I heard a story once about someone who was checking the references of a potential suitor. She called the young man’s rabbi and asked him, “Does this person have an anger problem?” The rabbi replied, “I don’t know. He’s never been married.”
So, haha, very funny. But seriously, I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, but after I got married, I found myself behaving in ways that were, to say the least, surprising to everyone. It’s not like I was going berserk or anything, but my responses to stress in marriage were very different than my responses to stress while in seminary, or while living with my parents.
It’s just a different ball of wax.
And, occasionally, I will feel the need to apologize to my husband. ”I’m sorry. I didn’t know that I would react this way. You had no way to know that this would be me.” He, being a mentsch, is understanding. Neither of us are perfect, after all, and we’re both happy with each other, imperfections and all.
But as the wonderful Renée A. Schuls-Jacobson wrote recently, perfectionism is so insidious. It is the enemy of good. It is the destroyer of wanting to try. It should be banished to a land far, far away. Because sometime, when we know we have a challenge, be it with anger, or laziness, or gossiping, we can feel like “Why bother? I’ll never completely rid myself of this character trait, so why try? It’s just who I am.”
Well, yes, it’s part of who you are. And, as the anecdote goes, if you had a whole array of challenges and difficulties to pick from, you would likely pick your own. Our imperfections, as much as we can loath them, are comfortable to us in a way. Like old smelly tennis shoes. But just because we recognize our failings doesn’t mean we have to stop there.
Our imperfections do not have to define us. Identifying them is the first step. From there, we can move forward. We can choose not to dwell in our anger, or not to share that juicy bit of gossip, or not to speak critically to our spouse. Too hard! You might say. The challenge is just too big! Yeah, I know. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter said that fixing just one character trait is harder than learning the entire Talmud.
Don’t be too discouraged, though. Like anything worth anything, it takes effort. And the pleasure derived from overcoming a negative tendency is well worth it.
Let’s say the trait you’re trying to overcome is laziness. So the goal could be just one time a day, to not sit down and vegetate, but to get up and wash one dish. That’s one. One small goal. And when you do it, give yourself a little reward (I don’t know, a piece of chocolate maybe). And after you do that for a week or two, up it to washing two dishes at a time, or getting up twice to wash one dish. But the main thing is to write it down. This is a tangible way to chart your progress. And to know that it takes small steps to make big, and lasting, changes.
So, embrace your imperfections. They are part of you, but they are also your mountain to climb, your marathon to run. They are a goal, not a hindrance. A challenge, not an impediment. Facing our challenges and working on our imperfections is what makes us great.