Friday, July 13, 2007

What Comes Naturally

    Let me give you a personal example. I am not bragging about myself, but I cannot draw on the experience of someone else. I have to draw on my own experience. I was very envious as a child, very envious. I was envious of my friends, because I was not a bright child. It is true. Some called me stupid. This impression was created because I was intellectually honest. I would declare that I did not understand a topic when I did not truly understand it. I was very envious of another child in the heder, who was reputed to know one hundred pages of the Talmud by heart. In truth he was a faker, "Izak the faker." I was terribly envious of him. I remember my father called me in once and told me that envy is a middah megunah, a deplorable trait, a bad habit. This emotional enemy is known as lo tachmod, "you shall not covet" [Exodus 20:14] and lo titaveh, "you shall not desire" [Deuteronomy 5:18]. These emotions have been forbidden by the Torah.

    I began to train myself to overcome it, and I succeeded. Now there is no kinah, no envy, in my heart. I mean, I am bad enough, but there is no envy in my heart. On the contrary, I rejoice in the success of my fellow man. The Torah demands from man a disciplined innner life. On the contrary, we know of constructive cathartic emotions, such as sympathy, love, and gratitude, which should be integrated into one's personality. One has freedom not only to control his physical acts but also to control his emotional life.

    ~The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Volume 2, page 192

There are certain talents, skills or good character traits that come naturally to us.

We do not work on them; we do not need to develop them. They are simply there, given to us, a gift. We are happy to have them and glad of them, but they are not difficult for us to attain. We do not have to struggle to achieve them.

The compliments we receive about these skills do not matter much to us. We are glad that people appreciate our work or who we are, yes, but we cannot take the credit for it. A simple and very nonthreatening example: I am able to type/write fast. I have done nothing in order to develop that skill. I was simply born with the ability. Now, I appreciate the fact that people are glad of this ability of mine, but your compliments do not really touch me, because I have nothing to be proud of. I did not develop or work on this skill; I have always had it; it is something that comes naturally to me.

I'll tell you what truly matters to me, and what I have found matters to everyone- when you receive a compliment about doing something that is difficult for you. When you have to struggle with yourself in order to act in a certain way and you do so despite the fact that this does not come naturally to you, this is not in your nature at all.

The greatest compliment one could ever receive would come from a truthful person whom you respect and admire, whose compliment comes unbidden (you in no way hinted at it or asked for it) and whose standards are very high. And his compliment would be about something that is difficult for you to do, something that is very hard for you. This compliment would mean the world to you and you would treasure it for a very long time.

When I speak in this vein, I refer primarily to character traits. In other areas, I think one should play to one's strengths. It does not make sense for me to pursue a career in mathematics simply because math is difficult for me. But it does make sense for me to work on my character traits and try to develop better ones, even though certain abilities do not come naturally to me and are very difficult for me.

The only problem is when you fake this so well that nobody notices. What now? If you're the kind of person who believes in the currency of compliments, awards and praise and now you've been neglected, how to react? I will give you a personal example.

There are some of you who know I attended Summer@YU. What you do not know is how I behaved there. My sister Dustfinger is the chesed person in my family. She is always available, always ready to help, involved with communal affairs and with the problems of other people. I am not like this at all. It is not in my nature to be concerned about others; I am only concerned with individuals, and exceptional individuals at that. It is difficult for me to expend lots of time and energy concentrating on an entire group of people.

I will tell you a secret. I completely changed my outward personality during that one summer. I decided that nobody knew me there and therefore I had the opportunity to start over, to be exactly as I wanted to be. I was the epitome of the chesed personality. Those of you who know me will be surprised by this. But it is true. Anything and everything that needed to be done, I did. I set the tables all the time, even when it was someone else's task, I volunteered for every duty or activity; I helped people out with various problems and made sure to deliberately brighten their day. I was a kinder, better Chana. It was very hard. Like I said, none of this came naturally to me. I am not naturally considerate, caring or patient. I was all of these things during the space of one summer. I worked very hard at it. I had an excellent summer and I was very proud of myself.

But, being me, I wanted to work for a reward. This is what motivates me, after all, rewards, prizes and compliments. So I'll tell you what I really wanted. I wanted the Camper of the Summer award.

I figured I deserved it, after all. I had been so good. I had done so much.

I didn't get the award.

In fact, the award I got was a joke award, the kind of thing that infuriates me because it suggests that nobody has the faintest idea what I'm about which is why they had to tack on some stupid joke and hope it summed me up. [1]

Now, for those of you who are adults, please try to think of this from the perspective of a high-schooler. It is quite possibly difficult for you. But please understand that an award in my mind was not merely a piece of paper but an award. It was a big deal. The entire reason I had invested so much effort into this summer and into being such a good person was for that award.

So how did I react? I was upset, naturally. In fact, I was crying. And I hated myself for crying and for being jealous of the girl who did get the award and did my best to convince myself that she had deserved it. And I was pretty miserable the rest of that evening even though I did my best to fake my way through it. So I sat on the bus upset with myself, trying to force down this ugly feeling of jealousy and trying to persuade myself that the other girl was much better than I was.

The fact is, of course, that my motives were not pure when it came to being good, and we all know that "he who runs after greatness, greatness will run from him." The other girl was naturally good; she didn't even need to think before helping others, and so of course she deserved the award.

But what I realized later, after benefiting from the words of those wiser from me, was how could they know? How could they know how difficult it was for me to do all the things I had done that summer, how could they know that it is not in my nature to reach out to other people or notice them or otherwise draw them in, to listen patiently to them as they tell over their stories, to volunteer to help out when in truth all I wanted to do was keep to myself? How could they know how hard it was for me not to be selfish, for me to give of my time or energy when I usually guard it so jealously? They only knew me for the space of one summer. For all they knew, that's what I was like all the time.

And I was thinking about all of us and all of you. About people in general.

Sometimes we fake it so well that nobody notices. The things that are so difficult for us, that are so hard for us to do, others assume come naturally to us. They think we're such good people and we're the only ones who know we aren't really.

So this is what I'd like to tell you: don't stop. Don't give up on this. Don't give up and think that nobody notices, nobody cares, nobody recognizes how hard I'm fighting, nobody even sees the slightest difference in the way I act. People usually don't look that hard. It is my fault for not looking that hard and I apologize for not seeing.

And sometimes you are just doing this so well that we can't notice; we don't even realize this is hard for you.

I so admire people who struggle with themselves, who try to subdue their feelings of hatred or anger or jealousy in favor of a more balanced approach. Whoever you are and whatever you're doing, I know how hard it is to fight what is natural to you, your natural response or personality traits, and to try to subdue them in favor of a kinder mode of behavior.

So I'd like to compliment you. I'd like to compliment you on doing something unnatural for you, doing something very difficult for you, keeping your temper when all you want to do is explode, refraining from voicing the nasty comment on the tip of your tongue, standing patiently by and listening to someone talk even though all you want to do is give them a piece of your mind. It is so hard to do that. And it is even harder when no one notices, when no one seems to recognize the effort you're making.

And I want to say thank you. Thank you from all of us, from the many people in the world who benefit from your kindness and thoughtfulness and considerate nature and haven't the faintest idea of how difficult this is for you. Thank you so much.

As Dumbledore tells Harry, "It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities."

I was not born a good person.
But I can choose to be a good person.

And that makes all the difference.

[1] On the off chance that you're one of my counselors and reading this post, please understand that I forgave you long ago (if indeed there was anything to forgive you for) and learned quite a lot from this experience. So no worries.


Anonymous said...

Thank you. I needed this. I really, really did.

Anonymous said...

"I was not born a good person.
But I can choose to be a good person."

Interesting, you choose the Novordok (as apposed to Slabodka) mehalech to life.

Chana said...


You're so welcome.


You very much misunderstand Novordok if you think that's the case. I'm not going in for tattered clothes, self-negation or the complete effacement of a person.

I simply don't believe in the fairytale idea that we are born good or perfect to begin with. What we are is based on how we were raised, our upbringing and environment, but also our own personal choices and what we do with our lives.

If we were born naturally good or perfect, there would be no point to living. Where would the struggle be? Where the meaning?

We are born with some good qualities and some bad; the transformation of the bad qualities into good, or channeling them for the good, that is important. David and Goliath were born under the same red star and shared the same personality; they chose to use their talents differently.

There is nothing of Novordok in me. Novordok teaches guilt. I don't believe in guilt as a teaching method.

Erachet said...

"I was not born a good person.
But I can choose to be a good person."

Oh gosh. I can't resist. As much as Harry Potter isn't your favorite set of books out there, I'm going to quote Dumbledore and say, "It is our choices who make us who we are, Harry."

I honestly think that's a huge, major theme of the Harry Potter books. Choice. And it's a huge part of real life, as well. We are born a clean, blank slate. We color our life with choices and those choices lead us down different paths.

And Robert Frost says the same thing:

" I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference."

Yay for making choices!

Chana said...

Sweetheart, you did see I quoted Harry Potter in the post, yes?

Erachet said...

Ooh, I must have missed that! *Goes to read again*

Erachet said...

As Dumbledore tells Harry, "It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities I see :) How silly of me to have missed it!

Anonymous said...

"If we were born naturally good or perfect"

Good and perfect are two very diferent starting points.

Anonymous said...

"You very much misunderstand Novordok if you think that's the case."

More likely that I am misunderstanding you.

Scraps said...

It's true, that often people perceive us as what we pretend to be, rather than what we are. Just to give a more superficial example: A lot of people think I must be an extrovert, because I can make conversation with just about anyone and I know so many people, but what most of them don't know is that I forced myself to be that way, and when push comes to shove I'm still shy and quiet. I used to be painfully shy (I'd hide in the bathroom on NCSY Shabbatons when I was young!), and very socially awkward into the bargain, but I realized that if I never got out there and tried to be a social person I'd never have any friends. It doesn't come naturally to me to be uber-social (and usually now I don't force myself because I've found a happy medium), but I had to force myself to be that way for awhile so I could come out of my shell.

Rebecca said...

Chana, this is one of the most beautiful posts I've seen from you. It might even be my personal favorite. Thank you. :-)

Ezzie said...

Again, with G, and this time, Erachet (and the post).

I'd go with Slabodka - I was not born perfect, but I was born good. Now I need to make the choices necessary to become *better*.

Your post implies Novordok, in that you weren't even born good, but must choose to even be good. I think you would actually go with the Slobodka lines I just wrote above, though.

Unless you mean to try to pick a spot in between - you were born neither good or bad but with equal tendencies toward either, and you choose to be good rather than bad. You can do this, but I wouldn't believe it. I think that that's closer to Slobodka, anyway, but they're calling neither as 'good'.

Ezzie said...


I think that's the point we were discussing earlier - that change is not what everyone else perceives as change, but what you yourself actually change. That they don't see it is fine; but meanwhile, you've changed at least your small corner of the world - you, anyone around you, anyone affected by what you did. Right in line with R' Salanter's quote which you hate. :)

Anonymous said...

I LOVED this post, and couldn't agree more! Kol Hakavod to you!

Irina Tsukerman said...

Very good point.

Personally, I don't believe people are born as either good or bad. They are not a blank slate either... they have inclinations, genetic, familial, etc... but there are also so many environmental factors and influences, that in the end, it is indeed up to individual choice to struggle with those inclinations and to manage them and work with them and choose one's actions.

Scraps: That's another way our twinness (or octupleness!) comes out - I'm exactly the same way, although by now, hardly anyone can tell!