MyLife Essay Contest 2015
What you’re truly made of and why this makes you the most important creation on Earth.
The Empty Campaign
“I love lifting weights because… I feel strong. I feel empowered.”
These were the words of a woman in the cast of the Lean Cuisine #WeighThis Campaign. If you’re going to weigh something, weigh what matters – the campaign slogan encouraged. For a generation of women constantly being measured against unrealistic beauty standards, this really resonated.
Lean Cuisine, a line of nutritious and wholesome frozen meals, broadcasted this message as part of a strategic company rebrand hoping to appeal to the hoards of girls sick of dieting. In the video, a series of women of all shapes, sizes and ethnicities approach the scale with typical dread, pleasantly surprised to be told to weigh not themselves, but something that matters to them. The actors teared up as they shared their greatest achievements. One woman put down a book she wrote. Another, her daughter. A third, her college diploma.
This message was nothing new. The #WeighThis hashtag popping up all over social media was just another channel for women to express a long exhausted frustration: we don’t want to be measured by our physical appearance. We are more than that.
Its a discussion worth having – more than our weight in pounds we definitely are. Even if we were just the sum of our parts for example, we would be all of our limbs, our consciousness, our emotions, our thoughts, our experiences, our choices; virtually anything that we affect or that affects us. So yes, there is so much more to us than our weight. We should absolutely forget about the superficial, and start focusing on who we really are.
But that might just lead to an even more important question. Start focusing on who we really are… well, how exactly do we figure that one out? Is it a book we’ve written that sums up our entire value? Perhaps it is the collection of our achievements that ranks us against each other?
We know what does not define us. But do we know what does?
The gravity of this question can be illustrated by way of a simple exercise: Imagine yourself. That’s it.
Really, imagine just yourself. Imagine yourself without everything that, whether or not you want it to, helps to define you. Imagine how it would feel to be you without all your possessions, your house, your car, your cell phone. Without the TV for when you want to give your brain to someone else to deal with.
It’s unsettling, if not frightening to most. Although an unhealthy and unrealistic scenario, it forces us to ask ourselves these crucial questions we give so little attention. Who am I? What am I doing? What is my purpose?
It’s the days when we feel alone that these unanswered questions burn the strongest within us. When our relationships are strained, we’re unsatisfied at work, were not making enough money or achieving our goals that we start to wonder about ourselves. The words “I’m nothing” become audible in our minds. Because what are we without these ‘fundamentals’? Our achievements define us, right?
The Misleading Movement
It’s this exact lack of self-definition that is at the core of low self esteem. “Self-esteem”. The buzzword of 20th century psychology promised to solve a myriad of issues. High self-esteem was linked to greater success, a better work ethic and healthy relationships. In other words, if we just believed we were good, we could achieve anything!
John Vasconcellos was one advocate for the self-esteem movement who promised that it could solve many of the underlying issues in California at the time. A state assemblymen during the 1960s, Vasconcellos called selfesteem a “social vaccine”. Boosting it, he claimed, would improve academic underachievement, teenage pregnancy, drug abuse and crime.
The obvious next step for teachers and parents, for instance, was to increase positive reinforcement. Convincing children that they are “smart” and “talented” supposedly empowers them to act accordingly.
But as Carol Travis writes in her article for the Los Angeles Times, this method “rests on air, on being instead of doing”. The belief that we are worthy, ‘just because’, regardless of our behaviour, is dangerous for two reasons. Firstly, it is impossible to impart because it is not rational. Secondly, it does not lead to success, because it implies that one is worthy without having to work for it.
So is there a way to boost self-esteem? What is in us that is great enough to regard with such admiration? It boils down to a question that, according to modern psychology, is unanswerable. Who are we at the core, how will this make us feel about ourselves, and will this conclusion bring us success?
Let us explore how Chassidus transforms the issue of self-esteem entirely.
The Stuff We’re Made Of
It is interesting to note the order of chapters in the book of Tanya1. It is taught that the Alter Rebbe wrote the Tanya in comprehensive chronology, so that the chapters at the beginning are the most crucial to the worldview of Chassidus, while the chapters that follow build on these foundations.
Of all fundamental Chassidic concepts with which the Tanya could have begun – ideas of cosmic ramification such as the spiritual structure of the Universe or the Light of Ein Sof (G-d’s emanation), for example – the Alter Rebbe chose to start with the miniscule human being. Obviously, not so miniscule. We can already sense the importance of knowing who we are at our core.
In just the second chapter, the Alter Rebbe reveals our very essence in a mere few words. “Vnefesh hasheinis miyisrael, hi chelek eloka mimaal mamash”2 – “The second Jewish soul is truly, ‘a part of G-d above’”. To put it plainly, you and I, are G-dliness. In a world made of physicality, our body is only a vehicle for our soul to function – our soul is our true identity. And just as a child carries the same DNA as his parent, the Alter Rebbe explains, our souls are literally of the innermost essence of G-d.
Now pause: regardless of whether we understand G-d Himself, we can at least appreciate that being an extension of Him gives us infinite potential. This is who we are – G-dly. And a strong sense of self-definition is the foundation for a positive attitude towards ourselves, for good self-esteem. Contemplating our soul automatically uplifts us.
A shliach (emissary) who brings Judaism to campus students once expressed how fortunate he feels to be working with a demographic of people that are so flexible to change their lives. The students, he explained, are constantly receiving one message: “You are nothing. Unless, you achieve”. As far as they are concerned they are no man, and there is no life without their college degree. When they get good results, they finally become an asset to the planet. Until then, they are just taking up space.
The shliach described the deep effect it has when his students learn that they are infinitely valuable, regardless and exclusive of their achievements on paper. No matter how unaffiliated, they have equal infinite potential for a relationship with G-d as the most religious saint.
Today we are so obviously uncomfortable with comparing religious devoutness between Jews. Although modern liberalism may be partly responsible for our attitude that every Jew is equal to his fellow, in truth this is a concept deeply rooted in Chassidic thought. Yet in the early 1700s, European Jewry was of the opposite belief. Studying Torah was comparable to attaining a college degree of today, in the sense that if you couldn’t do it, you were worth nothing. It was obvious that a Torah Scholar had better access to G-d than the layman. And what for the simple-minded Jew whose heart may have swelled with desire to be close to G-d, but who could not afford to bask in Torah study? Apparently, for all the Torah learnt by the intellectuals, the essence of Judaism was lost. Bottom line was, G-d was not for everyone.
Today we know that this is heretical, thanks to the message of Chassidus. Like a flame’s flicker naturally leans towards the greater source of fire, a Jew in his natural state yearns to be consumed in G-dliness. We don’t need to know anything about G-d to appreciate that being an extension of him makes us extremely powerful beings.
Our G-dly essence surely serves as a sense of comfort on days when we don’t feel worthy. But as children showered with empty praise grow into arrogant and entitled adults, it becomes clear that true self-esteem lies in living and acting in sync with our inner core. Insecurity envelops us when we lack purpose – if there is no benefit to the world provided by our existence, then in fact we would be worthless.
So what are the ramifications of being humans with a G-dly source? What does G-dliness do?
Our role in the greater picture is more vital than we could ever imagine. To illustrate this, the Alter Rebbe first provides the context for our placement in G-d’s ultimate plan. First he instructs the reader to contemplate G-d’s oneness with the world, by virtue of the fact that everything stems from Him. This relationship is demonstrated beautifully by way of a metaphor of the sun: A ray of sunlight trickling into a pitch dark room may seem an independent object, but it is in fact a mere emanation of the real source of light, the sun itself. The rays are not objects of their own as they are dependent on the sun for their existence.
Our world works quite similarly: We see a tree, a car, a clock, a physical environment that seems to exist on its own. But in truth, it is all just an extension of G-d who keeps it there. So our entire reality, from our thoughts and feelings to our possessions, is utter nothingness. G-d, the source of everything, is the only thing that is real.3That brings you and I just about as close as you can get to G-d Himself! We are literally inseparable from G-d, we are one.
But the main reason to rejoice is in the coming statement: “V’zeh kol ha’adam v’sachlis briyaso… lihiyos lo dira b’sachtonim” – “This is the whole [purpose] of man, and the purpose for which he was created… that G-d should have a dwelling here below.”4
G-d desires a “dwelling here below”. G-d desires that we create a home for Him, among us.
Let’s process this: We are totally dependent on G-d for our very existence, the universe we think to be real is in fact nothing and G-d is everything. Yet the ultimate purpose of it all is our responsibility. Suddenly, the ball is in our court. G-d is the life source of everything we know, and even still he desires something from man, His creation. G-d needs us!
What could be a greater source of direction and meaning, than being endowed with a mission by the only true being in the Universe, G-d Himself?
The Real World
In a world which G-d could call home, His essence would be tangible everywhere. It is possible to bring G-d into our lives today just like we might schedule a doctor’s appointment or make time for socialising. It just takes half an hour a day to pray, and then we can live our own lives. Shabbat might be a bigger deal, a whole day of our week! But the world in which G-d dwells is one where He is absolute, and every created being is constantly aware of Him. Every moment of the day should be lived with the purpose of carrying out G-d’s mission.
Now back to you – a unique being with your very own set of thoughts, feelings, habits, hopes and talents. To any particular stimulus in your surroundings, you will react differently to your neighbour. At any moment in time, you are living a unique reality, which no one but you has the chance to experience. In every experience you live, there is no one who can do what you can do.
G-d’s desire for a dwelling in our world depends on you, personally. As the Tanya continues in chapter 37, “Each specific one [of the Jewish souls] contains and to each is related the vitality of one-six-hundred-thousandth part of the entire world”.5 Simply put, G-d needs you specifically. The particular places, times and objects you personally encounter are waiting to be illuminated, only by you. And because no-one else is living in your body, no-one else can do it for you.
All this has been summarised perfectly in just a few words, in Hayom Yom for Kislev 8: “Such a puny insignificant being, Man, can bring great delight to the ‘Greatest of all Great’”. Do our actions matter? The answer is yes, not only do our Mitzvot give G-d joy and pleasure; He created this entire Universe just for the Jew, to serve his Creator.
Self-esteem through the roof. Better yet, self-esteem with a sense of purpose.
Now look inside yourself, what do you see? In light of Chassidus, we don’t have to search for good qualities inside of us, as we are worthy by default. It doesn’t matter if we lack intellectual ability or talent, if we make mistakes or struggle with bad habits – we are infinitely valuable due to our soul. We know what G-d likes and dislikes very well, we have the Torah and our Rabbis as a guide. Our role is to learn, and then implement. One step at a time, a little more G-dly light, each day.
A Google search of “how to build self esteem” comes up with a list of suggestions such as “positive self-talk” and “exercise”. The implication is once again the same: intrinsically, you are not good. So in order to feel good, you should tell yourself you are until you finally believe it.
But in light of Chassidus, we are more than good. This is why by and large, Chassidus does not really address the concept of self-esteem, as it doesn’t have to. Implementing Chassidus in our lives deems the discussion unnecessary. We are one with the only real existence, G-d, and we are necessary. Our self-esteem lies in knowing that the mission of fulfilling G-d’s deepest desire, is in the hands of you and I.
There is a quote I always felt to be incredibly moving, although I couldn’t exactly explain why: “And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music”. The author Friedrich Nietzsche, a musician, understood that not every person could fully appreciate the true depth and beauty of music.
I felt validated and excited when I came across a parable from the Baal Shem Tov that is almost identical. R Moshe Chaim Efraim of Sudilkov writes that the Baal Shem Tov told him a tale of a musician who played an exceedingly beautiful melody. The closer the passers-by came to the sounds, the more they would dance in ecstasy – “haya lo b’yoser taanug, v’haya roked ad me’od”. But when a deaf man walked by, the tale continues, and observed the joyous dancing, all he could possibly conclude was that the dancers had gone mad.6
In a world where Divinity is something we can only read about, and physicality is so palpable, sometimes it seems that we’d have to be insane to live a G-dly life. Our physical consciousness seems like who we are, our Gdly soul something we have to arouse. It is possible to feel like a deaf man to spirituality – unsure if the people dancing to the tune are doing so out of habit, or are perhaps genuinely insane.
B”H The gift of Chassidus was given to us because we have the power to internalise it. Contemplation and focus brings theoretical concepts into our hearts, so that we actually feel their truth in a personal, real way. This, and daily hard work is what the Alter Rebbe promises will allow our G-dly souls to shine forth.
We are not deaf to the music. So open your ears, your heart, and dance with joy!
- The Tanya, or “Likkutei Amarim” – “A collection of teachings” was written by the first Chabad Rebbe. His aim was to provide every Jew with the means to actualize their G-dly potential.
- Tanya, Iggeret Hakodesh, Chapter 2.
- The metaphor of the sun is explained in this way in Tanya, Shaar Hayichud VeHaemunah, Chapter 3. שכל נברא ויש הוא באמת נחשבלאין ואפס ממש
- Tanya, Chapter 33
וכל פרט מהם הוא כולל ושייך לו החיות של חלק אחד מששים רבוא מכללות העולם התלוי בנפשו החיונית להעלותו לה׳ בעלייתה .5 Tanya, Iggeret HaKodesh, Chapter 37
- Degel Machaneh Efraim, Parshat Yitro
** Friedrich Nietzsche held anti-Semitic views. The Chassidic version of the parable (in the essay) was told by the Baal Shem Tov who lived a century before Nietzche – the concept obviously stems from Torah. I do not endorse the values by which Nietzche lived, however we can still appreciate the eloquence of his words.