Self-esteem, dementia and the good-enough life

By BLUMA EKSHTUT
September 21, 2019 21:06
4 minute read.
Self-esteem, dementia and the good-enough life

YOUNG PROFESSIONALS land in Israel on a Nefesh B’Nefesh charter aliyah flight.. (photo credit: SHAHAR AZRAN)

5780 will mark 20 years since my husband, Mike, and I have officially been baalei teshuvah (BT, “returnees to Judaism”) and three years since immigrating to Israel. Every BT has a tale of how they reconnected to their Jewish roots and practices. They are like war stories or battle scars – every detail magnificently orchestrated, a path intricately intertwined that, only in retrospect, do we realize God’s hand in it all, which inspires others and fortifies ourselves.

Here are a few takeaways that give me pause, and renew my gratitude to be a Jewess in our homeland, raising proud Jews among our people. 

My condensed battle-tale: It was 1996, the sun piercing through the windshield of my car was not the reason my tears were streaming. My family had been falling apart for a while: My parents were divorcing, my brother had gone “rogue” and became a Chabadnik (“at least he’s not on drugs,” a family member ameliorated), my older sister married a non-Jew, and my baby sister had fallen ill. I cried out to God, “Why is this happening to my family? What am I doing wrong?” 

I glanced next to me at the passenger seat in my car, the stolen clothing I had acquired moments before reflected my answer to me. Could this be contributing to my family’s misfortune? Does it really matter to God that I stole something, or cheated on a test, or made fun of someone’s adversity, or gossiped about a friend?

I know, I sound like I was an awful person. I was actually quite typical. No one I knew, not one person, limited themselves because it was against God’s will. All that mattered was not getting caught. However, as the sunshine penetrated me, it illuminated what I hadn’t been able (or willing) to admit: It did matter, it was wrong, and it was time to change.

As I peeled back the layers of “misinformation” that blinded me and made my aveirot (sins) seem ethereal and irrelevant, I joined the BT movement, a global metamorphosis, Jews of every age and stage choosing to recognize and observe the laws that liberate us from confusion and loneliness, and this rejuvenated my sense of being.

I began to realize that everything we have is a gift, and gifts must be received with gratitude. Once we acknowledge that everything we have is from God, and everything we don’t have is too, then stealing, cheating, lying and gossiping become obvious on/off switches to our connection with Him.

The more I became honest, trustworthy, reliable and careful with my words, the stronger my self-worth grew, the more robust my self-esteem became. I finally had clarity, no longer solely at the whims of secular norms and personal insecurities. Thankfully, though, God doesn’t ask us for perfection.

WHICH BRINGS me to dementia. The research says that a way to thwart the onset of dementia is by learning new things. Crossword puzzles or Sudoku, while a fun pastime, run on pre-existing grooves already developed, and if those grooves are weakening, it is the nascent neural pathways from new experiences that strengthen our cognitive abilities and increase our memory.

Enter aliyah! There is literally no end to the things I do not know and need to know. My growth trajectory is blowing up the graph. Like becoming a BT, being an olah chadasha (new immigrant) offers language acquisition, acculturation, assimilation, accommodation, hesitation, trepidation and indigestion. Learning to cope is the only way to survive the onslaught of novel experiences that, while a protection against dementia, will swallow you up and spit you out if you don’t create the new grooves. It is raw, vulnerable and humbling.

While the American in me expects these grooves to be perfectly even in distance and width, carefully tended to, and efficiently used, the Israeli in me is learning to live a “good enough” life. As the saying goes, “Perfection is the enemy of progress,” and a fool’s errand in Eretz Yisrael. Nothing here is “perfect.” A chandelier 18 cm. from center, newly-installed shower doors five degrees off alignment (“Don’t worry,” reassured the installer, “it’ll still work.”), and so on.

Learning to accept things as “good enough” has not been by choice, but it is a game-changer. It frees up space in my mind – the space that would be filled with tension from imperfection. It reverberates a sense of shalom in my heart, grounding my ability to accept things as passable (not perfect), and helps me feel more gratitude and appreciation for what I have.

It creates compassion for people, too, because we see how no one, not one single person, is perfect. But we are all trying each and every moment to choose to be good, to be helpful, to be kind, and to say no to things forbidden (I still crave REAL sour cream on beef fajitas from Avila’s Mexican Restaurant in El Paso, TX). It is an attitude that works in marriage, in parenting, and in life in general. It is the epitome of “being content with our lot.”

May we be blessed this New Year with a renewed contentment for God’s gifts, both revealed and concealed. May we accept the myriad challenges to learn new things and be successful in doing so. May we see the good that we do, and try to do more than we may want to (because we need it), and may we be blessed with a good enough life. L’shana Tova u’metuka l’kulam – A good and sweet year to all!

The writer is a clinical psychologist who immigrated to Israel in August 2016 from Dallas, Texas, (by way of Seattle, WA) with her husband, Mike, and their four children (plus one post-aliyah lovechild).


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