These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

“What would George do?” On Tshuvah and changing the way we think about change

Posted on September 13, 2018 by Mira Niculescu

The other day, my friend Hilorie told me about this wonderful technique she has been using for years in her psychotherapy practice. She tells her patients about this Seinfeld Episode in which George wanted to change things in his life.

Remember George? The little fat, balding, glasses wearing and bitterness wreaking single middle-aged man, as stingy as he is frustrated and as unsuccessfully as he is ambitious, and adorably moody all the time?

We love George. But he isn’t too happy.

So this time, he decided to go about things differently: in every life situation he encountered, he would ask himself ‘What would George do?”

Only this time, he would do just the opposite.

And suddenly, his life started changing: George saw, within minutes, doors opening, opportunities coming, women smiling, and all the great things of life he, up until now, thought were so out of reach, starting to happen.

Of course, soon enough, he starts freaking out, forgets about his good resolutions, reverts to his old self, and…. Goes back to where he was.

This is what fascinates me about tshuva.

In this Ellul period, where a lot of us are thinking not only about which honey cake and who to invite and which shirt to wear on Rosh Hashana (which by the way are all very important thingsas well),  in this period where we are also reflecting on our  own tshuva, I want to invite us to think about George a little.

Because what I see, a lot in me and around me, is, most of the time, how much we want things to change, but without really thinking of changing ourselves.

Be it because we want to achieve this thing professionally, or fix this thing in our relationships, or get married, or quit drinking, smoking, overeating and the like, or leave any situation … wherever we still feel we are stuck, the patterns looks like this: we really keep “wishing” things to change,  we keep trying even… and yet, it seems like we keep failing.

So here’s what I’ve learned (from an extensive experience of witnessing and experiencing failure): if it didn’t work when you tried this way, it won’t work better the second time. Or the thousand.

Don’t get me wrong. Trying again is very important. In fact, it is essential for change. This is how we learn. This is how we get better. This is how we get stronger. This is how we succeed. Transformation takes practice. The only thing is, if we keep trying the same way, we’re not actually trying again. We’re just repeating failure.

I see this constantly around me. One of my best friends has been overweight since she’s a teen. She’s been trying to lose weight since she’s a teen. And she keeps trying the same way:  dieting while eating cookies, watching gorgeous bikini girls in magazines and wishful thinkying, and trying to will power again, and… just putting on more weight.

Because she’s never tackled the problem differently. She’s never gone to the source. She’s never looked at why, something in her actually really needs to eat -and shoes, every time, to go for it. Attachment to self-image (even if negative), shame, laziness, fear, lack of trust (in ourselves, life, God), etc, are among the real reasons why we don’t actually change.

This is why my friend has been trying the same way, all her life. And she’s kept failing. And if keeps trying the same way, she can keep trying for eons. It will end up just the same. I can bet my future fantasy house in Thailand on that.

Same story with my friend who keeps wanting to get married, and it’s jut not happening. I’m not talking Gertrude Stein here. I’m talking my gorgeous, clever, funny, adorable, successful- including with men- bombshell sexy friend, here. Why? God, why? Would you ask. Well. Because she keeps sincerely “trying” on the surface, but without being willing to look, deep inside, very very deep inside, at why something inside of her actually doesn’t want that. (Yes, mother, this is self-reflexive writing).

Ambivalent desire, my friend.

Replace these issues with getting pregnant, leaving an abusive relationship, getting respect in the family, finishing a Phd -or any project for that matter, becoming successful at work, or anything, but anything else. Just not happening.

Family conditioning, symptoms of what’s dysfunctional in us, yester ha ra. Again, call it what you will. Ambivalent desire is the evil shadow being that prevents many of us to move forward in life. It’s hard to admit, that something in us may not really want what we think we really really want.

Resist to acknowledge this as we will. In the meantime, we’ll be like George: stuck, frustrated, and in pain –even if we’re a gorgeous, golden curly, crystal laughter, shiny moon smiling young woman- or man who keeps being poor, or lonely, or dissatisfied.

Yet ut we all agree on that: all of us, we just-deserve-to-be-happy.

So nu, yalla, let’s tackle this tshuva thing.

What if we looked at all the ways we’ve been trying to deal with those things up until now, and what if, this time, we did just the opposite?

This is how Maimonides describes the process of Tshuva: in hilchot ha tshuva (2.2), he instructs us that the completion of the process of tshuva happens when, placed in a similar situation, we choose to act differently. To him, this is what is meant in the prophetic writing of Yeshayahu: “The wicked man shall abandon his path” (Yeshayahu 55:7). Abandoning a wrong path is a positive action: it necessarily means choosing another one.

So our lives will change just to the extent that we change our behavior. And our behavior will change just to the extent that we first accept to look very honestly, but very honestly, like to look in the eyes, at our old patterns.

And then go see a therapist when necessary, or get our ass to a twelve steps meeting, rather than trying that will power yet again. Cuz looking without acting is like stalking someone’s profile on Facebook and never asking them out. It just won’t happen.

This is the thing about tshuva: it’s not reality that has to change, it’s us. And magically, when we do change, the whole morphology of our life starts changing; Naturally. That’s the magic of change. But we have to be ready to say good bye to the old self first.

In that sense, it’s actually not “us” who is going to change. The one who kept failing will just stay there, behind. This one can’t change; It’s a new self that will emerge from us.

When George stops acting like Georges, he loses a bit of his old familiar self.

So to put it more bluntly, change does requires us to die a little.

But isn’t it after all, the whole performance we go through on yom kippur?

As my teacher Adyashanti says, the caterpillar doesn’t get to become a butterfly. In the process of transformation, the caterpillar disappears; he dies to himself, so can emerge something totally new.

Are you ready ?