Not long ago, I was writing to a friend, sharing my embarrassment about an article I’d published that I thought could have been better – when I was interrupted by a rare phone call from another friend, who had been touched by that very article and wanted to discuss the topic further.
Two days later, on Shabbos afternoon, I was walking down the street feeling self-conscious because I’d had to change quickly (after an unfortunate incident involving a potty-training child… TMI?) and the outfit I threw on wasn’t so Shabbosdik. I ran into an acquaintance – and out of nowhere, out of all the possible topics for chitchat, she commented “You always look so nice for Shabbos!”
Same thing, twice in two days: Just as I was engrossed in feeling insecure about something, I was complimented about that very thing. There’s got to be some sort of deep lesson here, right?
There are lots of stories out there about a kind word that was just what was needed – a person who was having a hard day, or a teacher who received a “thank you” from a student years later, maybe on the verge of retirement, maybe just as he or she was wondering whether all those efforts had been “worth it.” On those occasions, we tend to focus on the good done by the one who commented: “See how valuable it is to take the time to say something nice to someone? You never know when someone is feeling down; always take the opportunity to help others feel good about themselves!” It feels so good to be appreciated, and these encounters inspire us to pay it forward.
That’s all true; in both of my own above experiences, I definitely heard just what I needed to hear, just when I needed to hear it, and I was so grateful. And I hope the experiences will remind me that I should do the same, and offer positive feedback whenever I have some to offer, because one never knows the difference it can make.
But maybe it’s worth considering this sort of anecdote from the other side, too. We might take inspiration as the one with positive words to offer – and also as the one who might be feeling insecure.
In that light, two points come to mind – neither of which is particularly reassuring at first glance, but both of which can ultimately be inspiring.
First: we don’t always get that reassurance when we need it. It’s nice when it happens, but realistically, there are so many times in life that we’re unsure of ourselves, insecure, desperately in need of positive feedback – and we don’t get it. The positive side to the times we don’t get what we need, though, is that those rare occasions when it does happen should remind us that people might be thinking it but are perhaps too embarrassed themselves to say anything. And more importantly, of course: the positive might be true, even if no one happens to be thinking it. If someone thinks I did something valuable when I wasn’t so sure myself – then other things I’m not sure were valuable might be, too. I can take heart from the knowledge that what I do is bigger than my own perception of it, bigger than my own uncertainties.
Of course, the flip side of that – point #2 – is that sometimes the gap between our accomplishments and our perception of them goes the other way. Sometimes, no reassurance comes in those moments of insecurity because in fact, it is not deserved. Maybe I really wasn’t dressed l’kavod Shabbos; maybe that article really wasn’t so good. And maybe there are times I’m not even feeling insecure, when I actually think I did a great job – but I’m wrong. I could have done better.
As much as we can be our own worst critics, longing for others to remind us of our strengths and contributions – we can also be our own best cheerleaders, sometimes when deserved and sometimes when not deserved.
When we feel unnecessarily insecure, it’s hard to accept that we might actually be doing things well. It helps when others tell us, and hopefully the times they do say something can carry us through the times they don’t.
And when we feel overly confident, it’s hard to accept that we might actually not be doing as well as we think, that we have room for improvement – and people are often too nice to tell us, so we need to tell ourselves.
It’s a fine line to walk: questioning our insecurities and our areas of confidence in just the right measure; reassuring ourselves when we need a boost, and offering ourselves honest self-criticism, appropriate and not overboard, when we need a push. We don’t want to make ourselves so insecure as to become depressed or beat up on ourselves, but neither do we want to be so confident and sure of ourselves that we don’t recognize room for growth.
But most meaningful lines are complicated like that, and the attempt to walk them means we’re living life thoughtfully, not complacently. And fortunately, we have the skills, imbued in us at Creation, to set out on that tightrope.
After weeks spent focused on teshuva – trying to figure out where we need improvement and where we don’t – we roll up the Torah and start over. We return to the beginning, when everything was chaos and mixed up but G-d, through both compassion and strict justice (see the third Rashi on Genesis 1:1), made it all good (“and G-d saw that it was good”).
We, too, can take our confusing lives (Was I wrong about that thing? Was I right about the other thing? ) and arrange them into goodness, if only we can find the right balance of compassion and strict justice inside and towards ourselves. We can emulate G-d in recreating ourselves because He created us in His image, with untold potential to grow and create. However insecure we might sometimes feel or however much better we could have done in the past, whether others recognize our successes and failures or not, we are His creations and we can start over and make good.
Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.