We all know that Yom Kippur is coming and that we have to atone for our mistakes of the past year and resolve not to commit the same ones in the year to come. We all know it. I’ve had a whole life of Yom Kippur experiences and resolutions. So why does my list of mistakes this year look eerily like my list from last year?
Maybe I’m just not good at this teshuva, this repentance and return thing. Maybe I should just focus on my strengths!
Of course this can’t be the answer since we all have an obligation to make amends. So what went wrong? That’s probably a list in and of itself but I’m going to narrow it down. I think it begins with unrealistic expectations. We say that full teshuva occurs when we are put in the same situation as before and yet we behave differently.
Although that doesn’t sound so difficult, it’s actually where the challenge really lies. Because we are creatures of habit. And even though we know it doesn’t work, we frequently resort to familiar behavior. This is a particular challenge in marriage therapy where couples return again and again to destructive behaviors and attitudes, even though they have been damaging or at best ineffective in the past.
And our habits only change if we make a concrete decision to change them. This begins with changing our expectations. We somehow think that this time will be different. On a very trivial level, I have been working for a particular organization for many years now. They don’t pay me on an exact date (especially since the check is literally in the mail!) but within a 2 to 2-1/2 week range. Nevertheless, and despite the fact that this has always been the case, I continue to expect my paycheck on the first of the month, and even worse, I continue to be frustrated when it doesn’t arrive! This is called self-destructive behavior. This is called unrealistic expectations. This is not a recipe for personal growth.
Think about your own life. Do you expect your son to make his bed every morning even though your expectations have never been met? Do you continue to experience frustration over this fact? Do you expect your husband to take out the garbage before he leaves in the morning even though he almost never remembers? And even though you almost never remind him, are you still repeatedly frustrated? We are setting ourselves up for failure in the character department.
If we truly want to grow and change, we have to anticipate these familiar scenarios and plan ahead to have a different reaction. We have to stop having expectations that are based in fantasy and deal with the actual situation before us. We have to strategize.
I can see the wheels turning. I can imagine already the bed-making chart and the purchase of gold stars with the promise of a bigger reward at the end of the week/month. But, while that may be an effective tool for behavior change in your son, the focus is wrong. It’s not his behavior that we are working on right now, it’s ours. We are not trying to get our way, to have everyone behave exactly as expected. Not only will that never happen but that’s not true success.
Success is not about the behavior of others; it’s about us. It’s about how we react to these challenges. Can I take a deep breath and just ignore the messy bed? Can I perhaps make it myself? Can I at least wait until I calm down and make sure it’s in his best interests before I make that chart? Can I react calmly when I see that overflowing bag of garbage in the middle of my kitchen? Can I not jump on my husband the minute he walks in the door (or mention it on the phone before that!)? Can I take it out myself or leave it be and then ask that he perform an act of kindness for me? Can I work on being grateful instead of annoyed? Can I reconcile myself to the fact that life isn’t orderly, that paychecks don’t always come on time and plan accordingly – both financially and psychologically?
Real growth is when we head these potentially volatile situations off at the pass, when we don’t respond with our usual negative pattern to these familiar, repetitive scenarios. We are never going to eliminate frustrating situations from our lives. It’s the nature of the world. We can’t control the circumstances or the behavior of others.
The only thing that is actually in our power is how we respond to them. That’s our opportunity. That’s our growth. That’s what we can change on Yom Kippur.
I don’t know about you but I’ve really had enough of seeing these same line items on my Yom Kippur to-do list. I’m ready for a change. I’m ready to plan ahead. I’m ready to try something new. This Yom Kippur I’m going to ask the Almighty to help me see each of these frustration situations with new eyes and new plans. And I’m going to ask Him to help me succeed.