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Musing for Meaning

Being Other-Centered

October 30, 2011

When I was twenty-three, I was hired as an adjunct lecturer at Brooklyn College to teach Composition. My only previous teaching experience had been with high-school seniors, and I wasn’t quite sure what I was in for.

The first day of class, I entered the room and quickly surmised that I was by far the youngest one there. And if I wasn’t, I certainly looked it. Being that Brooklyn College has a lot of returning students and students from around the world, the room was filled with every age, nationality, culture and religion you could imagine.

No one even noticed me standing at the deskFor the first minute, no one even noticed me standing at the desk. Then, when they did, they couldn’t believe I was their instructor. “Are you kidding me?” “She looks like she’s sixteen!”

Not a great start.

I introduced myself to rolling eyes, slouched bodies, heads on desks, and utter boredom and lack of interest about ten seconds into their very first class.

Then I told them to take out a piece of paper. On one side, they were supposed to write exactly how they were feeling at that moment. I told them to be honest. Brutally honest. Smiles appeared and pens moved.

Then I asked them to flip the paper over. On the other, they were to write exactly how they thought I was feeling at the moment.

And everything changed.

As soon as they had to think about me as a person—with feelings, with insecurities—it all shifted. If they were bored, I was nervous. If they didn’t want to be there, I was pressured to make them interested. If they didn’t think I looked old enough or experienced enough to do the job, I had to prove to them I was qualified. They quickly realized that as bad as they had it, I had it a lot worse. I was not the enemy . . . I was just standing on the other side of the room.

In this week’s Torah portion of Lech Lecha, we learn of Abraham needing to leave his home, to go out. Chassidic commentaries explain that we should understand lech, “go,” and then lecha, “to yourself,” as “Go and find yourself.” And how true that is. But I think there is another lesson as well. If we want to truly find ourselves, and truly connect with others, we need to go outside of ourselves while simultaneously letting others inside. In order to relate, we must feel.

In order to relate, we must feelThis is the difference between sympathy and empathy. If I sympathize with you, I feel sorry for you. Yet if I can empathize, I don’t just feel sorry for your pain, I feel your pain. It is a part of me. We are on the same team.

This is why the word for empathy in Hebrew is rachamim (and why the month of Elul is called chodesh harachamim, the month of empathy). The root of rachamim is rechem, which means “womb.” To understand you, to relate to you, to have a relationship with you, I need to be able to put you at my center. To be other-centered when needed to feel what you feel, think as you think.

It’s not necessarily easy. But it works. Trust me.

(And to all my teachers at whom I rolled my eyes, in front of whom I passed notes, and behind whose backs I did worse . . . I am truly sorry!)

Sara Esther Crispe, a writer, inspirational speaker and mother of four, is the co-director of Interinclusion, a nonprofit multi-layered educational initiative celebrating the convergence between contemporary arts and sciences and timeless Jewish wisdom. Prior to that she was the editor of TheJewishWoman.org, and wrote the popular weekly blog Musing for Meaning. To book Sara Esther for a speaking engagement, please click here.

My Teacher, the Abuser

October 23, 2011

I’m not really sure how to come to terms with what I just found out. Not only can’t I stomach the details, but it leaves me confused, overwhelmed, scared, and ultimately doubting myself, my intuition and my sense of what is real and true.

I know you want the details, but I just can’t bring myself to share them. What I will tell you is that someone I trusted, someone who influenced my life greatly, someone who I thought I knew, has been indicted for the most horrific abuses possible on the most innocent victims imaginable.

I didn’t just “know” this monster. I respected him. I liked him. I admired himAnd where does that leave me?

To contextualize, I haven’t seen this person in over a decade. He was a teacher of mine. A role model. Someone who represented a way of life and values and morals that, to this day, I have tried to emulate. I can’t tell you how often throughout the years his advice or lessons have passed through my mind in certain situations.

I now know he was a fraud. I get that he was a manipulator, a classic abuser, and I know there was no way I could have known or imagined what he was capable of. Blah blah blah.

And yet, I didn’t just “know” this monster. I respected him. I liked him. I admired him.

Was he doing such despicable and unforgivable things when he taught me in college? Possibly. But probably not. But does it matter? He was capable of it, even if it took many years to be acted upon. And what if I did still know him now? Would I have allowed my children around him? Would I have still trusted him? Probably.

It is so easy to want to throw out anything that was ever associated with him. To burn it and leave nothing left. But I can’t. You see, so much of who I am is because of him.

So where does that leave me?

Every single Shabbat, as I prepare my salad, a specific Jewish law always comes to mind, which—to be perfectly honest—I have found a bit annoying and seemingly unnecessary. It is the law of borer, separating.

It goes something like this . . .On Shabbat we are not allowed to separate things; this prohibition, called borer does not allow us to remove the undesirable from what is desirable.

So what is allowed is taking the “good” from the “bad,” but what is not allowed is removing the “bad” from the “good.” In regards to my beloved salads, this means that when I want to separate the good parts of the avocado, I can’t just cut out what is black, but rather I need to work around what I don’t want to get to the nice and green parts, which I do want. Yes, you now see why I wrote that I have found this quite annoying and unnecessary.

Really? It matters if I pull out the green or just remove the black?

And yet, I think that for the first time I understand the difference. We are allowed to take the good from the bad. We recognize there is bad, and we don’t want any part of it. What is good, we can take and we can use. It hasn’t been spoiled by being near or associated to the bad.

But the other way around just doesn’t work.

We can’t try to pull out all the bad, hope we get it all, and work with what is left. What if there was something we didn’t see? Something we didn’t remove? Then there is still bad left. The only way we can be sure that what we have is good is if we take only the good. We might leave some good behind in the bad, but what we have taken is most definitely all good. And the bad? We leave in its place until we can dispose of it.

What if I did still know him now? Would I have allowed my children around him?I guess this is the only way I can come to terms with who I am and how I am associated with this person. I must reflect on what I learned, what was positive, what was good, and remove it completely from him. He was not the source of it; he simply was the vessel that I received it from.

The good is unblemished. He couldn’t destroy it, even if he tried. And now it is safe with me. For I have taken that good and tried my hardest to internalize it. And unlike him, I will do my utmost to continue to use it for the good. For if anything, I guess he has inspired me in yet one more way. I will do everything in my power to work that much harder to eradicate the evil that people like him wreak on this world. What he has given me and taught me will, ironically, be what ultimately destroys him. For it is the light that will drive away the darkness. And I have no doubt that, one day, in either this world or the next, he will most dearly pay for the darkness he has caused so many.

Sara Esther Crispe, a writer, inspirational speaker and mother of four, is the co-director of Interinclusion, a nonprofit multi-layered educational initiative celebrating the convergence between contemporary arts and sciences and timeless Jewish wisdom. Prior to that she was the editor of TheJewishWoman.org, and wrote the popular weekly blog Musing for Meaning. To book Sara Esther for a speaking engagement, please click here.

Letting Others In

October 16, 2011

I was raised with the idea that needing others meant you were weak. So I learned how to be strongly independent, fiercely guarding and fighting for what I needed and wanted in life.

And then I met my husband.

I had always wanted to get married and spend my life with someone I loved and would build a family with. The problem was learning how to let someone into my soul, when there really had been room only for one.

This week we begin reading the Torah anew. It is not just the beginning again, but rather a new beginning, reminding us that we have the ability to start over. The first letter of the Torah is a beit, the second letter in the Hebrew alphabet and therefore numerically equivalent to “two.”

I was raised with the idea that needing others meant you were weakThere are endless commentaries as to why it begins with this letter, but one of them is the idea, the reminder, that we were created with the intention of joining with another. We were created to bond, to build and to create as a team. Sure, we can do a tremendous amount on our own, but how much more so when we double the power.

Even more so, the final letter of the Torah is the letter lamed, which when put together with the letter beit spells lev, “heart.” We need to learn to let others into our heart, to love and to be loved. Sometimes, what is holding us back is an emotional fear of rejection or being hurt. Other times it is “in our head,” an intellectual or philosophical issue. Maybe this is why not only do we have a reference to the heart, but embedded in the first word bereishit is rosh, meaning “head”!

We are being told that no matter where our issue is stemming from, in our heart or in our head, we must learn to change, to begin anew, and to allow another into our lives. And by doing so, it will change how we feel, how we think, and how we view the world around us.

I have been married now almost fifteen years. And I have definitely struggled at times at being a team player. In certain situations, it seemed that doing things on my own was easier. Or that, ultimately, I really just didn’t need or want the help.

I can no longer distinguish what is me and what is himAnd yet, looking at the life we have built together, and our four magnificent and unique kids, I can no longer distinguish what is me and what is him. What is most precious to me in the world is that combination. His nose, my eyes, his intellect, my humor . . .

And I am no longer just me. I am a combination of my children and my husband, as much as they are a combination of me. I may have birthed them, but a part of each one remains within, changing me, helping me and developing what I am capable of becoming.

I still don’t need many people in my life. I have many acquaintances, but few close friends who truly know the real me. But it is okay. For I have been able to allow those few inside, and I am so happy I did, for it has made me who I am. And there is no way I could have become the “me” I am today if I had tried to do it alone.

Sara Esther Crispe, a writer, inspirational speaker and mother of four, is the co-director of Interinclusion, a nonprofit multi-layered educational initiative celebrating the convergence between contemporary arts and sciences and timeless Jewish wisdom. Prior to that she was the editor of TheJewishWoman.org, and wrote the popular weekly blog Musing for Meaning. To book Sara Esther for a speaking engagement, please click here.

Welcome!

October 9, 2011

Every situation we find ourselves in is a lesson waiting to be learned. That is what this blog is about. From the people I meet, the places I go and the experiences I have, stories emerge, each teaching me something that I hope you will find useful for your life as well.

As different as we are, we are very much the same. Just as we all have joys, successes and accomplishments that help define us, we likewise have fears, insecurities and weaknesses that hold us back from who we could become.

Even though this blog is somewhat one directional in that I am the one posting, I hope that through your feedback and comments this will become a dialogue, where you will likewise share your life with me. Because the only way we can grow is when we are willing to take a good look in the mirror and a good look at the world around us and figure out what we are supposed to learn from what we see.

So thank you for joining me on this journey as I explore with you the lessons I find in my day to day life.

With Gratitude,

SE

Sara Esther Crispe, a writer, inspirational speaker and mother of four, is the co-director of Interinclusion, a nonprofit multi-layered educational initiative celebrating the convergence between contemporary arts and sciences and timeless Jewish wisdom. Prior to that she was the editor of TheJewishWoman.org, and wrote the popular weekly blog Musing for Meaning. To book Sara Esther for a speaking engagement, please click here.
Every situation we find ourselves in is a lesson waiting to be learned. That is what this blog is about. From the people I meet, the places I go and the experiences I have, stories emerge, each teaching me something that I hope you will find useful for your life as well.
Sara Esther CrispeSara Esther Crispe, a writer, inspirational speaker and mother of four, is the co-director of Interinclusion, a nonprofit multi-layered educational initiative celebrating the convergence between contemporary arts and sciences and timeless Jewish wisdom. Prior to that she was the editor of TheJewishWoman.org, and wrote the popular weekly blog Musing for Meaning. To book Sara Esther for a speaking engagement, please click here.
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