When we were children my brother had a distorted old pair of running shoes which he refused to throw away because they were so comfortable. My mother, to no avail, kept telling him that distorted shoes affect your walk and can misshape a growing foot. She also had her own theory for me too. She’d say, if you walk around in very baggy clothing all the time, you’ll grow into them and won’t feel yourself getting fat. Now this is no blog on orthopedics or weight, but the running shoe and sweatpants admonishments have become symbolic life lessons for me. Where she was a pragmatist, I was a philosopher.
How often in life do we fall into what is comfortable for us instead of what is good for us? Too often! People are so reluctant to leave their comfort zones as though it was some exemplary state of being. My mother was right though, wearing more fitting clothes has kept me thin; as for the running shoes, they eventually got tossed. The comfort zone, dear readers, is not your friend. It’s a place where we lull ourselves with excuses, cower in fear and stop seeing who we are and what we are becoming. In the “bagginess” the details get lost and there is no valuable reference frame to measure our lives, our growth and G-d forbid our failures.
How many of us have chosen friends because we feel “comfortable” to be “ourselves” instead of finding friends who are role models and who can teach us something. Motivational speakers say that we are the average of the five people with whom we spend the most time. As author Jim Kwik says, “If you hang out with nine broke people, be sure you’ll be the tenth one.” The Talmudic sages too have something to say on this matter: Firstly, “Distance [your]self from a bad neighbor [friend], and do not befriend an evil person.” As Rabbi Hanina said, “I have learned much from my teachers and even more from my friends….” Comfortable to be “ourselves?” We don’t even know who we are unless we’ve been tried and tested. Have courage to fail! Math teaches us that the more times you try, even if you fail, the more chances you have to succeed. Failure is not a death sentence–it’s a teacher.
It’s sad, no, it’s tragic how many of us get too comfortable in jobs that are beneath us or “love” relationships that diminish us or body sizes that inhibit or habits that kill us? We even grow comfortable in our misery and the toxic voices in our head: “The whole world is bad,” “I’m the only good normal person left” and as such we disengage, stay in our bathrobe, eat a can of Pringles and watch YouTube.
A person has 70,000 thoughts a day. How are those thoughts feeding our choices? Are they poisonous thoughts or healthy? If someone would come up to anyone of us and say that we’re a big loser, a failure, a moron and an idiot etc., we’d tell them where to get off, maybe punch them in the nose. The reply would certainly not be G-dly. So why do we talk to ourselves that way? Judaism prohibits talking badly about people, that includes ourselves. Change your thoughts, change your life.
Yes, it’s intimidating to dip one’s toe in the big wide world because even as we get inspired, we really think everyone else is better than us, smarter than us, more capable than us. Basically, we are afraid of life. But as the book Outliers portrays via data, “geniuses” are made, not born. Few are greater than us naturally. The proof is that the self-help market is a multibillion-dollar market. Without ever opening a self-help book, merely acknowledging the size of that industry should be an instant cure for all our insecurities. It’s telling us, rather shouting at us, that everyone is in the same boat. Everyone is afraid or insecure on some level.
Yet, we fear to venture forth and the comfort zone sustains the status quo, we think. But it does not. Life is like a treadmill and it’s always moving; you are either going forward or being pulled backwards, sometimes imperceptibly slowly but going backwards just the same. We are afraid to know the truth about ourselves and prefer to remain legends in our own minds. But be sure, we were not assembled in China with substandard components; G-d created us and He’s the best manufacturer. When we connect with our G-dly purpose, there is no such thing as failure.
This Shabbat on the Hebrew calendar marks the month of Elul, which is a month of introspection wherein people try to improve themselves prior to the oncoming high holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But change can never really come if we don’t hone in on what needs to be changed. This week’s Parasha Re’eh opens with the words, “Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse.” We think the choice should be clear and easy. But the evil inclination starts blurring the lines between choices and we very often grab for the curse because it’s comfortable.
Friends, we have to start analyzing our lives, categorizing our behaviors and start choosing blessings. And we have to stop loving things, people, habits, foods, drugs and drinks, etc., that don’t love us back. There isn’t one among us who doesn’t want to adopt the American army slogan “Be all that you can be.” Many have just stopped acknowledging it. But it’s never too late or impossible.
We are told that G-d doesn’t recognize the Jewish people from one Yom Kippur to the next. The pure souls that left the synagogue a year earlier have returned in a blemished state one year later. My prayer for all of us that next year G-d won’t recognize us once again but only because we are better, brighter, happier, healthier and holier than ever before.
And maybe, as my mother taught, we can indeed be improved by a running shoe. As the Nike slogan says, “JUST DO IT!”