A Framework for the Fragmented

By Yosef Bronstein, New York, NY
Essays 2016

MyLife Essay Contest 2016


My life is extremely fragmented.  As an adjunct college professor towards the end of a long process of doctoral studies who is involved in Jewish college-campus work and is a hired hand for a research project, I feel that I am a person with many masters.  Not to mention that my wife and I are blessed two children and my wife works full time.

This is not to say that I am frustrated and disgruntled.  If I had the ability to press the reset button and travel back several years I would not significantly change my decisions.  I find meaning in each aspect of my life and I am grateful for the ability to help provide for my family through activities and studies that I find religiously significant.  But this does not remove the feeling of fragmentation, of constantly being pulled in different directions.   The perpetual torrent of disparate deadlines and responsibilities is disconcerting and often leaves me feeling scattered, unanchored, anxious, tense and breathless.

For example, writing a dissertation and taking care of young children require two very different mindsets and skillsets.  Relentlessly running back and forth between these two activities often engenders in me a feeling that I occupy two antithetical worlds, never fully at home in either.  I find myself longing for the days when I was able to focus on one a single project full time which allowed me to feel intimately familiar and at home in that activity.  The soul screams for a sense of serenity and wholesomeness.[1]

One of my coping methods stems from the last public address of the Rebbe.[2]  The Rebbe began the sicha by discussing the ingathering of the Jewish exiles in the time of ultimate redemption.  On a simple level this ingathering entails bringing people from all the corners of the world to a single geographic location.  But the Rebbe noted that the Rambam describes the Messianic era as being without “envy nor competition,” which indicates that the “ingathering” will occur on a deeper level as well.  The Jewish people seem to be comprised of incongruent groups that are at odds with each other.  Mashiach will be able to reveal that these seemingly existentially different parts of the Jewish people are really a unified unit.  Underlying the various groups is a single essence.  In the words of the Rebbe, “all individuals share a fundamental equality.”

The Rebbe then applied this lesson to the individual person.  Just as the nation seems to be comprised of fragmented groups, so too there are people who have “fragmented personalities.”  They live with a constant tension of conflicting drives and motivations.  But just as the messianic process requires a revelation of the true unity of the nation, so too in order to attain personal redemption, these individuals must seek a unity in their own personal lives.

How is this to be accomplished?  Not by quelling the diversity and only focusing on a single project.  This would not be true to our human nature which includes a “multi-faceted spiritual makeup” and would therefore ultimately become a source of greater frustration.  Rather, the correct approach is to simultaneously engage in a multiplicity of activities, but with the clear knowledge of a unified purpose.  Instead of simply engaging in unrelated, albeit meaningful, activities, one needs to develop for oneself a clear sense of purpose which functions as the true, single, substratum for the gamut of daily activities.

This framework dissolves the feeling of scatteredness and tension between competing goals. Despite the fact that writing a dissertation and childcare are disparate and different, oscillating between them does not have to feel like traveling between different worlds.  Rather, I should view them as two manifestations of the same goal, as different branches that ultimately grow from a single trunk.  A clear focus on this unifying common denominator has begun to have a profound impact on the way that I experience my day.

What can be the single overarching category under which all of my daily activities can be placed as bullet points?  What is the great unifier of dissertations and children, of the labyrinth of responsibilities that modern man finds himself beholden to?  Several options present themselves.

But I personally most identify with the Rebbe’s unnervingly simple answer – God.  As the unified source of all diversity and the basic essence of one’s own soul, dedicating all of one’s diverse activities to God is the ideal way to fit together the different pieces of life’s puzzle.[3]

So what does this mean practically for me?  Ideally it would translate into creating a consistent consciousness of my unity of purpose.  But until I reach that level, I at least try to stop my activities from time to time to remind myself of why I am doing what I am doing.  This way, even if every hour I am involved in a different activity, that underlying sense of fulfilling God’s mission is a constant equalizer.

This new framework can also aid in productivity.  The Rebbe recounted4 a lesson he learnt from his father-in-law who in turn learnt it from his grandfather, the Maharash.  We often find ourselves worrying about a future activity or eventuality and this removes our ability to maximize our time in the present.  In order to have “success in time” we need to develop the ability to be hyper-focused on the present moment without worry or concern for what the future will bring.

For me this would translate into not worrying about future projects when I am working towards a more immanent deadline.  For example, when I am taking care of my children I ideally should not be worrying about my dissertation deadline that is months in the future.  Conversely, when I am working on my dissertation I should not be filled with anxiety about the wellbeing of my children.  This would both help my mental-emotional state in addition to simply increasing productivity.

But how is one supposed to develop this immersion in the presence or “success in time?”  Perhaps it is by creating the overarching God-framework that the Rebbe described.  If I view my children and my dissertation as two distinct metaphoric masters, they will perforce compete for my time and mental space.  When I am with my children, the dissertation deadline will angrily stare at me as a jealous rival master causing me to not fully focus on my children.

However, when all of my daily obligations flow from the same Master and are simply varying manifestations of the same basic essence, this competition will fade.  Within this unified mindset there is no conflict between my dissertation and my children, between teaching and engaging students on campus because they all serve the same goal.  If God wants me to be focusing on my dissertation now, then He does not want me to be engaged in other activities.  Whatever it is that I am doing, is what my single Master desires that I do and there is no need to invest mental energy in future activities whose time will come.

Based on the biographies that I have read, the Rebbe was a personal exemplar of the approach delineated in hi teachings.  Despite having a busy and diverse schedule he always appeared calm, collected and focused on his present activity.  While I am not on the Rebbe’s level, I draw inspiration from his teachings and personality to begin to take small steps in the proper direction.

[1] It is interesting to note that in the worldview of Rav Soloveitchik this situation would be ideal for religious growth which he sees as stemming from being caught in unsolvable dialectics.  See, for example, “Majesty and Humility,” Tradition (1978), 25-26.  However, after living through some of the dialectical tension that he describes, I feel that the Rebbe’s model is more suited for me.

[2] Toras Menachem 5752, Volume 2, 357-373.  Translated and summarized at http://www.chabad.org/therebbe/article_cdo/aid/2465364/jewish/Togetherness-Between-Individuals-and-WithinIndividuals-5752-1992.htm.

[3] See also, Toras Menachem 5715 Volume 2, 304-308 for a similar rendition of this notion and Igros Kodesh Volume 1, letter 159 where the Rebbe describes “unity in a person’s inner life” as “one of the central ideas in Judaism” and connects this theme with the mitzvah of tefillin.  A similar approach is expressed by Rav Kook.  See, for example, ha-Machshava ha-Yisraelis pg. 13 where Rav Kook said about himself:

Whoever has said that my soul is torn spoke well.  It is certainly torn.  I cannot imagine a person whose soul is not torn.  Only a lifeless object is whole, but a human being is filled with conflicting desires, and an inner war rages within him continuously.  The purpose of all my work is to mend the rents within my spirit by means of an allinclusive viewpoint in whose greatness and exaltedness everything is embraced and comes to complete harmony.

[4] See, Sefer ha-Sichos 5700 pg. 113; Reshimos, Choveres 186; Chaim Miller, Turning Judaism Outward (Kol Menachem, 2014), pg. 50.