In an old Rabbinic tale, Reb Zusya taught that in the world to come, God wasn’t going to ask him, “Why weren’t you more like Moses? Instead, the challenge would be “Why weren’t you more like Zusya?”
As adults, we become discontent without knowing why. We react. We act out. We live in our minds, having repressed our feelings to the point that simple misgivings have morphed into full-blown demons too gargantuan to face. And then, unable to face them in ourselves, we project them onto others. Surely they are the reason for our unhappiness. The demons we can’t face in ourselves erupt and make demons out of others. We become afraid of venturing away from what is expected of us.
At the age of twenty-nine, I found myself in the throes of a midlife crisis, a wife and mother with a seemingly perfect life–married to a Jewish doctor, medical school, internship, and residency behind him, finally part of a successful practice. We had two beautiful daughters, good friends and a good life.
What could possibly be wrong? I had done everything my parents told me would make me happy, and a gaping maw inside me continued to voraciously leech away my vitality. Without a logical reason for my dis-ease, I was floundering, unable to make sense of my feelings.
And then I was Divinely gobsmacked by an epiphany that shattered my carefully scripted existence. I had followed my parents’ North Star and not my own. I had no clue who I was apart from the role I learned to play in my family. My shock at living a lie initially immobilized me, but eventually that awakening catapulted me on a journey of self-discovery. I was determined to unearth my true identity, regardless of what it took, even if it meant walking away from my marriage. I had never lived alone. I had never been responsible for myself, let alone two children. But I knew I had to strike out on my own or die inside. It was a year before I worked up the courage to make that giant leap.
It was then my life began. For umpteen years I worked to deconstruct and re-perceive myself, to discern how many of the ways I defined myself were inherited and blindly accepted. I spent countless hours peeling away the myths I learned in my family, shocked at times to discover all the ways I cannibalized my authentic self to be accepted by them, and still never felt good enough.
Who am I? It’s been a long, arduous, sometimes painful and sometimes joyous journey of stripping away what was not me. Much like Michaelangelo, I chipped away at the block of marble to free the figure slumbering in the stone. I had abundant help. I made a lot of mistakes, missteps, and course corrections. I’m still actively chipping away at detritus of the past. I don’t know if that will even end. I’m not sure I want it to.
I have consistently questioned myself. I have pushed and prodded my assumptions, searching for blind spots. Some of the questions I’ve asked myself are:
- Do the values I learned as a child imbue my life with meaning? Are they consistent with who I am now?
- Where do I draw the line between making cooperative adjustments in relationships and giving up who I am to remain in a relationship?
- When does my need to belong and accommodate cross that line into sacrificing or obliterating what makes me unique?
- What is a healthy balance between individuality and community?
- What parts of me remain buried treasures waiting to be excavated?
Discovering our authentic identity requires the willingness to remove our masks and become quiet enough to hear the still small voice within, to be intimate and vulnerable enough to risk listening to our souls rather than our egos. Doing so requires a safe, non-judgmental space where we can accept ourselves, warts and all–a place where we can heal our wounds and find the lessons within without being shamed.
In hindsight, it’s clear I have spent much of my adulthood ReVisioning my life, attempting to make sense and meaning of all that I have experienced. I have achieved a measure of peace. I don’t walk around angry anymore. I have eliminated blame from my life, and it is rare for my buttons to get pushed . . . for long, and most of the time I am able to see both sides of an issue, even though I may be aligned with one.
I now know who I am and that has made all the difference . . . in the relationship I have with myself and the ones I have with others. I am infinitely more confident that when I enter the world to come, I will have succeeded in the challenge to be myself.