Get R.E.A.L.!

Chanie Wilhelm, Milford, Connecticut
Essays 2019 / Personal Growth

The girl at the table next to mine was holding her phone in front of her, selfie mode. She smiled, paused, then smiled again. I watched as her fingers tapped on her phone, bringing up the picture she had just taken. She grimaced, then ran her fingers through her hair and held up her phone again. Big, wide smile. Eyes shining. She looked at her photo, and this time satisfied, tapped for a few more seconds (sharing it, maybe?) and put her phone down. And then, she crossed her arms on the table, put her head down, and I watched as her shoulders heaved with heavy sobs.

I had never met this girl before and haven’t seen her since. In fact, I may never see her again.  But that incident left an indelible impression on me. I was struck by the incongruity of this teenager’s façade of happiness followed immediately by her real emotions of the opposite extreme. At first I wondered, how easy is it to fool the world, to have everyone think you are happy when you are clearly not. And then I wondered, Who is the real “her”? Is the smiling face she showed the world or the one sobbing (albeit quietly) into her arms, too overcome to even show her face at all?  And in our modern day era where our lives are a tangled, complicated intersection of our online personas and our real-life personalities—Who are we really? And how do we allow our essential selves to permeate the face we show the world so there is less conflict between the two?

First, let’s address a more fundamental question: Are we real? Do we really exist?

Dale Carnegie wrote[1] of man’s deepest longing—the desire to feel important. This is not necessarily driven from the ego—as explained by Carnegie and others[2]; it is about feeling that we matter, that we make a difference. What is it about being important that is so compelling? And not just compelling, but according to some, man’s main motivator?

Perhaps it is to quell the fear of the subconscious knowledge that we are truly nothing, as King Solomon famously wrote.[3] The Previous Rebbe explains in Sefer HaMamorim[4] that the G-dly soul explorers a conundrum: how it is that the creations’ very “being” is truly non-being? As explained in the discourse and in Tanya, “This is because the universe does not exist on its own, but is entirely dependent on the True Being which creates and vivifies it.” Since we are entirely dependent on G-d, and subsequently, in order to exist, we need to be constantly “recreated” by G-d,[5]our “being” is merely an illusion. The G-dly soul knows of this but our physical selves constantly seek affirmation and validation (a feeling of importance and significance), and when we sometimes look to the transient pleasures of the physical world to provide that validation, it always inevitably comes up short. The ephemeral nature of happiness that stems from money, fame, popularity, etc., is one that is well-documented through numerous studies on the subject of happiness. It is also evidenced by the lives of wealthy and powerful individuals, who search for meaning or bemoan feeling unfulfilled, even though they have all they could physically desire.[6]

  • Soul → Knows its existence and body’s existence is entirely dependent on G-d
  • Body → Thinks it is real, but subconsciously knows it cannot be called real since its entire existence is dependent on G-d → Struggles with this identity crisis and tries to convince itself that it is real by seeking that feeling in all it does.

It stands to reason that if feeling important is so central to the human condition, and one of our most basic needs, we first need to feel real. Feeling real can give rise to feeling important and fulfilled. How do we achieve that? The only way to truly do so is by connecting to the Ultimate Reality—G-d. Associating with true reality confers reality onto ourselves.

By connecting to G-d, we are real.

In a telling study,[7] researchers found that one’s sense of self fades away and one experiences transcendence when in the presence of something “vast that transcends our understanding of the world.” Natural wonders are listed as examples of objects that can stir up those feelings of awe. The study showed that awe and transcendence led to being less self-centered. But this is not an original idea. While the concept of meditation can be traced to the times of the Patriarchs[8] through medieval times (in the form of meditative Kabbalah), Chassidus took it a step further with the introduction, centuries ago, of “Hisbonenus,” focusing with concentration on the greatness of G-d. Bypassing the creations (sequoias are majestic and so is the Grand Canyon, and they can definitely lead to feelings of transcendence, but why not go straight to the Source?), Chassidus advocates contemplating and meditating on G-d and His infinity and omniscience,[9] which evoke strong feelings of awe. It’s one of the ironies of life. The smaller we become and the less we focus on ourselves, the more we can connect to the infinite and the more real we feel.

Now let’s address the question: Who are we? How do we peel away the layers of our outward selves and reach our very essence? Let’s explore some of the powers that G-d Himself invested in us, traits that make us uniquely human. Torah and Chassidus outline different descriptions and traits that are reserved for the human being alone. More than just describing us as humans in a general sense, the particulars of these specific traits (for each of us personally) are indicative of who we really are. And when using them to connect to G-d, we attain a level of REAL that satisfies that burning desire to feel important—that we matter. Let’s get R.E.A.L.:

Relate מדבר

Of all apt descriptions, the human being is called a medaber, a “speaker.”[10] This names itself connotes a relationship, for the very act and purpose of speaking is to express one’s thoughts or feelings to another.  Reach out to your friends and speak the way it was meant to be—voice with tone and inflection, and you will enhance your relationships and feel more alive. There’s no comparison between a day spent in the company of friends vs. time spent scrolling through friends’ Facebook or Instagram pages. When you are a “medaber” you are living your essence. The older generation often bemoans the fact that social media and the internet have diminished our abilities to truly empathize with another person, to communicate, and to relate. However, like it or not, technology is here to stay, and therefore, learning to use it properly and channeling its power is not just advantageous, it’s crucial. Relationships can be initiated or maintained online, but the only way they can be nurtured is “offline.” Taking a break from technology and connecting with others in real life presents us with a host of benefits[11] not the least of which is developing skills that make us better people. On a deeper level, speech is innately divine. Just as G-d created with words, we become “creators” as well when we use our faculty of speech.[12]  Speech reveals the true and unlimited power of the human soul[13]. When we express ourselves, we are able to connect to others, and more so—our deepest selves. So who is the real you? Unplug and find out.

Educate – נפש השכלית

Humans are endowed with the power of intellect. True, many other creations also have brains and some measure of intellect, and modern scientists have proven that some animals may even have advanced cognition. Yet there is no doubt that human intelligence is immeasurably greater[14]. Advances in sciences, medicine, technology, and more have enabled the human to reach beyond what was ever imaginable. This ability was endowed to the human being at the time of creation, as a reflection of G-d infinite wisdom.[15] Knowledge is truly power, and the human mind is capable of great things. Our intellectual pursuits reflect an essential part of ourselves. The Nefesh Hasichlis is the intellectual soul and the seat of human intellect.  Chassidus teaches that this soul serves as a bridge[16] between the animalistic soul and the G-dly soul, enabling the G-dly soul to affect the animal soul using the vehicle of intellect.  Chassidus teaches that when one’s intellect is used to delve into Hashem’s intellect (His Torah), we embrace G-d with the ultimate embrace.[17] In a fascinating exposé of the biblical verse, “Man is a tree of the field,”[18] the Rebbe teaches that unlike other creations, whose life force is not obvious, a tree is connected to its source, and its roots display its source of vitality.[19] In order to be truly alive, just like a tree, one must be connected to his or her life-source, Hashem and His Torah. If that connection is severed, the tree or plant has no life-giving energy and will not be able to sustain itself. Learning Torah, embracing G-d on an intellectual level, is one way we can connect with our essential selves.

Act – Choose Life – בחירה חפשית

All creations are not created equal. Man was endowed with a special gift. In fact, this very gift is hinted to in his name, אדם, which is from the phrase [20]אדמה לעליון – similar to G-d. If we read the biblical account of the creation of Adam, we will see that G-d talks about creating a being in His image.[21] In what way are we created in G-d’s image? Commentaries explain that we are similar to G-d in that we have free will, בחירה חפשית.[22] In many aspects of life we do not have free choice. Where we are born, the places “fate” takes us, the families we are born into, etc., are all predetermined and beyond our control. So in what realms of life are we given choice? “Behold I have set before you Life and Death, and you should choose Life”[23]. When it comes to a choice between right and wrong, we are in the driver’s seat and we wield this G-dly power invested in us. “All is foreseen but permission is given”[24] G-d gives us permission to choose something other than Him. This gift is one that makes G-d vulnerable, as He opens up the possibility that His creations will turn from Him and choose something else, but he does so in order to have a relationship with us.[25] Without free will, a relationship and desire for closeness cannot exist. Our moral choices reveal our inner truths and strength of character. Each time we choose what is ethical as outlined in the Torah—right over wrong, mitzvah over sin, care over apathy—we feel G-dly because we are tapping into a G-dly strength that brings us closer to G-d.

Live Meaningfully   יוקר הזמן

Man alone was given a mission of perfecting the world and making it a dwelling for the Divine.[26] In this way, we are considered partners with G-d in creation.[27] Using time wisely is the tool through which we accomplish our mission. Making every moment meaningful is the challenge of truly living, not just existing.  The human being likes the status quo. It is comfortable and familiar. It, for the most part, does not like being pressured into deep spiritual musings that will effect change. The sages’ decreed “shuv yom echad lifnei misasach”[28] – repent one day before you die. The human being does not want to think about death, or approaching death, because it causes him to feel uncomfortable. And yet, living like your time is limited here on earth will result in a more heightened sense of awareness. How would you live if it’s your last day on earth? You’d most probably make every moment count. Ask anyone whose life was spared whether it was surviving a car accident, a natural disaster, or a serious illness. Their lives for the next few weeks or months are full of an urgency and passion for life—an urgency to make every moment meaningful because they know that every minute is a gift.

“Every moment G-d grants a person has a specific purpose…when a person does not take advantage of a specific moment and use it to do a good deed, he has squandered the entire purpose of that moment!”[29]  All those singular moments strung together become our lives. The way we live—the way we value time and how we use it—reveals much about our inner character.

So who is the real you? Who are we really? Certainly, the sum of our parts: Our relationships, our intellectual selves, our choices, and how we fill our time. But more than that, at our very essence, at our core, we are comprised of a G-dly soul[30].  This soul, which is everlasting and pure,[31] is a part of G-d Himself.[32] As with all “neutral” matters in life, our uniquely human characteristics can be used for good or bad[33]. When those characteristics of ourselves are in line with our true essence (our G-dly selves), we feel more wholesome, more complete, and there are less of those clashes between our “inner” and “outer” worlds.

Uniquely Human Traits Examples of how these traits look when in line with our G-dly soul
Relate – Medaber Relating to others in a positive way, communicating to enhance relationships, using speech to help others, using self-expression to promote good causes, avoidance of Lashon Hara
Educate – Intellectual Soul Pursuit of Torah knowledge, or of fields of study that will be used to enhance others’ lives/performance of Mitzvos
Act – Free Choice Choices consistent with Torah values
Live Meaningfully Using every moment to serve G-d, or as a means to enhance our ability to serve G-d, aware of a Higher Being and cognizant of man’s mission in this world.

When aligned with G-dliness, these character traits don’t lead one on a self-driven ego trip causing him or her to arrogantly brim with importance. The desire for being great actually fades away as realization dawns that we are but a small part of a larger purpose. That primal drive of man (to be important, to matter, to be REAL) no longer needs focus and attention in order to achieve fulfillment; it is actually a byproduct of living life on a higher plane: using one’s uniquely human characteristics as a means to connect to G-d, the Ultimate Reality.

[1]How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie, Simon & Schuster, 1936

[2] Maslow’s Hierarchy, John Dewey

[3] Koheles, 1:2

[4] ספר המאמרים, ראשית גויים עמלק

[5] Tanya, שער היחוד והאמונה, Chapter 2. See discussion of יש מאין

[6] as one example

[7] Piff and Keltner, University of California, 2015.

[8] Malbim on Bereishis 24:62 ויצא יצחק לשוח בשדה

[9] Tanya Chapters 3, 41, Kuntres Hisbonenus, Mitteler Rebbe

[10] Derived from Onkelos, Bereishis 2:7

[11] and Simon Sinek: Addiction to Technology is Ruining Lives

[12] Maharsha on Meseches Shabbos 119b, even to the point of being called a “partner” with G-d

[13] Likeutei Sichos, 6:116

[14] Penn DC, Holyoak KJ, Povinelli DJ (2008) Darwin’s mistake: explaining the discontinuity between human and nonhuman minds. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences 31:109-130; discussion 130-178.

[15] Rashi on Bereishis 1:26, כדמותנו

[16]  “Choviv Adam” 5702 (Maamer of Previous Rebbe)

[17] Tanya, Chapter 4

[18] Devarim, 20:19

[19] Sichas Motzaei Shabbos Parshas Va’eira, 5739; Sichas Shabbos Parshas Beshalach, 5740

[20] Yeshaya 14:14, Toras Menachem, 5745 4:2441

[21] Bereishis 1:26

[22] Seforno on Bereishis 1:26 and Rashi on Bereishis 3:22

[23] Devarim 30:19

[24] Mishnah Avos 3:15

[25] Basi Legani Os Aleph, see also Sefer Etz Chayim, Sha’ar Haklalim

[26] וזה כל האדם, Tanya 33 and Hayom Yom, 7 Adar I

[27] Likeutei Sichos, vol. 13 pg. 42

[28] Rabbi Eliezer, Avos, 2:10, and ensuing discussion in Shabbos 153a

[29] Toras Menachem, 5742 3:1217

[30] Tanya, Chapters 1-2

[31] Brachos 10a

[32] Tanya, Chapter 2

[33] Tanya, Chapter 7