Susan Elkodsi — Rosh Hashanah 2016
Donald Winnicott was an English pediatrician and psychoanalyst who promoted the concept of the “good enough mother,” or “good enough parent” in order to provide support for what he called “the sound instincts of normal parents [to create] stable and healthy families.”
Simply stated, he felt that the rise of experts in the field of parenting and child care was eroding parents’ confidence in their ability to raise their children; and suggesting that they weren’t doing the job well enough. Winnicott’s goal was to defend parents against what he saw as the growing threat of intrusion into the family from professional expertise and to stress the actual nurturing environment provided by the parents.
I’d love to know where this guy was when I was a new parent! Winnicott began his career in the 1920s, when the industrial revolution had already had a significant impact on family life in his native England and here in the US. When we mostly lived in agricultural societies, with extended family close by, we had built-in expert advice. We didn’t need to worry about our children’s self-esteem or whether or not they had the latest and greatest toys and clothing. For better or worse, parents learned how to be parents from their own personal experiences, not from books and so-called, often self-proclaimed, “experts.”
If someone had told me about the concept of being a “good enough parent” a long time ago, it would have saved me a lot of aggravation and worry. I wanted to do everything right. My son wasn’t in front of a television until he was a year old. I used cloth diapers and read everything I could find about babies and how to be a good mother. What I really wanted to be was a perfect mother. I wanted to live up to my expectations of what a mother should do and be, and to what I thought were my parents’ expectations. I’m not sure whose were higher.
You may have heard of Dr. Stanley Turecki, who wrote the book “The Difficult Child”. To make a long story short, I had called his office looking for information about a book he had reviewed, and out of curiosity, asked how much he charged to speak, thinking that perhaps the synagogue nursery school could invite him for a program. I was given a number, and after I picked myself up off the floor, I said “thank you,” and hung up.
Imagine my sheer panic a few weeks later when a man with a lovely accent called and introduced himself as Dr. Stanley Turecki. I figured someone had ratted me out! He was calling to offer to significantly lower his fee, and we did have him come and speak.
I didn’t learn this until many years later, but when I was 8 years old I was diagnosed as a perfectionist. I don’t think I could even spell the word back then. And with all the advances in medical science, they still don’t have a pill for that; they probably never will. I don’t think anyone will ever develop a medication that makes people’s expectations of themselves more reasonable and reachable. Even if they figured out a way to bottle practice, it would still only lead – hopefully – to better, not to perfect. Comedian Steven Wright quips, “My teacher said ‘practice makes perfect.’ Then she said, ‘no one’s perfect.’ So I stopped practicing.”
Sometimes, practice leads to frustration. Sometimes, no matter how hard we try, no matter how much time we put into something, it just isn’t going to work for us. The idea that anything is possible if we put our minds to it just isn’t true. I can think of plenty of things that fall into that category for me, such as winning the New York City Marathon, or going to medical school. If I put my mind to it, I could probably write a novel, but whether or not it becomes a best-seller is beyond my control.
So what does this mean? I think it means I need to learn to live with and accept the fact that I won’t do things perfectly. I need to give up the pursuit for perfection. I think we all do. It doesn’t mean we don’t try our hardest, or do our best, or strive to perfect a craft or sport or other activity. It does mean that we understand that we can’t be all things to all people, the best of the best, coming in first in everything we do.
We all know people who appear to be terrific at everything, and it’s really rather annoying. Those people are often likeable, which makes it even more problematic. It’s human nature to want to find that person’s Achilles’ heel, and sometimes it seems as though they don’t have one. What we don’t know, however, is what goes on in their minds, or that they stay awake at night worrying that their carefully constructed house of cards might come crashing down
Wanting to continually improve is something we should all do, and Rosh Hashanah is a perfect time to think about this. When we engage in the practice of teshuva, which usually gets translated as “repentance,” we think of atonement; of apologizing to people we may have hurt and asking for their forgiveness. Like resolutions we make for the secular new year, we think about how we can turn over a new leaf and do better in the coming year, especially once the shofar has blown ending the fast on Yom Kippur.
The Talmud teaches that “Everyone is responsible to be as great as Moses.” But at the end of the Torah we read, lo kam navi od b’yisrael k’moshe, “never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses.” The Talmud interprets this to mean that “no one will ever be as great as Moses!” So how can I be expected to be as great as Moses, if no one will ever be as great as Moses?! Now we know why God created therapists!
One way of understanding this is a Chassidic story about a well-known, beloved and scholarly rabbi named Zusia whose students found him crying on his deathbed. They asked him, “Rebbe, why are you so sad? After all the mitzvahs and good deeds you have done, you will surely get a great reward in heaven!”
“I’m afraid!” said Zusia, “that when I get to heaven, God won’t ask me ‘Why weren’t you more like Moses?’ or ‘Why weren’t you more like King David?’ I’m afraid that God will ask ‘Zusia, why weren’t you more like Zusia?’ And then what will I say?!”
The point of this story is to teach is that just as Moses fulfilled his own personal potential, so too we are expected to fulfill ours. Based on my understanding of the text, I’m not sure that Moses or King David reached their potential, but I have a strong feeling that when Zusia met God, he sailed through the intake process for Heaven.
This might sound like a great note on which to end, but I’m not going to just yet. I am going to challenge each and every one of you, and include myself in this, to consider what it means to fulfill our potential. Potential is an interesting word. According to dictionary dot com, it can mean “possible,” or it can mean “capable.” What if we call it a “possible capability”?
We all have things we want to try, places we want to go, goals we’d like to achieve … but not everything is within our control, stuff happens. Time, money, things and people get in the way. Especially people. And especially ourselves. Whether it’s negative self-talk or internalizing things parents or teachers may have said, it holds us back. I’m not going to tell you have to fix that, because I can’t. But I can tell you that realizing one’s potential often involves changing the cassette tape playing in our heads to something more positive and affirming, and as we begin the new year, the process of teshuva, of turning around, or “repenting,” needs to begin with how we treat ourselves, not just other people.
Some of you know that I’m a serial knitter, and about a year and a half ago, an offhand comment to a rabbi friend resulted in her giving me a spinning wheel she hadn’t used in 30 years. My yarn obsession became my fiber obsession. I called many of my first yarns “art yarns.” Ok, all of my first yarns, and even some of the ones I spin now.
I learned very quickly, with the help of online and real-life spinning buddies, that this was a normal part of the learning curve and that I could – and should – be proud of the yarn I was producing. Knowing that unless I was entering a contest, I wasn’t being graded, and there are no spinning police. I haven’t spun a perfect yarn or a yarn that’s even close to consistently perfect. I don’t know that I’ve ever knit a perfect sweater or scarf, and I’ve learned that it’s okay. Letting go of the need for perfection is extremely liberating. Perfection is a goal, not a requirement.
Needing to be perfect, or to do things perfectly, takes up an awful lot of psychic energy that could be used for much better purposes. A desire for perfection can be paralyzing; we’re so worried that we won’t do something “just right” that we don’t get started. We become overwhelmed. We lose out, we deprecate ourselves, and the vicious cycle continues.
Learning to spin yarn, and deciding that the end result was good enough, and often pretty darn good, has allowed me to relax and enjoy the process of spinning yarn, rather than scrutinizing every inch. Learning to let go of the need to spin a perfect yarn has helped in other areas, such as writing sermons and divrei torah. Of course I want this year’s High Holy Day sermons to be better and more inspiring than last year’s, and hopefully they will be. If not, I can try again next year and then perhaps we’ll take the best two out of three. This might surprise you, but I haven’t been a perfect wife or perfect parent. There are a couple of people sitting in this room who will attest to that, but I hope they’ll also say that I was good enough, and that good enough was pretty darn good.
Today, we began the Aseret Yimei Teshuva, The 10 days of Repentance, the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe. Hopefully, we’ve made amends for past wrongs and have made commitments to improving in the coming year. A friend recently told me a story about the last in-person conversation he had with his father, and he gave me permission to tell it. He said that his father had always been obese, and my friend had recently lost 50 pounds on Weight Watchers. When he saw his father during that visit, he said something to the effect of, “Now that I’ve lost all this weight, I can forgive you for not being a good model for me.” His father said, “If only I could forgive myself.”
Forgiving others, even forgiving God if we need to, isn’t really so hard. I assume that God forgives us, although receiving forgiveness from other people is largely beyond our control. The hardest thing is to forgive ourselves. Our tradition teaches that a person should carry two pieces of paper. One should say, “I am but dust.” The other says, “The world was created for my benefit.” The idea is that when someone is feeling down, beating him or herself up for something, he or she should pull out the second piece of paper and read it. And if we get too full of ourselves, “I am dust.”
Next week we’ll spend a lot of time with our hands over our hearts beating ourselves as we recite the litany of sins that make up the confessional called the Ashamnu. Rabbi Avi Weiss, one of today’s great leaders in the modern Orthodox world, wrote at alternative Ashamnu that each of us can say to remind ourselves of everything we did right during the past year. How did he know what I was going to talk about today? Over the next 10 days, I invite you to read the copy of this Ashamnu as we head into Yom Kippur, and to reflect on its words and intentions.
During this coming year of 5777, may our thoughts and efforts be directed toward allowing ourselves to be fully present in the world, to accept ourselves the way others accept us, warts and all. May we allow ourselves to be “good enough” in what we do, and know that “good enough,” is a lot better than we might think.
Shana Tova tikateivu v’taychataymu, May we be inscribed and sealed for a year and life of health, happiness, blessing and prosperity, along with peace in ourselves and peace for the world.