As I’ve mentioned, we’re now into the Hebrew month of Elul, which is the introspection month before Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) in a few weeks’ time. I’m signed up for a couple of daily ideas videos/talks for Elul and one idea that keeps coming up this year is the idea of mitzvot (commandments) that govern your relationship with yourself.
When I was growing up, I was always taught that there are two categories of mitzvot: those between me and God and those between me and other people. An example of the former is eating only kosher food. An example of the latter is not gossiping. When I got older this idea of mitzvot between me and myself appeared, but I’ve rarely heard it dealt with until recently. To be honest, this time last year I sat through a whole shiur (religious class) on this topic and still left wondering what an example of a mitzvah between me and myself is and how I can work on this area.
I know I do need to work on this area. I know I have self-esteem issues, needless guilt issues and unnecessary shame. I know that if I could accept myself more, I would feel more comfortable in my community and find it easier to make friends and to go to shul (synagogue) more often, so there would be wins in the categories of mitzvot between me and other people and between me and God too. So it would be a win-win, but it’s hard to even begin to unravel what I should do, especially as I haven’t seen many people deal with it at length. One article I found online suggested it’s about developing good character traits, but that’s still somewhat vague in terms of what the actual mitzvot concerned are.
I had my penultimate CBT session today. My therapist suggested a couple of YouTube videos to watch about self-esteem and CBT. I do wonder whether I will be able to continue using the techniques I was taught. I feel as if I haven’t finished learning them all yet. Still, I had some anxiety today and managed it better than I would have done in the past using techniques of grounding, postponing worry and putting things in perspective. The therapist was enthusiastic about my volunteering in the museum, as it would give me an opportunity to practise talking to people in an environment where I am knowledgeable, so I guess I should try to pursue that, although it’s very scary.
One of the videos my therapist suggested I watch was a talk from Lizzie Velasquez, who is a woman with a rare genetic disorder (so rare only three people in the world are known to have it) that means she can’t put on weight (not “excessive weight” but any weight at all), which has obviously affected her body shape and she was bullied a lot at school because of her appearance. A video of her was put online by someone from her school claiming she was “The ugliest woman in the world” and was watched by nine million people, attracting all kinds of hateful comments, including people saying she should kill herself. She was talking about how to take the negativity she has experienced and how she channelled it to push herself forward to achieve her goals in life.
I don’t always find “inspirational” stories that inspirational, but I found this quite inspiring. I suppose I feel that if she isn’t letting herself be defined by her bullies, I don’t have to be defined by mine. I do feel glad I was at school before social media, so I didn’t experience this kind of super-public online bullying. The worst I had was when the school yearbook for GCSE (exams taken aged fifteen or sixteen) year, was banned by the teachers, which apparently was because the kids who wrote/edited it put in a lot of nasty stuff about myself and my friends, although I never found out what they said.
I read an article today by Howard Jacobson (having coincidentally just finished one of his novels yesterday) about finding his voice as a Jewish writer rather than trying to channel his literary heroes. I feel that something similar has happened to me. The books I read are mostly science fiction, murder mystery or nineteenth/early twentieth century classics. I don’t have the type of logical, analytical mind to write a world-building science fiction novel or to plot a murder mystery story and, as Jacobson writes, trying to channel Dickens or Dostoyevsky isn’t really a sensible strategy these days. I don’t read much contemporary literary fiction. I did for a couple of years, when I was attending a book club, but I often struggled to engage with the books. I thought it was me being an SF geek and not liking anything without a space ship, or at least a murder, but lately I’ve come to suspect that I often didn’t engage with the characters because there was no one like me, someone with mental health issues or from a religious Jewish background (I tended to connect more with stories set in religious cultures in other countries e.g. the devout Muslims in Afghanistan in Khaled Hosseini’s novels). The breakthrough I’ve had just in the last few months is realising I can write stories about people like me, people with depression or high functioning autism, people caught on the fault-line between traditional Judaism and (post)modernity, people not sure where they fit in Western culture or outside it. It’s quite exciting.
I spent about an hour working on my novel this evening – really too late in the day to achieve much, but I want to keep the momentum going. I wrote a thousand words, which was good for (a) one hour and (b) 9.00pm. I’m pleased with my progress so far, although it’s very early days still.