Thursday, February 3, 2011

I will become laid back. Really.

[I love this post at Life in Israel, even though we didn’t build them in the first place.]

Okay, so everyone who has known me during the past 20-plus years is laughing at the title to this post. But I’m actually serious.

Since mid-adolescence, I’ve unconsciously pressed myself into Type-A, schedule/rush behavior, along the way to certain goals. While in YU I wanted to complete certain sefarim, and I pushed to do that. Then I became a rabbi, and I pressed in a lot of different directions. Then I entered the world of the start-up kollel, and I’ve packed my schedule since Day 1. I had good reason for doing these things – I wanted the best and broadest success, and my role models were people who had led hard-driving, 24-7 lives. And that wasn’t bad, and, thank Gd, I’ve had some success and I’ve been healthy.

But the pressure makes me anxious, and when I'm under great pressure I become irritable, and for some time now I’ve begun to believe two ideas:
1 – It is possible to be hard-driving, 24-7, and still be laid back in going about it.
2 – Anxiety and tension are not what I want or need.

Psychologists like to say that people don’t change unless their current situation becomes unbearable. I don’t agree (unless you tautologically define the situations in which people attempt change as a priori unbearable). My life is quite bearable and satisfying, and I’m doing well, thank Gd. But I still want this change.

I want it because people who are laid back live longer. (Case in point: I daven mainly in two shuls when I’m in Israel, the Nasi on Ussishkin and the GRA shul in Shaarei Chesed. In both of those, during this past week’s trip, I learned that long-time stalwarts of the minyan, men who always struck me as strongly Type A and who were not that old, had died recently.) Enjoying my children, and Gd-willing grandchildren some day, is a priority of mine.

I want it because anxiety is habit-forming and contagious; it spreads, quickly, from necessary situations to silliness. Certainly, worrying about antagozing people, or about doing a poor job, makes sense. But once I begin to worry about major issues, that anxiety spreads to matters like missing a train (you can catch the next one, or just start out earlier), or sitting behind a slow-moving car in traffic.

I want it because this is the kind of life I want to model for my children. In the beginning of this week I described my belief that a primary job of parents is to teach their children how to cope; if my children would see me grow tense and upset over problems and prospective problems, they would naturally emulate this (at least until they would become mature enough to rebel, anyway).

I want it because I believe this is Jewishly correct. The concept of bitachon (trusting Gd to choose what is best for you) demands a degree of surrender, and emphasis on personal control encourages the illusion of כחי ועוצם ידי, that I am the source of my accomplishments.

And I want it because I like people who are laid back.

I believe that sheviras hamidos, breaking one’s traits, is possible. And I’m going to try.

I will still aim to accomplish everything, but I will be more careful about the cost/benefit in investing time in that goal. In the past I would willingly devote uncalled-for hours to pursue an additional tangent for a shiur, for example; I will need to remind myself daily to avoid that.

I will need to recognize the fungability of time – that time spent in one place truly can be made up elsewhere, on most occasions, and so I don’t need to be uptight about losing 15 minutes here or there. This realization can do wonders for road rage.

Finally, I will commit myself to Rush Happy. This means looking for humor in potentially-frustrating situations which really aren’t the end of the world, but which can feel like it (like when I boarded the plane for my return trip from Israel and realized I didn’t have a power outlet to charge my computer; or when I arrived in Newark from Israel to discover that my connection to Toronto had been cancelled). And it means that even when I need to rush, such as in leaving minyan early for carpool, I can keep in mind the positive aspects of the things I get to do – like driving carpool.

I don’t know that I’ll succeed, but I’m going to try. Advice and chizuk (encouragement) welcome.


  1. If your progress toward laid-backness hits some snags, don't let that become a new source of irritability or frustration.

  2. Lot's to talk about (and feel free to contact me realtime if you ever are interested in the perspective of someone who is a bit further down the road) but in the meantime I'd suggest (oh oh it is TUM but not T) rereading "If" by Kipling - especially
    "If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
    Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
    And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!

    Joel Rich

  3. My mom is the most laid back person I know. In her case, it is a reflection of her confidence that she has done and is doing what G-d put her here to do. Perhaps that is the truest route to calm. If a person believes she is fulfilling her purpose, what is there to rush towards?

  4. I have a few pictures around the house and in my files of personalities who inspired me. You know, my rosh yeshiva and other rabbanim. A few great secular figures.

    And Alfred E. Newman.

    What? Me worry?


  5. Bob-

    Definitely a good read. Thanks.

    Anon 10:57 AM-
    Unless her purpose is to run?

    R' Mordechai-
    Cute; thanks.

  6. a true story, my father in law, a real make sammy run type, walked into a book store and saw a poster about taking the time to smell the roses. he told the clerk he wanted one, and the clerk replied that they were on the second floor. my father in law said he didn't have the time to go up there, and left the store.

    but Rabbi, good luck with that anyway.

  7. I was half-serious, actually.

    I used to make it a habit to read the comics/funnies every day. I might just glance at the news stories, but I read the comics regularly. And sometimes found good material for teaching, I might add.

    Similarly, when I had a break during my school years, I'd go for a quick walk or just shoot some baskets. I was actually chastised by one boss for the shooting baskets. Said I should be doing school work. I preferred to maintain my sanity.

    When I was a shul rav, I refused to carry a pager. Almost every week I spent a half day or a day in the mountains. Sure, there was always something that needed to be done. At the very least, I could sit and learn (though I really like listening to shiurim in the car, too). But the ability to judiciously let go is also avodah.

    Baruch Hashem, by my students' and families' testimonies, I was a pretty good teacher much of the time. And I don't have ulcers.

    Get that framed portrait of Alfred E. Newman. ;-)

  8. Rabbi--

    your posting made me think of a question I have thought about on and off for some time --to what extent is a person an oved hashem who wants to use every moment to accomplish something and to what extent is that person a type A personality who happens to be an orthodox Jew.

    I of course am not suggesting that this applies to you or other Rabbis, but I believe it does apply to plenty of people (myself certainly included) who work as a lawyer or on wall street or some other business and work very hard, but are makpid not to miss minyan, to have their learning sedarim no matter what time of day or night etc.

    Any thoughts on this problem?

  9. Anonymous 10:42 AM-
    Thanks for your thoughtful comment, but I'm not sure it's actually a problem. This person could have used his Type A-ness in many different directions, depending upon his values. Why isn't this an instance of using one's "gifts" for avodas HaShem?