Walking the Talk

May 9, 2009

6 min read


I try to listen to my inner voice, become a better person, grow spiritually, break habits… but it's just not happening!

Dear Rebbetzin Feige,

Over the past few years, I've become a sort of self-help guru. From anger management to greater levels of happiness, to self-esteem, I've managed to blaze my way through every "do it yourself book." I read websites, listen to my mentors, and check with my friends for personal insight and advice. I try to listen to my inner voice, become a better person, grow spiritually, break habits….but it's just not happening. I just can't seem to move forward! There's character development, career goals, better personal relationships, among a bazillion other areas to tackle. Habits are hard to break. I'm feeling like there's a major disconnect between my knowledge and how that translates into my behavior. Your whole life you hear, "Be the best you" and it's frustrating because I just don't know how to do that.

Yours Truly,

Rebbetzin Feige responds:

My dear reader,

Your struggle is not an uncommon one. Old habits and patterns of behavior are very difficult to change or break. Rabbi Israel Salanter, head of the Mussar movement, declared that the loudest sound in the universe is that of someone breaking an existing mode of behavior. The good news, however, is that the will of the human being, if invoked, can be even more powerful than habitual behavior.

The will of the human being can be even more powerful than habitual behavior.

Your pursuing ‘knowledge' and information is certainly a good start and speaks to the fact that you appreciate the importance of self growth. Indeed, our sages teach that all of us come to this world deficient and lacking in some aspect of our being. Our life's work is to identify these areas and move towards perfecting them.

A humorous anecdote is told of a congregant who, after much time and effort spent to cultivate a beautiful garden, invited his clergyman to behold the fruits of his labor. The clergyman, upon viewing the verdant field was duly impressed and exclaimed, "Oh my, what magnificence the Lord has wrought here!" To which the congregant retorted, "You should have seen it when the Lord had it all to himself". Clearly, the Almighty gives us the raw materials, the seeds, the potential in character and personality, but it is our task to cultivate and bring the best of ourselves to fruition.

Dear reader, progress happens not by leaps and bounds but in tiny increments, in small steps. At times, they are almost imperceptible but the cumulative effect over time is undeniable.

Rather that taking a critical stance towards yourself, carefully mark and acknowledge even the slightest forward movement in the right direction. It may initially consist of only one out of 20 times that your response to a situation is tempered and more positive. You may be a long way from your goal but remember that nothing breeds success like success. Be assured that if you can do it once, you can do it many times. Remember that one situation handled admirably, i.e. control of temper, envy, lashing out, withholding negativity, etc. has very far reaching ramifications, ripple effects that impact past, present and future that may never come to your immediate attention but which, nevertheless, shake the cosmos.


Susan had spent the day decluttering the house, tidying and organizing spaces that were long overdue for attention and kept smiling at herself as she envisioned the surprised and delighted reaction her husband was sure to have. She also prepared delicacies she knew he would die for. Larry walked into the house totally oblivious to his surroundings, claimed he wasn't hungry, picked up the newspaper and was, for all practical purposes, non-communicative and nonexistent.

It wasn't a malicious, calculated attempt to affront her. It wasn't about her. It was about him.

Susan, hurt and mortified, was just about to go into her self-pitying victim mode when she stopped herself and allowed herself to listen to the better part of herself, her innate wisdom, that suggested that this wasn't about her. It wasn't a malicious, calculated attempt to affront her. It wasn't about her. It was about him. Something was amiss in his state of well being, either something happened at the office, he wasn't feeling good or etc., etc.

Instead of reflexively reacting with the usual biting and critical remarks, Susan approached Larry with compassion and understanding. Her self-control had made it safe for him to share what was on his mind. Instead of a situation that would have driven a wedge between them and spiraled out of control, leaving bruised and scarred psyches in its wake, Susan and Larry came closer together and the entire family benefited.

A seemingly small act of control, of relinquishing ego, not only avoided destructive strife, but fostered love in the home. Frustrating traffic situations, endless lines at the checkout lane, in-laws who can test our limits, spouses and children who push our buttons -- all of these are opportunities. Though not heralded in headlines, they most definitely qualify for Neil Armstrong's historic comment, "One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind". If we were to have spiritual lenses to see the power unleashed by our deeds, we would understand that the ramifications of our every act, however minuscule, is huge.

Every moment of life presents opportunities and we need to apply a conscious and deliberate effort to engage them productively and constructively. The greatest pride and sense of achievement in life comes from being in control of one's behavior -- of making the right choice. Our sages have taught that the world exists in the merit of a person who holds their tongue in a moment of altercation and strife.

Yankela, my then three-year-old grandson, was holding onto the stroller carrying his younger sister as they went out on a stroll with their mother. His mother cautioned Yankela, who has a tendency to be spacey, to pay attention as they approached the intersection and oncoming traffic. Later, when he started to get restless and fidgety, she again called his attention to his behavior. Exasperated by her many instructions, he finally exploded saying, "Mommy, you keep telling me what to do and what not to do. Leave me alone! I want to do what I want to do and not what you want me to do."

At a very basic, though perhaps more sophisticated level, all of us resist authority. We want to do what we want to do. All self-growth entails the curbing and parking of one's ego and submitting to the Godly, better part of ourselves.

The proverbial ladder that stands firmly on the ground but reaches into the heavens is accessible to all of us, one rung at a time. All we need to do is exercise that which is the hallmark of the human being -- will, choice and patience. Good luck!

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