (Belief) by Rabbi Shalom Arush.

This book, while also at times trite and flowery, became an unbelievable reminder that if you sort of ‘go with the flow’ of life you can’t feel slighted, angry, sad or depressed. It’s just life. Not better than someone else’s, not worse. It’s yours and yours alone. It has really helped my perspective in realizing that its a waste of time to feel guilty for the gifts of my life. I shouldn’t walk around apologizing that I have health or happiness. I also shouldn’t feel angry when it doesn’t go ‘my way’ because truly it is going my way, I just don’t realize it at the time. It’s just the Plan.

I make the choices that contribute to the path my life of course, but ultimately health, happiness and love are all very changeable and in an instant. I am trying hard to focus less on being thankful and more on thanking those around me and of course, the Guy Upstairs. I am working hard on recognizing the Plan versus feeling that I somehow did something intrinsically amazing or horrific to get there. It’s my Plan and I’m sticking to it.

Happy New Year, all. May We All Be Inscribed in The Book of ‘Good Plans’ Until 120.

Learning From Your Children

In sending off my son to his year abroad and with his 18th birthday coming this week, my mind has been swirling with many thoughts and memories. In all this nostalgia I have come to a realization – our children teach us nearly as much, if not more than we teach them.

I have had many conversations over the years with one of my best friends about our two oldest. As I’m 2 years ahead of her in parenting, I have discovered that much of parenting children is figuring out their ‘story’. They don’t come with a chapter list or a prologue or any much direction at all. It is often up to us to wait and see how they act, how they interact, how they grow. You have an image in your mind how you’d love them to turn out and then, surprise! They make different choices, don’t like what you expect them to and of course, they reserve the right to even change those things you thought you’d figured out.

My confident oldest has taught me tremendous patience and understanding. Living life with a non-conforming attitude he has always been his own person. So wickedly smart, he often has proven my wrong on more than one occasion. A practical, minimalist personality – my oldest has tenacity and dedication to living life to its fullest without hesitation or anxiety.

My next in line, beautiful and sweet has taught me that you should never underestimate your child. She had always been a shyer, quieter little girl. She barely said a word until 3. She did not speak much at school to the point where I had her teachers log when she did actually speak. I have a notebook filled with one-word answers and short questions to prove to myself there was nothing wrong. I had expected that when it came time to speak at her Bat Mitzvah she would shy away from the opportunity. Surprisingly, she stepped up to the plate. She prepared a beautiful speech delivered with such poise and confidence both my husband and I were blown away.

Our middle daughter, the one with the dimples that could make any heart melt, has taught me empathy. In the third grade her teacher called me with a lump in her throat as she read a beautiful letter my daughter had written in class. The assignment was to share what one would do with a million dollars. My daughter wrote that she would give it to a little boy in the first grade that she barely knew. She wanted to give it to him because he has autism and she wanted him to buy new toys and things that would make him happy. She notices when others are sad and feels deeply.

Our baby. Our precious icing on the cake, has taught me that no matter what the ‘norms’ are you can and should buck them. A raven haired and green eyed beauty that has a passion for Tonka trucks, race cars and Ken dolls seems to be the life of the party with the boys in Kindergarten. While I spent much of preschool a nervous wreck that she wasn’t wearing sparkles and pink like the other little girls, I have come to love her will to do what she loves – regardless of what a ‘pink toy aisle’ represents for the girls.

These are just the very tip of the iceberg, of course. Parenting is a constant teaching tool that doesn’t end when they leave the nest. I am now learning how to let go, give space, step in as needed and love from afar. I am excited to see how parenting will continue to grow and change and affect our lives. In the meantime, I’m just sitting back and enjoying the textbook lesson by lesson.

 

The Imperfect Perfection of Me & My Spark

Several years ago, amidst babies and boredom I decided to try my hand at matchmaking. Always a romantic, I was convinced I could find random strangers love through a strong focus on coordinated life goals, encouraging flexibility and trusting a gut instinct. I was fairly successful matching up hundreds of daters (more than just a first date) and even a successful marriage that is still going strong on baby #2.

One of my biggest challenges working with singles in the over 35 range was convincing a very disheartened person to give love another go. After years of disappointment, dating seemed more like work than reward. I heard from so many singles after a mere 10-minute meeting (and often even less than that) it was just not going to work. I scoffed at this. How could you know? How could one judge so quickly and turn a deaf ear? Picky, much?

I tried so hard not to judge, but for those singles I was helping that were under 35 and the closer we got to early 20s, it was just so much easier. These men and women were more open-minded to sitting for an hour or two or three before judgment. Often chalking up ‘no sparks’ after one date doesn’t necessarily mean no sparks after 2 or 3. These were my easiest long-term daters. Many dating months, before deciding it was a no-go.

I am not very good at math, but the numbers easily added up. The older a Single got, the more difficult it was for her to imagine herself with said person. Perhaps it was a comfort level of living alone for so long. Perhaps it was waiting for perfection to sweep them off their feet. Perhaps it was fear that they actually could live out that dream, instead of being dependent on the Woe is Me. Perhaps they needed therapy. And, then of course, perhaps they just had not yet met Mr. Forever, yet.

Eventually, I hung up my matchmaker hat for a less frustrating job of parenting my teens, tween and tot. At least, I spoke their language.

Today, I think I finally get that feeling that as a young married woman I could never understand. That one emotion in mere seconds the over 35 Singles always quoted me as I rolled my eyes (inward of course, never outward) – that Spark.

I have been looking for a house for nearly 2 years. I already live in a very beautiful, warm and cozy home. But, with the six of us and nearly 20 years of ‘stuff’ we are squished and ready to upgrade. I have dated many a home. At this point, I would say I have likely seen, perused on-line profiles and nearly gotten engaged to 50 homes. But, not one of them gave me the ‘Spark’.

In the beginning I did the same thing. Look up the profile of the home. Create a very perfect looking list of my Must Haves and look for little ‘cracks’ in the façade that may be costly to repair later. I would look in person convincing myself I could make it work. Then as days went by little by little my impression of the home grew worse and eventually we’d break it off.

As I entered a full year of looking at homes, I became less picky – or so I thought. If I am upgrading to my Forever Home, he better have everything I’m looking for. But, perhaps it was taking so long because I was only looking for perfection and it was time to be flexible. So, I decided to open my mind to potential for perfection, not perfection itself. Be realistic with my budget and start focusing on what was sensible, not necessarily absolute.

New homes potential opened themselves up to me. I would again, excite at the possibilities that lay before me, but again over time the investment in something that needed so much work did not seem worth the effort.

My Ah-Hah Moment had arrived, Ms. Oprah.

I now understand and instantly connected with my Singles. I saw many of their faces and remembered many of our conversations running through my mind. As we grow older, more firm in who we are as a person, it becomes so entirely difficult to imagine investing in something that needs so much work. We are oh, so much more willing to see something imperfect as perfect for me when we are young, naïve and innocent. As we know more want want, who we want, it becomes harder to find them.

I was never more grateful for my current home (which we have invested much money and love over the years) and for my current husband (same). Singles. Please forgive my ignorance back then. I apologize profusely for being too dumb to ‘get it’.

My wish to you and to myself is that we can find what is perfect for ourselves, not something that is perfect in and of itself. That we can open up to new challenges and possibilities to find that both time and investment of love and patience breeds something special, innately ours and full of joy.

Remembering the Past & Living in The Present

I am honored to have guest poster Gavi Kutliroff today.

Tonight begins the commemoration of Yom Hashoah or Holocaust Remembrance Day. This is a day full of heightened emotion, as we commemorate those who perished in the Holocaust and show both honor & gratitude for the stories shared by  those Survivors who are still with us today.  This post is a reflection on time spent in Summer 2013 with NCSY’s JOLT program, where Gavi visited the death camps in Poland and bore witness to the horrors of our history and the unbreakable resilience of our Jewish nation. 

Instinctively, I reach into my pocket, groping in absentminded desperation for a pebble. It is almost perfectly rectangular, milky white (aside from some smudges of seventy-year-old dirt), and gone.

I am stingingly reminded that I lost it on the Israel leg of my summer program, three weeks after I picked it up off the earthen ground of the death camp Majdanek in Poland. For a moment I slip from reality. I am once again in a bubble of silence, impenetrable and supremely unnerving; filled with sites not inherently wicked themselves, but whose floors are wet with innocent blood and haunted by purposeless souls; caught between decades and cultures and wars.

I conjure images of “Schindler’s List,” guilty of my association of Hollywood with a remnant of the Holocaust but unable to banish sights of barefoot, skeletal figures trekking across the same stones from which I drew my pebble.

I am not superstitious—on the contrary, I am an intellectual skeptic—but something about the rock attracted me in a way I cannot confine to words. For the remainder of Poland, and in the following weeks in Denmark and Israel, I would fidget around in my pocket for it during prayer, or periods of religious and philosophical doubt, or simply out of habit. It became not only a reminder of the reality of the trip, but a memento of an experience I do not hope to ever repeat; a transformative and evolutionary experience, yes, but one far too emotionally overwhelming to undergo twice.

In my fingers, the pebble is purpose. It is my self-imposed duty to ancestors whose destinies were ripped from them—to allow them to achieve that purpose vicariously through me; it is God and nature and love and hate and good and evil and the lack of all of those things. It is my awe-inspired respect of my tour guide for walking through this hell annually and voluntarily. And among a month’s worth of supplies in a crowded hotel room three weeks later, it is lost.

Suddenly, the unconscious search in my pocket transforms absentminded habit into panicked desperation. The trip never happened. The Holocaust never happened. I cease to exist as a Jew and as a philosophically thinking person, as a member of a nation and the human race. My purpose and reality is lost, and I with them. I force my breathing into the slower, paced manner meditation taught me, dissipating my panic, I and incur what I have always believed to be the benefit of anxiety—the ability to step outside myself and psychoanalyze.

Emotion surrenders to intellect. In some perverse fashion, I realize, the pebble is comfort. It creates an encompassing atmosphere that actually feels like home—not because of where it is from, but because of what it represents. The world slows down as I realize that a memory is enough. The pebble is not my home, not my place of true comfort, although I once naively believed it to be; my nation is my place of true comfort.

My purpose is my home, and that is forever portable and will never be lost.

Turning 40 and Figuring it Out

I am in an overwhelming state of flux and I don’t deal well with unknown.

I am deciding between pinching pennies and purchasing a larger home or living through the hell and unexpected expense of an addition to expand our already cramped living space.

I am waiting for my husband to decide if he remains at his company of nearly 20 years, or take on a position in a new company and start ‘fresh’.

I am waiting for my son determine between one excellent college over another excellent college, neither of which are even close to where we live and both cost an arm, a leg and a faraway son.

I am preparing said son to venture off halfway across the world to live abroad for 10 months.

I am dealing with the fact that this is the last year my baby will ever be in preschool. My next in line enters middle school, my oldest daughter – a sophomore in high school.

And then, to top it all off – I am turning 40 in less than 3 months and not feeling quite so fabulous.

Needless to say, I have been an emotional roller-coaster of tears, joy, tears, excitement, tears, fear and then of course, some tears. I have burst at any given moment for no reason at all, leaving my poor husband at loss for holding me or giving me space -whatever I yell first.

Nothing prepares a mother for the eventual reality that her children are growing up. You create an environment full of love, life and opportunities hoping one day, they will live on their own. But, that one day is supposed to happen long after you’re ready and far after I’m 40.

40.

Just the number feels large and overwhelming. I don’t know what it is about them, as I never feared it before – but now 40 just feels so darn old. Like, I am supposed to have more ‘figured out’ by now. Like I am supposed to be hot and fit and look way younger than my years. And, well – I just don’t have it all figured out and I am not hot and fit. Blargh.

I recently read an article that asked other’s for tales from the ‘other side’ of 40. I think I will do the same. I need to hear that life isn’t so bad with grown up kids. That life can figure itself out. That finding meaning after my mid-life crisis will become simple and obvious. That saying goodbye to a family of 6 on a daily basis is not so bad. That my tears will end and my reality become much easier to handle. That I will adjust and change and grow and my unknowns will eventually reveal themselves and all will be calm again in my world.

So, do tell ladies and gentlemen. Do tell….

 

« Previous PageNext Page »