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Redefining Success

09/17/2021 11:48:41 AM


How do we bounce back this year?  How do we practice resilience so we can overcome the obstacles in our way?  One answer I would like to propose is that we reevaluate our focus on what it means to be successful. Success should be the experience of satisfaction in accomplishing a goal.  When we are successful, are we often still dissatisfied?  If we do not feel satisfaction, then perhaps we are doing something wrong and we may need to reevaluate our definitions of success and productivity.  

What makes an adventure a success?

What makes a year a success?

What makes a life a success?  

Says who?  

Are the definitions of success we carry around our own or somebody else’s?

Perhaps our ideas of success line up with what we were taught or told.  On the other hand, we could discover that what we were told or thought was success, is in fact someone else’s idea of success, not our own.

To determine what success is for us we need to listen to our feelings, not just our thoughts.  

Our thoughts often distort the truth.  

Our thoughts, while trying to be helpful, will often tell us to simply cope with displeasure.  

Our thoughts often tell us to ignore what our feelings are telling us. 

Sometimes our thoughts are surely helpful.  They temper disappointment. Often however, our thoughts can sometimes prove to be counterproductive to well-being and success.  We might know or think we are successful, but do we feel it?  This year, whether we are locked in our homes or climbing Kilimanjaro, we should strive to learn to sim lev, direct our heart, to our feelings.

To do this, I would suggest we focus on the sensation of satisfaction.  In the birkat Hamazon, the grace after meals, we recite the words ahcalta v savatah: You shall eat, and you shall be satisfied.  

The Rabbis understood this literally -- that after we eat food we should be satiated.  However, this commandment extends far beyond food.    

The sights and ideas we consume with our eyes when we see.  

The smells and feelings we ingest when we breath in through our noses.  

The objects and people we feel when we touch.  

Through all these actions, we should seek satisfaction.

What should I be consuming to be truly satisfied?

For a long time, humanity thought satisfaction would come from being the biggest or being the best.  However, each time someone has achieved being the biggest or the best they often still feel wanting.  Their race to the sky or to own the biggest tv or sound system brings a fleeting happiness.  We convinced ourselves that using the external markers of largess would validate our internal sense of self.  However, this is rarely the case even in the moment and never permits permanent satisfaction.

In the story of the tower of Babel, the people of the world attempt to construct a tower to God.  In the end, they are thwarted by God who causes them to speak different languages.  In doing this God was trying to teach people to not focus on the heavens to find satisfaction, but to look to understanding each other as the true marker of success. 

When Alexander the Great conquered the known world at the age of 26, he had gone as far east as he could.  According to Hans Gruber in the movie Die Hard, citing an apocryphal quote, “Alexander looked out at the sea and lamented, “There are no more worlds to conquer”.”   While the quote might not be real, there is documentation of Alexander’s preoccupation with conquering lands and that act being tied to his sense of self-worth. There was much speculation about the cause of his death, and the most popular theories claim that he either contracted malaria or typhoid fever, or that he was poisoned.  But I think what killed Alexander was depression.  I think he sought fulfillment in external markers of success (namely conquest) and never found the feeling of self-satisfaction because he was looking in the wrong place.

He was looking at what other people had defined as success, at external markers of success, and not listening within to his own heart for what he found satisfying.  

It is hard to abandon how we think we ought to feel.

It is difficult to change how we think about who we ought to be.  

It is challenging to reevaluate how we think we ought to act.  

How many times have the voices of others thwarted our own inner light?

When we were children, we were told to listen the moment we were able to speak our feelings. Yet, the instructions of others have taught us to doubt our own feelings.  

Consider the medieval Jewish story of the simple shepherd. He didn't know how to read or write or say his prayers as Jewish tradition dictated. But he loved God and he chose to pray in his own words. He would tell God that he loved God so much that he, the shepherd, would care for God's sheep free of charge.  Or that if God was hungry, the shepherd would gladly share his radishes with God.  Or if God was hot God, could use the shepherd’s hat.

 A scholarly rabbi overheard the shepherd. Angry, the rabbi lectured the poor shepherd and told him he should recite “proper prayer” according to the rules and formulas of the Tradition. The rabbi then left. The shepherd did not understand the scholar as his lack of education made him unable to utter the assigned words of prayer. However, now thinking that his own prayers were no good, he stopped praying altogether. God though missed the sound and heartfelt content of the shepherd's voice and sent an Angel to investigate. The Angel told the shepherd that the scholar must never have heard the angels pray. The Angel carried the shepherd to heaven where he heard the angels praying using the shepherd’s own words.

If the shepherd had merely been able to trust his feelings, he would have continued to please God with the prayers of his heart. Instead, he adopted somebody else's definition for what was proper prayer. He moved from his heart to his mind and lost connection with God. 

How often does this happen to us where we get disconnected from ourselves due to the words of others, or the ideas of others, and stop trusting the feelings in our heart? We need to be like the shepherd at the beginning of the story who listened to his heart.

There is one thing the shepherd did not do that we need to do and that is have confidence in our own feelings. 

We need to trust that we are good people.

We need to trust that our feelings are right and correct.

We need to trust that we are doing good in the world regardless of what others say.

In Jewish tradition there is a word, “Hitkashrut,” that is instructive for us. The breath of hitkashrut we take at the beginning of services generally refers to attachment or connection with another.  “Hitkashrut is a relatedness of one's entire being to another's entire being, which does not necessarily have any grounding in the intellect… Hitkashrut can, in fact, defy logic and common sense at times”( Kabbalah Handbook: A Concise Encyclopedia of Terms and Concepts in Jewish Mysticism by Gabirella Samuel).

But Hitkashrut should not simply be understood as deep, nonintellectual connection to the other.  It should be understood as the reflexive verb it is.  The Hit beginning of the verb tells us this is something that we do to ourselves.  Therefore, Hitkashrut can also be understood as developing deep connection and trust in our selves.  Hitkashrut is achieved when we begin to trust our feelings as valid and accept them to tell us when we are actually satisfied.

Maimonides similarly warns us to not look outside to be satisfied but to figure out for ourselves to find what satisfies our heart. He teaches, “A person may have very strong desires, never satisfied; but another may have a very pure heart, not even desiring those few things that the body needs. A person may be very greedy, not satisfied by all the wealth in the world, as it is written, a lover of silver never has his fill of silver (Ecclesiastes 5:9). But another may have modest desires and is satisfied with the smallest thing even if it is not truly enough for him, and he will not bother himself to acquire what he needs. There is [the miser,] one who torments himself with hunger, gathering [his possessions] close to himself. Whenever he spends a penny of his own, he does so with great pain”.  Satisfaction is about quality of experience and things, not quantity. 

When we do this, success becomes the achievement of satisfaction.  John Wooden, the late all-time great coach of UCLA, correlates success with satisfaction. He says of success, “Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best you are capable of becoming.” 

Let this be a year where we make that effort.  A year where we work hard at becoming the best we can.  A year where we feed not only our stomachs, but our eyes and ears and mind.  Let this be a year of spiritual growth and consumption.  Let this year of 5782 be a year where we discard the external markers of satisfaction and redirect our hearts to experience hitkashrut, a reconnection of our feelings to our soul. Then we can truly say, “Achalti V Savati”, “I have consumed, and I am satisfied”.

G’mar hatimah tovah!

Sat, December 4 2021 30 Kislev 5782