Why Nothing Makes You Happy

February 25, 2014



Am I the only person who experiences approach-avoidance conflict before hitting the SUBMIT button?

There’s a certain something that happens to me rather routinely that I call Spread Sheet Syndrome. Here’s what it is:

I live in a community where everyone is committed to taking care of everyone else. Really. Whether it’s for a new baby or a bris, or G-d forbid the other stuff, everyone pitches in for one another, even if it’s only in a small way, to make life cycle events smoother for everyone.

Facilitating this process is the email everyone gets containing the ubiquitous spread sheet, asking people to sign up to help make food for the particular family that needs it.

Knowing that it’s a nice thing to do, I try to sign up whenever possible, regardless of who the family is. But, I’ve also learned the importance of getting through this process as quickly as possible. It’s really not my business who signed up to make what or why the family doesn’t eat wheat.

So, I try to get on and get out, but even this can be complicated. A commitment to do for others can feel like an unnecessary responsibility. If I don’t make the gefilte fish, someone else surely will. What if there’s another crazy snowstorm and I can’t get to the store? Come on now. I have gefilte fish in my freezer. I can do this. Be nice. Just sign up for the fish!

Classic approach-avoidance conflict.

But I know I want to sign up, so I start to do it. I type in my name next to gefilte fish. It really is just the idea of doing something for someone else. Then just as I’m ready to hit SUBMIT, that little voice makes one last attempt, and if I don’t hit it fast, the voice tries its favorite line:  Why are you doing this for them?

But I know that voice is the yetzer hara (my friendly little ego that loves me to a fault), but because I have heard it so many times when I try to do something nice for someone else, I recognize it and ignore it.

And I hit submit. As I do, I feel a slight thrill of victory, and I slowly exhale. I’m on and I’m in, even if there’s a snowstorm, even if I discover there’s no gefilte fish in my freezer.

Many years ago, I learned about the quality of bittul, which usually translates into words like self-nullification, self-abnegation or humility, words that didn’t even sound very Jewish to my untrained ear. I was wise to recognize that this was the jewel in the Jewish crown, exactly what we are to strive to attain, but foolish to think it was easy to do.

After all, I love my “I” or at least part of it.  I still contend if that “I” hadn’t had so much awareness of myself and my lack of spiritual fulfillment, I would never have agreed to hit submit and undergo such a drastic lifestyle change. I would have been happy enough, but I wasn’t. It was a very big “I” and it needed more.

So this extremely-preoccupied-with-itself “I” understood that the only way to find true happiness (my inalienable right, right?) was to keep Torah and mitzvos.

Fair enough. Then I’ll be happy?

Uh, not quite. I started hearing that it wasn’t just about doing, it was also about being.

All the doing is supposed to change the being, so that our existence is aware of itself (I got that part), yet completely bound up with its Creator in each and every aspect of that existence (what??).

Wait a second. I’m supposed to try to totally self-transcend into a something/nothing so that I everything I am, have, or desire is only for G-d?  This is much harder for an “I” like mine to do.

But, it’s my Divine mission nonetheless. And G-d does not ask more of us than we are able to do. Just as He is unlimited, we have the ability to be unlimited. We can be everything and nothing, and something in between, all at the same time. Every day we have to hit submit and we’re on our way to loving what He loves (anyone need gefilte fish?) and loathing what He loathes (the feeling of separateness from Him, right down to the gefilte fish).

Chasidic wisdom teaches that we should all live as if we carry two pieces of paper, one in each pocket. On one paper should be written, “I am nothing but ashes and dust” and on the other, “the whole world was created for me,” for both of these sayings are correct. The key to true happiness, the saying continues, is to master the understanding of when to pull out which paper.

I’m still working on it, and very happy about that.




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