Very early into my Jewish conversion journey, while we were discussing my problematic family history and the problems that led to in my adult life, my rabbi posed a question that floored me. He said, “What if there isn’t a problem? What if the only problem is that you keep thinking there’s a problem? None of us are as perfect as we’d like to be.”
My substance-abusing siblings in childhood led to me in a codependence 12-step group as an adult–not to mention years of anger, knee-jerk emotional reactions, and control freakiness. After a few years, I had finally reached a plateau in my step work where, for the first time, I found myself able to reach out to others in a healthy way and begin to make peace with my past. At the time, my rabbi’s idea that maybe there wasn’t a problem wasn’t an idea I found legitimate.
It took me a while to see his point. It wasn’t that there wasn’t a problem. The point was, there’s always a problem. Everyone has a problem. Life is a problem. From time to time love is a problem, family is a problem. Nothing’s ever perfect or meant to be. And that’s okay. That’s normal, the baseline of life. In other words, I spent most of my adult life making a problem out of the fact that I had a normally problematic life.
I’m not the only person ever to have had a screwed up childhood, to have taken a long time to figure out how to manage the aftermath of it, or to have ended up in a recovery program. Nor am I the first person to be fatter than I want to be, or, at times, lonelier. I don’t have the license on making less money than would be convenient for my creditors, or on being less responsive to my friends than would be helpful to their needs or my heart. It all comes and it goes. Some days, and some moments, are better than others.
An important Jewish lesson in the past few months for me has been the instruction on how to perform tikkun olam, or repair of the world–a central Jewish concern, found in the Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) tractate of the Talmud, the central text of Rabbinic Judaism:
It is not your duty to complete the work. Neither are you free to desist from it.
The instruction concerns how we should live with others on a shared planet. But to my mind, it equally applies to how we should live with ourselves. In both cases: don’t fret because problems exist and you can’t fix them completely; just make sure you’re doing your best to solve them. Being part of the solution is a commandment. Knowing the whole solution and every solution, that’s God’s job.
The more my rabbi’s question sank in, the more I realized how much of a project I had made out of not having a perfect life. That doesn’t mean I desist from working through the emotional damage of my childhood. It does, however, mean I don’t need to feel broken about it for the rest of my life. It was with this realization that I found the permission to finally let go emotionally on my Jewish journey. Worship and prayer, getting more involved in synagogue life, and making friends at temple all started to click the moment I stopped criticizing myself for not being able to wave a magic wand and fix all my life problems.
Over the years, there are many avenues I’ve followed down to try to gain a sense of wholeness, peace, and for want of a better term, un-brokenness. Many places I’ve looked for a solution to all my problems. Relationships. Buddhism. Moving back to New York. None of it has been very successful or has lasted for very long. It was the surprise of my life to find my long-sought sense of normalcy in Judaism.
Funny thing, Judaism doesn’t actually solve any of my problems, which had been my former litmus test for a normal life. It does, however, offer me guidance on how to live an ethical yet normally imperfect life in a normally imperfect world. It helped me to stop obsessing about the destination and instead–as long as I do my best–to be okay with the journey. And with myself.
How perfect is that?
(Photo credit: Devyn Caldwell.)
Michael Thaddeus Doyle
I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.