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Musing for Meaning

We Are What We Think

May 29, 2012

I couldn’t believe it. She kept pointing to the skin between her thumb and her forefinger, and asking if I saw it. I had no idea what she was talking about. I looked at her hand; I looked at mine. They looked the same.

Everyone has skin between the thumb and forefinger. That skin allows us to move our fingers and grip things. But she kept pointing to hers and insisting that it was different. That hers was ugly. That hers was something to be hated.

This young woman is 17 years old. She is an honor roll student at a very competitive private high school, and just got accepted to every university she applied to. She has a loving and supportive family, lives in a beautiful home and is blessed with physical abundance. The only reality that counts is her realityShe has a 4.0 GPA, is captain of the basketball team, and just happens to be stunningly beautiful, albeit too thin, at 5′6″ and barely over 100 pounds.

But it doesn’t matter.

You see, she is fat and ugly. She has hair that sometimes frizzes, legs that are too long, and what tops it off is the most horrendous skin between her thumb and forefinger.

Is this true? Any of it? Yes, all of it. Why? Because that is how she sees herself. And that, ultimately, is all that matters.

After speaking with this young woman and trying to let her see herself through my eyes, I realized that the only reality that counts is her reality. Is it objective reality? Of course not. But she is living her reality, and until she is willing to see herself another way, nothing is going to change.

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement, taught us that a person is where his thoughts are. Basically, we are what we think. Our thoughts are the basis for our reality.

We are all aware of the high incidence of eating disorders and other mental illnesses amongst our youth today. In addition to the natural insecurities at this transformative time in their lives, they are bombarded with media messages about how they should think, what they should care about and how they should look.

While our thoughts are the basis for our reality, our thoughts are often the result of someone else’s speech. “Ew, she is so fat and ugly!” I have heard so many of these young girls say as another young girl walks by. They hold her physical appearance against her, as if she had any choice in the matter.

Reflecting back on my own life, I am still scarred by certain terrible comments that were made to me about my looks. Those comments became truth, at least my truth, and changing that truth can be extremely difficult.

I am still scarred by certain terrible comments that were made to me about my looksAs a mother of three girls, I worry that I may unintentionally say or do something that could create for them a negative body image. Even as I work towards a healthier lifestyle for myself, I need to be so careful about not complaining that I just ate a lot of fattening food, or commenting on how terrible I think I look in a certain outfit.

Conversely, I need to be careful that I not compliment my daughters constantly on how beautiful they look, or how nice their hair is, or how their blue eyes shine when they wear certain colors. Of course I want them to feel confident and secure about their appearance, but I also want them to know they are much more than just a pretty face.

We have a lot of negativity to combat. There are a lot of unhealthy messages being thrown at us and at our children. But the amazing thing about thought is that we can’t multi-think. We can do many things at once, but we can’t think many things at once. If this girl is busy thinking about how ugly the skin is between her thumb and forefinger, then it means she is not able to think about something positive or healthy.

But the flip side is also true. If she is thinking something that inspires her and makes her feel good about herself, then she can’t be focused on what she dislikes or even hates about herself. Chassidic thought teaches us, Tracht gut, vet zein gut, “Think good and it will be good.” Change your thoughts, change your reality.

That’s all it takes. One positive thought to remove the negative one. So let’s find those girls who are beating themselves up inside, and remind them of how intelligent, successful and powerful they really are. And let’s tell ourselves that as well. After all, we are what we think.

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.

Celebrating Together

May 20, 2012

This past Shabbat in synagogue, I watched as a beautiful two-week-old girl was named during the Torah reading. Her name is Chaya Sarah. Chaya means “life,” Sarah is our matriarch. A big name. A powerful name. And a very Jewish name.

Any baby-naming is moving, but this one was especially so.

You see, sitting with the new mother were her mother and her grandmother. Four generations of Jewish women. Yet this was the first Jewish girl in seven generations to receive a Jewish name. The baby’s great-grandmother was a staunch communist, and the daughter of staunch communists. Living behind the Iron Curtain, their Judaism was not just suppressed, it was denied and despised. And yet, today they sat crying while this baby was named Chaya Sarah.

Living behind the Iron Curtain, their Judaism was not just suppressed, it was denied and despisedFollowing the naming we all sang “Siman Tov Umazal Tov,” the traditional song for any joyous occasion. But for the first time I really listened to the words. “Yehei lanu ul’chol Yisrael”—that this should be an auspicious time and good fortune, for all of us and for all of Israel.

Often, when we offer congratulations, they are specific to the one who earned them. We do not include ourselves in the compliment. Yet in Judaism, we do. When there is a milestone, when there is a joyous occasion to celebrate, we are all a part of it. This is why there is no need to invite to a baby-naming ceremony, a brit or a chuppah, as all are invited. On the flip side, there is no need to invite to a funeral or to the mourning home, the shiva. It is our obligation, our responsibility, to attend and be there for the mourner.

Judaism doesn’t allow us to be alone. Not in our time of joy, and not in our time of pain. We are a community. We are one people, with all of our differences. Your celebrations are my celebrations, and your sorrow is my sorrow.

We are about to once again experience the receiving of the Torah, just as we did at Mount Sinai. We do not celebrate what was, but what is. Each year on Shavuot we receive the Torah anew. It is our marriage with our Creator, and just as we are taught that our souls were present when the Torah was first given, so too we are to be present, man, woman and child, when it is given to us again. We are one people, united in our essence, receiving one Torah.

Judaism doesn’t allow us to be alone. Not in our time of joy, and not in our time of painShavuot is my favorite holiday. I mean, who wouldn’t love it? No cleaning, and we eat cheesecake! But there is more. It is the holiday I feel most connected to, because it was a Shavuot experience that sparked my return to a Torah-observant lifestyle (check out my piece Free Trial Period). I love Shavuot because it reminds me that no matter how I may be feeling, I am never alone. I am part of a whole, a very important part of that whole, and I matter.

This morning was monumental not just in the lives of Chaya Sarah’s family members. I do not know this family, but this two-week-old baby gave me such strength and pride. Along with her loved ones, I also teared up when her name was read. And then, as they lifted the Torah for us to gaze at it, I watched Chaya Sarah’s mother bend over and gaze at her baby. Her Torah. Our Torah. Siman tov umazal tov . . . yehei lanu ul’chol Yisrael: may this be an auspicious time and good fortune for us and for all of Israel.

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.

Being All Mother

May 11, 2012

I really lost my temper. I hadn’t meant to. But she wouldn’t stop whining. I was trying desperately to get an article finished, and was frustrated and stressed. And she stood there behind me, telling me her stomach hurt and asking me if I could help her.

I mumbled, “One second,” and hoped she would go away. She didn’t. And when my “one second” had turned into twenty minutes, the whining hit an all-time high. Swiveling around in my chair, I said (okay, I yelled), “Can’t you see I am busy? Please leave me alone!”

And she did.

“Can’t you see I am busy? Please leave me alone!”She walked out of my office, and I heard her crumple on the stairs and start to cry.

Priorities.

Mine were most definitely out of whack. The second I heard her wail, I snapped out of the workaholic trance that unfortunately consumes me more than I would like to admit. I ran to her and held her and apologized. Her stomach was hurting. She needed her mommy. And ultimately, that is all that mattered.

As I sat with her, I tried to explain that sometimes mommies can make mistakes and lose sight of what is most important, and I asked for her forgiveness. I told her how lucky I am to have her, what a huge gift she is, and how grateful I am that G‑d felt I was worthy to be her mommy. I assured her that I love her and am here for her, even if sometimes I don’t respond as quickly as I should. I wiped away her tears. She hugged me and told me she loved me. And then I was the one who was crying.

I recently read an editorial in the New York Times in which a woman described her view of motherhood. She wrote that while being a mother is part of who a woman is, it shouldn’t be all of who she is.

I thought about her statement for a while. How completely backwards! I am all for women working outside the home, having careers and doing what they need to feel fulfilled and productive. But when it comes to whole and parts, there is no such thing as being partly a mother. I wonder, did this woman also rationalize when she was pregnant that it was okay to smoke or drink? After all, maybe she was only partly pregnant?

There is no such thing as being partly a motherWriting is part of who I am. Editing is part of who I am. Teaching is part of who I am. Being a mother is who I am. It embodies me. My children are me. And I hope they know it, since for better or worse, I am the only mother they have.

Judaism doesn’t define motherhood the way the rest of the world does. The Jewish perspective does not require that a woman have a child in order to be considered a mother. Chavah (Eve), the first woman, is called em kol chai, “the mother of all life,” before she ever gives birth to a child. Being a mother is the ability to be other-centered, to have another at your core. This is one of the reasons why the word for “womb,” rechem, shares the root of the word rachmanut, “empathy.” I don’t just feel badly for your pain, I feel your pain. Your pain is my pain. You are a part of me.

But coming back to Chavah, I wonder if we could read this phrase another way. The words em kol could mean “all mother”—not “part mother,” but all mother. She is the mother of all life, and she is all mother.

There are many roles I fill, many things I enjoy doing. But for most of them, I am truly replaceable. Granted, I hope not too replaceable. But some of the things I do could most definitely be done by others, maybe even done better. And even the things I excel in, that I feel passionate about, that I focus on . . . they are only parts of me. There are many writers, many teachers, many editors. And there are many mothers. But there is no other mother to my children. Only me.

Hopefully, next time I will be able to remember it without needing to first make my baby cry. After all, she is my world, they are all my world, and I am theirs. Em kol chai.

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.

How a Smile Could Save a Life

May 6, 2012

I could tell that they had no idea who I was. I tried to remind them about the Shabbat meals I had eaten at their house so many years ago. But to no avail. They really just didn’t remember me.

I wasn’t insulted. I often bump into people I met years ago, without being able to place them or recollect how we knew each other. But in this particular case it was funny, because not only did I remember this family in great detail; they were actually responsible, to a great degree, for my life today.

You see, about 18 years ago, one of their daughters was having her bat mitzvah. For some reason, the parents asked if I would come and speak to her group of friends. In doing so, I realized how much I loved public speaking, and began thinking that it was something I wanted to do with my life. At the time, the only public speaking I had done was teaching 12th grade high school, and that was certainly not the kind of reinforcement I needed to choose it as a career.

They were responsible, to a great degree, for my life todayBut showing up at that bat mitzvah, speaking to those girls and having them laugh with me, and then tell me that I inspired them . . . that was something that changed my life.

If only we could know the things we said or did that might have altered someone’s life for the better. If only we could know when we were the right person at the right time who said the right thing. So often, we go through our days thinking we accomplished nothing, having no clue that the person we complimented or smiled at might have needed that smile more than we could ever imagine.

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement, taught that we come into this world for our entire lifetime just to do a favor for another. There is even a cute little ditty that the kids sing with this message. Just one favor. Really? A whole lifetime, and that could be the sum total of it all? And yet, maybe that one favor changed a life? Inspired a life? Saved a life?

At a mental health awareness event a few years ago, I heard a man describe his suicide attempt, in which he jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Few who have made that 220-foot jump have lived to tell their stories. Actually, only 2 percent of those who jump survive. But this man was one of the fortunate ones.

The second his feet left the bridge, he deeply regretted his decisionHe spoke to us about the power of depression, about the intense loneliness one can feel. The night he made the decision to die, he rode a public city bus to the bridge. He was the last one off the bus at the last stop. As he exited, he looked at the bus driver, desperate for a kind word. But the bus driver never even bothered looking at him.

This young man then made a promise to himself that if anyone smiled at him or asked how he was doing, it would prove to him that his life was worthwhile, and he wouldn’t jump. But no one did. At one point a couple even asked him to take their picture, but, consumed with their own lives, they didn’t pick up on the fact that minutes later their picture-taker would be attempting to take his own life.

Feeling that no one in the world cared about him, and that he had nothing to live for, the man climbed onto the railing of the bridge and jumped. The second his feet left the bridge, he deeply regretted his decision. “I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die,” he prayed the entire way down. Miraculously, he didn’t. He broke just about every bone in his body, but he lived. Until the rescuers reached him, sea lions swam under his broken body, keeping his head above water.

His story is amazing. But even more extraordinary than his personal survival is the promise he made to himself before he jumped. One smile could have saved his life. We could have been that one person on the bridge. Or that person on the bus with him. We could have offered a smile, or a “have a good night.” And had we offered that smile, we would have gone on our way, having no idea what that small act accomplished. That could have been the favor that the Baal Shem Tov was speaking about.

When I met this family again after so many years, it was clear that the impact they had made on me was much greater than the impact I had made on them. And that was perfectly fine. I didn’t need them to remember me. I just needed them to know how they influenced my life. By giving me the opportunity to speak, they introduced me to something I love, something I have been doing professionally from that point onward. Ironically, I reconnected to this family at a Passover program where my husband and I were the keynote speakers!

Everything we do, the big things as well as the seemingly not so big, can have an impactI felt so blessed that I was able to see this family again, that I was able to thank them for what they had given me, and to let them see that they had made a huge difference in the life of someone they didn’t even remember. Having that experience reminded me that everything we do, the big things as well as the seemingly not so big, can have an impact, sometimes even a lifesaving one. So the next time we walk down the street minding our own business, let’s take that second to look up and smile at a stranger passing by. Maybe, just maybe, that is what he is living for.

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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