Great Me/Small Me

“Where were you?” “Couldn’t you see I needed your help?” “My Mom had to call my sister because I couldn’t get her on her feet alone…and you sat outside and did nothing!”

With those words my wife berated me early Shabbat morning a week ago. We were staying at my mother-in-law’s home. I was sitting in the salon and had truly no idea of the difficulty Lindy was having with her mother. I never had known her mother to require this degree of help. I saw her sister pop in for a minute from across the street. I was surprised. Why had she come?

I left for shul shortly after the berating. I don’t think Lindy quite took my ‘not knowing’ as an excuse. And now I too was angry. “How could she think I would be so insensitive as to sit there while her mother needed help?  How could she take me for so callous?

The two hour Shabbat morning services left me with much time to mull over the occurrence. As I spent my time in prayer my attitude shifted from resentment at being accused unfairly to genuine regret that I was not there to help Lindy when she needed me most.By the time I came home rather than harbor ill will I was caring and apologetic. I said to Lindy “I am sorry I was not there for you this morning” and I meant it.

What happened? How do I explain the shift in my feelings. Where did all the resentment go? How did I get out of the wounded me and instead focus on the feelings of the woman I love?

The answer is that within me and actually within each of us there are two selves, There is the “Great” self and the “Small” self. The small self is the one we live most of our life out of. It is petty and concerned with the moment. It reacts to every event from the standpoint of how does it effect me now. It lives life in the here and now with no larger vision or perspective. The Small self is me the animal, albeit a human animal but animal nonetheless. When the small me gets wounded it only feels the personal insult and cannot escape the corollary feelings.

It was the Small Yisrael that left the house for shul  that Shabbat. I was brooding and angry. How could she accuse me?

But within each of us there is also a Great Self. That self lives detached from the moment and instead within the transcendent. That self  does not react to the moment as if it is all there is, but rather experiences life for the meaning it has and the opportunity it affords for growth and becoming.  The Great self has perspective and vision. It knows that life is temporal and of all it can be said “this too shall pass”. The Great self envisions its existence in the context of community. It lives in touch with G-d and others and is not confined to its physical form.

It is the Great Yisrael that came home after Shul. And for that other me personal insult was temporal and hardly worth holding on to in the face of the hurt of others.

Small me/ Great me,  the one keeps us stuck in the limitations of our animalistic and  reactive self, the other lets us experience the transcendent within us and moves us to a place where we  cannot be hurt or wounded.

Each of us has those two components to our self, though for many of us the Great self is so eclipsed as to hardly be recognized. But it is within all of us. In mystical Jewish tradition they call this distinction  “gadlut dmochin”, meaning the greater  sense  of consciousness. In contrast to “katnut dmochin”, the smaller sense of consciousness.

When we go to shul to pray  as I did in the vignette, or when the holy Shabbat comes and we surrender the worldly worries, or when we hike in nature, or when we learn Torah we have the opportunity to engage the gadlut dmichin, the Great self within. That’s exactly what those experiences are meant to trigger. The challenge is to hang on to the Great self when we return to life’s mediocrity and make it the mainstay of our existence.

Truth is the work of our lives is not to change who we are. We do not have to become better. We already are good enough of character and being. All we need to do is engage the Great self already within us and we will be all we ever wanted to become  as husband or wife to our partner,  as parent to our children, as a member of society with friends and community,and as the child of G-d.

About the Author
Yisrael Ben Yosef holds Masters degrees in both Philosophy and in Education from the University of Western Ontario. He was a former Supervisor of Clinical Pastoral Education. He founded and served as Director of the Jewish Institute for Pastoral Care in New York City. He has authored two books "Whence My Help Come:Caregiving in the Jewish Tradition" and "The Torah and the Self", both published by Mazo Press, Jerusalem.
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