Short-Term Motivation

When a morbidly obese friend of mine who was my age suddenly dropped dead of a heart attack, the shock made me recommit to my diet, and I lost some weight. Less than six months later, I had gained it back. While there are exceptions to the rule, when motivation to change stems merely from wanting to avoid a bad outcome, rather than obtaining a good result, the change is usually temporary.

Fearing a theoretical illness or notBeing pulled towards the good serves better than running from the bad wanting to wind up like someone we are close to who created his or her own premature death through neglect can certainly galvanize us into a new mindset. The fear of a possible future bad “what if” scenario, however, does not provide lasting motivation. What does serve the process of long-term change is flipping the goal into something positive, like feeling confident, strong and healthy, and to be able to resume former activities and physical hobbies.

In the long run, being pulled towards the good serves better than running from the bad. Talk less about your fears and more about your vision. Yes, you may, in fact, be afraid of dropping dead. And, you may be sick and tired of being sick and tired. But give equal or greater attention to what you would like to see for yourself, and how you can be a good role model rather than a bad example.

This idea is taught by the Chassidic master, the Maggid of Mezeritch, who explained the Psalm “stay away from evil and do good” to truly mean “stay away from evil by doing good.” The two are connected. When we do something positive, we are naturally removed from the negative.

Similarly, when the “bad” has been internalized to oneself and the motivation to change comes from thoughts such as: “I’m not thin enough, disciplined enough, healthy enough, pretty enough, successful enough, rich enough, popular enough, worthy enough, etc., etc., etc.” then this comes from a place of need, of lacking. Whatever you are, feeling that it’s just not “enough” originates in fear and creates the emotion of inner shame. That is toxic to the process of healthy change.

Well-Being Is Whole Being

Shame disconnects us from others and also from ourselves. Disconnection is the diametric opposite of wholeness, as connection is the very mainspring of well-being. It should be self-evident that we can’t use persistent negativity to bring about a desired positive result, but we just keep falling into the trap. No matter how we try, we cannot shame and blame ourselves (or anyone else) into personal growth.

In the Torah portion, Nasso, which means “single out,” Moses is commanded to “single out” and allocate different priestly duties to the descendants of two sub-tribes of the Levites: Gershon and Kehot. The descendants of Gershon were tasked with carrying the accoutrements of the Tabernacle (which housed the Ark), while the descendants of Kehot were entrusted with carrying the Ark itself.

Not only does the job description itself speak for the different level of sanctity between these two sub-tribes, but the descendants of Kehot are “singled out” before the descendants of Gershon. What’s strange about that is that this reverses the birth order in that the descendants of Gershon, who were the first-born, would be expected to assume the duties that were allocated to the descendants of Kehot.

To serve G‑d, one must “turn away from evil” and “do good.” The name Gershon is related to the Hebrew word gerushin, which means, “to divorce.” Thus, the descendants of Gershon were to embody the idea of divorcing oneself and “turning away from evil.” Kehot, on the other hand, means “doing good,” and is derived from yik-has, meaning “will gather,” alluding to the idea of gathering and accumulating good deeds.

What Do You Want More Than You Don’t Want?

So what does that mean for us today? The lesson of switching the birth order teaches us that at the outset, our initial impetus and motivation to change may very well be sourced in the avoidance of an undesirable outcome or overcoming something negative. I know that I have often been galvanized into action as a reaction to the bad behavior of others. Recoiling from what I don’t want to be or whom I don’t want to emulate has often been a powerful motivator for me.

What the Torah is teaching us,It’s a “good” goal, but it’s also vague and undefined however, is that it is a higher spiritual priority to sustain our growth by being drawn to the good and what we see as positive. For example, if we grew up in a home filled with strife, we may be motivated not to repeat the patterns of hostility that we witnessed. It’s a “good” goal, but it’s also vague and undefined. It is much more powerful—and much more likely to produce results—when we flip that into the positive, and create the goal of creating a home imbued with positivity, loving connection and unconditional positive regard. Then we can take actual concrete steps to bring that about.

Throughout the Torah, G‑d couples the commandments (even the negative ones) with the words, “Be holy for I am holy.” The first of the Ten Commandments opens with the words, “I am the L-rd thy G‑d,” meaning that every commandment that follows comes from creating a relationship and connection with G‑d. That is because holiness (wholeness) stems from connection, not disconnection, and striving to reach and actualize our highest selves.

I am not suggesting that we only emulate the descendants of Kehot. Both ways are important. In fact, to be only one or the other can be unbalanced and even dangerous when taken to an extreme.

The way to growth is a two-sided coin: “avoiding evil” and “doing good.” The key is to understand this polar duality, and to know when to do what and how through the doing of good we can automatically avoid the evil. Being able to tap into either of these energies and consciously choose which will serve you best as you strive to reach your goals and accomplish your mission, however, is anything but simple.

Internalize & Actualize:

  1. Think about something you really want to change, but no matter how many times you try, you keep failing at it. Now, write the emotions that come to mind when you recall this failure. Next to each emotion, write if it is a positive or negative emotion.
  2. Negative emotions paralyze us rather than motivate us, which is why we never make lasting change when those are the feelings connected to that issue. So for every negative emotion you wrote above, write a positive emotion that will inspire you to work on this issue again. For example, when one fails at something, one might feel “ashamed.” The positive emotion could then be “excited” or “committed,” etc. And alongside the positive emotion, write a positive action that you can begin immediately to work on changing this issue.
  3. Based on the concept of staying away from the negative by doing the positive, write down five practical ways that when you are tempted to fall back into bad habits or actions, you can do something healthy and uplifting in its place. What action could you do that is positive in place of something negative? For example, if you are trying to lose weight and you are tempted to eat a candy bar, your strategy could be to call a friend, go on a walk, eat an apple, etc.