One of the numerous possible benefits and goals of therapy is the opportunity for people to reflect on their lives from multiple angles to create a coherent narrative that allows them to gain perspective and live more meaningfully and intentionally. Beyond managing emotions, modifying cognitions, or learning skills to change behaviors, the process of self-discovery that can occur through effective therapy is one of assessing patterns, analyzing events and unique experiences that could not be internalized or fully understood while they were occurring, in order to make sense of where one has been, what one has gone through, and where one wants to be.
A patient of mine, we’ll call her Lauren, had spent over a decade in and out of various treatment centers for multiple presenting problems. When we started our work together, she was mostly skeptical of the possibility of any progress or lasting change, and tended to make comments about the likelihood that she wouldn’t last in therapy and would probably either quit treatment or end up in the hospital. Lauren once presented me with what she called a “Life Map,” a timeline of her life since childhood. Rather than being marked by developmental milestones such as lost teeth, graduations, first relationships, or the like, Lauren’s Life Map was a veritable medical record of her psychiatric treatment history. It outlined events that had landed her in inpatient and residential treatment centers, and all of the “failed” therapy experiences she had accrued over the years.
I noted to Lauren that this document read more like a treatment map than a life map, and asked her to make some edits to increase its accuracy. Life, we agreed, had certainly been eclipsed to a large degree by her mental health history, but it was by no means completely consumed by it. Lauren initially balked at this suggestion, noting that mapping out all of her struggles helped her to feel like her pain was real, that she had been through something. This was certainly valid, and yet at the same time, Lauren’s map also made it difficult for her to entertain the idea that her future life map could be less focused on her treatment and more full of what she hoped to do with all her many abilities and dreams for herself. Slowly, we added details to Lauren’s map that highlighted not only her struggles and periods of psychiatric treatment, but also her personal milestones – winning her high school lacrosse championships, graduating high school and college, getting accepted to graduate school. When our updated map was further filled in, Lauren said, “Wow. OK, yes. That’s a better map of my life.” With this more complete picture, we could begin to give better direction to what she wanted the next decade of life map to look like.
In Parshas Maasei, we read about the Masaos, or travels, that the Jewish people traveled in the desert during the course of their forty-year sojourn before reaching Eretz Yisrael. The pasuk relates (33:1), “These were the travels of the Jewish people from when they left Egypt,” and then enumerates the various stops Bnei Yisrael made along the way. If we operate under the premise that the Torah does not contain even one extra letter, let alone several extra verses, we are left wondering why the Torah feels the need to recount all of these travels; don’t the pesukim more or less describe the Jewish peoples’ travels throughout the books of Shemos, Vayikra, and Bamidbar? Why are we taking up the scroll space to describe these travels again?
The Seforno explains that Hashem wanted to highlight the tremendous gadlus of the Jewish people, who followed Him through the wilderness with tremendous faith. And yet, when the Pesukim relay Bnei Yisrael’s stop in Refidim and note (33:14), “it was there that the people had no water to drink,” it is impossible not to remember the grave sins of Klal Yisrael when they complained about water. This is true of many of the places they camped where calamities occurred. What is the point of reminding the Jews of all of the terrible things that befell them over the last forty years just as they are trying to move forward and enter Eretz Yisrael?
Rashi (33:1) explains according to R’ Tanchuma that this can be understood through a parable of a king who has traveled a great distance with his son to procure a special antidote for his son’s illness. Upon their return, the king recounts with gratitude and sentimentality all of the places they stopped on their journey, and how the prince was feeling or what occurred at each place. According to this understanding of the pesukim, the purpose of recounting the Masaos is neither to know where the Jews camped nor to bemoan or dwell upon the tragedies that befell them, but rather to recall and to learn from the spiritual and emotional growing pains of the forty year journey that shaped us as a nation and created the foundation of our national relationship with our Father in heaven. Every stop along the journey was a pivot point, a moment of growth, a formative stage of our development as a nation and our collective readiness to enter the Land of Israel.
The Nesivos Shalom and others note that every person has forty-two Masaos in their lifetime, stops on their life journey that shape and define their life story, their character, and who they are meant to become. Our responsibility is only to try to grow further, to learn something from each stage and encounter and milestone in our lives. And yet, even while each stop on our journey influences the way we feel and think as we set off toward the next one, HaKadosh Baruch Hu also places along our life paths intentional moments and opportunities for Hischadshus, renewal. Despite the impact that each phase of our journey has on the next one, our lives are not a prearranged set of dominos designed to fall without interruption or redirection no matter what we do. Rather, even while there are core moments throughout our lives that affect us, there are also myriad opportunities for renewal and reinvention. A life map, a list of our travels, experiences, trials, and triumphs, is not necessarily a predetermined formula for our future.
Throughout our lives, we are constantly having experiences and encountering people who are going to change the course of our journeys. A friend recently described it thusly: every one of us is a piece of art, being molded and sculpted by experiences and relationships, and just as others shape us, so too we are constantly sculpting and shaping others. It is only too easy to look back on our lives or on specific sculpting experiences and focus on the negative, the struggles we’ve had, the losses we’ve sustained, the failures or disappointments we’ve suffered. Yet, doing so is only as useful as our ability to learn from those experiences and synthesize them as well with the incredible resilience we’ve exhibited, the times we followed God’s plan with as much faith as we could muster, despite our circumstances.
Oftentimes, we tend to focus too much on one particular Masaah, one stage in our lives that we either idealize or devalue, and we struggle to free ourselves from that one snapshot of our lives. We dwell on what was, or on what might have been, rather than seeing the many events and moments that have shaped us. While it is important, perhaps even crucial, to be able to go back and reflect on the moments and events that have impacted and shaped us, it is also integral to recognize that it is only shaping that is happening. Each step, each stage, each high and low and plateau, is molding and remolding us into new and improved versions of our best and most expansive selves. We are forever being sculpted and molded; no version of past selves was the final masterpiece.
This week, consider what moments, events, or relationships would shape your life map. We may not have the privilege of knowing exactly which encounters or experiences encompass the forty-two Masaos of our lives, but we do get to decide what we think about, what we dwell on, what we cling to, and how we seek to renew ourselves and shape our futures. Try to zoom out and see your life journeys from multiple angles, and ask yourself what you have learned, what you carry with you from your past experiences that can continue to shape and sculpt you, and what must be discarded so that it no longer chips away at you in unhelpful ways. It is imperative that we not cling to any one moment in our lives any more than any other moment; when learning from the past, we must try to see the whole picture of it – the good, the bad, and the ugly. And, perhaps more importantly, we cannot get stuck only on where we have been – rather, we must strive to use this reflection to outline where we want to go.