Beth* had spent most of her adolescence in and out of psychiatric inpatient units and had already been in individual therapy for three years when we started our work together. After a few months, it became apparent to both of us that overall, Beth was feeling confident in her ability to manage her emotions and was functioning well. Yet something was amiss. Though she insisted she was feeling better and reported no new problems or concerns, every time we spoke about termination, Beth returned the next week having experienced some crisis or uptick in symptoms.
I sensed that Beth was hesitant to leave therapy, and after consulting with my supervisor, I gently observed to Beth the pattern I had noticed whenever we discussed the possibility of ending therapy. I wondered out loud whether Beth had any reservations about letting go of the support and security therapy offered, or whether there might be something else in the way of Beth successfully ending her tenure as patient. Beth’s eyes filled with tears as she shared that she was afraid to leave therapy because, after spending the greater part of a decade in intensive treatment, she simply did not know “what else [she] could be besides sick.” Overcome with emotion, Beth shared that she was terrified of what she perceived to be the burden of health. She worried that being able to cope with life in a healthy and effective way was too great a responsibility, and moreover, she furtively confided that she did not know who she was in the absence of severe mental health struggles.
This revelation and Beth’s willingness to confront these very valid fears served as the springboard for the remainder of her therapy. In addition to learning who she was and what she valued beyond her struggles with anxiety and depression, Beth also had to challenge the myth that terminating therapy meant that forevermore, she had to always be able to cope perfectly on her own. Having spent so many years learning how to struggle, Beth needed ample time to create a vision for what Marsha Linehan calls “building a life worth living,” to embrace the possibility of who she could be beyond her mental health.
In his book The Person in the Parsha, Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb writes about the work of Dr. Robert Desoille, a psychologist who studied what he called the repression of the sublime. Desoille posited that just as we have a tendency to repress unwanted, dangerous, or unpleasant urges or memories, we also tend to repress or push away positive hopes, dreams, and goals that we have for ourselves. To a large extent, we are afraid of success, hesitant to do well, to truly reach our potential, to accomplish all that we say we aspire toward. Sometimes, what others can easily and readily perceive as “good” can feel threatening to us because as soon as we excel at something, we create a new expectation that we must now never fail at that thing again. We unwittingly buy into myths about what our success might mean for us, and cave under the pressure of expectations and the fear of failure, clinging instead to self-sabotage, or at the very least, to the mundane monotony of the status-quo.
Repression of the sublime, says R’ Dr. Weinreb, applies as well to our spiritual and religious growth. If we were to truly consider and embrace the possibility of all we could achieve in our Avodas Hashem, we might become filled with anxiety about our inability to “keep up” with what we could achieve, or worry of letting go of some previous iteration of our spiritual selves. At the same time, however, by succumbing to this fear we foreclose on our endless potential of spiritual and emotional growth and wellbeing.
In Parshas Haazinu, Moshe admonishes the Jewish people, “Tzur yeladcha teshi, vatishkach kel micholilecha,” you neglected the Rock that bore you, and forgot the God Who brought you forth (32:18). R’ Weinreb asks the following powerful question: How can one simply forget God? It is one thing to deny God, or to claim atheism, but certainly either one believes or does not believe – what does it mean to forget Him altogether?
Perhaps one idea is that we do not only selectively forget our own potential, but we also tend to repress the idea of God because to be conscious of God at every moment means also to be faced with difficult choices at every turn, and to have to take Him seriously, for better or for worse. Additionally, truly remembering God means maintaining the awareness that we are created in His image, that our potential is infinite, and that He believes in us. This is especially relevant now in the time between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Having just “remembered” Hashem and His Kingship on Rosh Hashana, we have uncovered the sublime knowledge that we usually keep safely tucked away and invisible. As soon as we coronate Hashem and are reminded of His infinite glory, we are also reminded of our deep and incredible connection with Him as His beloved nation. Moshe notes in his Shiras Haazinu that despite our neglect of God, “Ki Chelek Hashem Amo,” we are Hashem’s portion (32:9). Acknowledging God means acknowledging our own inherent Godliness, and the “burden of health” of a life of meaning, growth, and spiritual connection.
From within the dissonance created in the gap between this realization and our self-reflection as we prepare to atone for our sins, we begin to question ourselves. Are we really worthy of this magnificent relationship with God? Can we really “keep up” with all that such a relationship entails? Wouldn’t it be easier to just repress our potential, forget God’s greatness and sovereignty, and return to the state of blissful ignorance from whence we came? In this swirl of doubt and self-imposed pressure, we forget about the pain of living a life without God awareness. We convince ourselves that our mediocre spirituality, fraught with sin and disconnection, is “not that bad.”
It is with this psychic tension that we approach Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. On Yom Kippur, we do the opposite of repression. Rather than internalizing our shame at all our misdeeds, we tell God about every single one. Instead of quashing our hurt and anguish and anger, we demand answers, we lament losses. And, resisting the urge to put God awareness away for another year, we cry out, “Hashem Hu Ha’Elokim,” with every fiber of our being yearning to be able to accept this reality.
It is scary to consider that we actually can heal, grow, change, improve, and excel. Consideration of all we can be inherently leaves room for failure and disappointment, those fast friends of fear and anxiety, the byproducts of which are usually avoidance and stagnation. When we say Viduy on Yom Kippur, we can easily fall back into the trap of over-identifying with the past iteration of ourselves - the one who, because she is human, messed up this year. We might say, “Look at all the terrible things I did this year! Of course, I am not capable of growth or change. I am stuck. Don’t tell me I can be better – clearly every year I prove that theory wrong! Let me stay here, in the grey, in the struggle. Don’t make me think about how great I could be, or the capacity of my relationship with Hashem, like I did on Rosh Hashana. Let me instead settle back into the comfort of self-deprecation and denying my potential, let me focus on all the things that are wrong with me.”
Yet we know that this is actually the opposite of what Viduy is meant to accomplish. Rav Wolbe writes in Alei Shor (Vol. 1 p.168) that every individual must see him or herself as uniquely special, and must give thought to his or her traits, strengths, and abilities, the tools with which we can make an indelible impact on the world in our own particular way. It is especially essential that we give this idea consideration as we approach Yom Kippur, because it is all too easy to get lost in the practice of self-flagellation as we atone for our collective sins; it is decidedly challenging to bear in mind our strengths when we’re consumed with accounting for our weaknesses. The goal of Viduy, though, is for us to recognize that sin is a part of growth. Torah was given to man, and it is meant to be upheld by humans as we are – flawed, and with endless potential.
If we find ourselves shying away from that potential, if we hear our inner voices chiding, “here you are again, repenting for the same things - you’re hopeless!” we must ask ourselves, what am I afraid of? If I were to embrace the possibility of growth and change, what am I telling myself that would mean for me? Am I unknowingly creating unreasonable and unrealistic expectations, assuming that if I actually improve in a specific area, or if I really increase my God consciousness, then suddenly I must be perfect and infallible? Am I afraid of letting go of some part of my life, some comfort or habit, and have I decided without further preamble that I cannot both live a Godly life and be human and susceptible to the draws of desire and comfort? Do I know who I am beyond being a sinner?
This Shabbos Shuva, and this Yom Kippur, try not to get too comfortable in the chair of the repentant sinner. Ask yourself, who else can I be, if I simply allow myself the opportunity to dream of the life I want to build? What strengths do I have that I am afraid to utilize? What limits have I set on myself, for fear of failure, or fear of my own or others’ expectations? It is imperative to admit our wrongdoings and ask for forgiveness, but it is equally imperative to allow ourselves the opportunity to grow and the possibility to heal.