Question & Answer With Yitz - Realistic Expectations
A Simple Jew asks:
How are you able to maintain realistic expectations for your avodas Hashem? Have there been cases where you have stumbled because of unrealistic expections of yourself?
Yitz of A Waxing Wellspring answers:
I think you should have asked the question in reverse: Have there been times where you've succeeded to set realistic expectations for your avodat HaShem? How do you deal with failure in your unrealistic expectations? That's closer to the truth, I think.
There were a few stages in the development of my avodat HaShem centered around a couple of major realizations which enabled me to gain some semblance of control in my inner life.
First, I realized that HaShem is always open to developing our relationship. Even when HaShem is hiding, He's only hiding so we'll work harder to find Him. He's never shutting us down and holding us back, He's always challenging us to grow. (Which is a good role model for parenting by the way.)
Knowing that HaShem is always waiting for us to connect is well and good, but all that does is put the pressure squarely on us. It's all or nothing, it's entirely up to us. Two things help me through this: 1. Rebbe Nachman teaches, and he really meant it, that being happy is the primary mitzwah. (If you aren't happy, you will fall sooner rather than later) 2. HaShem is willing to help us.
It took me a long time to realize that even when the entire relationship rests on my shoulders, HaShem is open to me asking Him for help. Whenever I don't feel up to the challenge, I say to HaShem, you have to make it easier HaShem, I know You know what You're doing but I need You to help me.
Think about a relationship like a marriage, both sides have to give and take, right? Well, in your relationship with HaShem, it's like you have the most flexible, understanding, and accommodating spouse in the world. BUT, you need to take responsibility for yourself. Just like your spouse would be remiss in letting you ruin your own life or causing yourself real and lasting damage, so too does HaShem expect you to take care of your life and avoid intentional harm.
The lesson that happiness is always a work in progress is a crucial one. Rebbe Nachman goes into great detail describing all of the harm that comes from sadness. But it was the Tanya that taught me that even sadness can't stop you from being happy. You can be happy at the same time as you are sad. Sadness in no way rules out happiness. How? well, sadness resides in the left side of your heart, and happiness in the right side. (This is distinctly different from the mind, which Rebbe Nachman explains is only capable of conceiving a single thought at a time.)
In addition to the Tanya, the teaching of Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk, in his Tzeitel HaKatan, that in just forty days you can completely change your nature, was invaluable. In just forty days of concerted effort, you can entirely overcome a negative character trait. Forty days is a palatable amount of time, it's not a year, it's not half a year, it's barely more than a month. Once you believe something just might be possible, you've overcome one of the biggest hurdles.
The last and most important realization only really came with practice: A little bit over enough time adds up to a whole lot. If there's a sefer I really really really want to learn, then all I have to do is learn it for ten minutes a day. Every day. Or once a week. But those are the only slots I allow myself, an every day slot, or a once a week slot. And I stick to them with all my effort. Most importantly though, if I slip up, I let it go and pick up the next day, or next week. I'm loath to add any schedule that I know I won't be able to stick to for at least a month.
When you really want to take on a challenge/schedule/learning-regimen you cannot possibly maintain, then tell yourself when you start that you will hold on as long as you can, and be happy with whatever you accomplish, and won't be upset when you fail, because going into the challenge you knew it was impossible. In this way I've learned some masechtot in days or weeks, and did Daf Yomi for a month here or there, rather than looking back and remembering that I twice started Daf Yomi to no avail, I know I learned masechet Berachot in Daf Yomi. In this way I managed to learn all of Tikkunei Zohar this past Elul through Yom Kippur. Every day I said to myself: "I'm not going to give up today, but maybe tomorrow, there's no way I'll make it through to the end, I'm just happy I got this far."
The only way to stay happy is to not let slip-ups get you down. Every positive accomplishment is a huge success and every failure doesn't even register, except as a learning experience. When you fail, you take away any quick lessons about how to avoid that failure in future and just move on.
The secret of my avodah centers entirely around the teaching (I believe it is in Masechet Berachot) that HaShem takes every good intention as if it were a good deed. I rely on HaShem utterly and completely in this regard. In shamayim I'm a gadol haDor, simply by the sheer volume of Torah I want to be learning, the volume of Tzedakah I want to be giving.
The only catch is keeping myself honest. When I say to HaShem I want to be learning Torah, it means if I catch myself browsing the web or reading a book (or watching TV, something I have no ready defenses against) then I have to call myself on it and pick up a sefer, show HaSHem I mean it. But if I catch myself trying to be a Tzaddik, and I want to learn tomorrow's page/chapter/section today, I stop myself -- Rebbe Nachman teaches that the Yetzer Hara encourages you to learn a lot today so that you won't learn at all tomorrow. If you find that every day you have extra time, take on another small seder in learning. Or, the hardest seder of all is to repeat the same learning twice.
Every morning after Shacharit I learn the daily Tanya, something I've been doing now for about 5-6 years. (which is a very long time to keep any kind of schedule for me.) When I had first started I used to learn a perek a day, and once I discovered that Chabad had a daily breakdown for Tanya learning, I switched over to that. The problem is sometimes I feel like the breaks aren't natural and splitting a perek between a few days makes me lose track of the flow of the ideas. (my main problem with Daf Yomi as well.) So for a while I've been thirsting to go back to the perek-a-day style of Tanya learning, but I thought maybe my Yetzer was trying to trip me up, so instead I started learning the daily Tanya section twice in a row. You know how much harder it is to learn a section twice? It's harder than learning a section twice as long once.. much harder. Every day you are faced with the temptation to skimp on the second reading; Or to rush through the first reading. On the mornings when the learning is longer (usually Thursday for some reason) you read it through knowing that you're going to have to go back over this all again, that's a big challenge when you are running late or the gabbai wants to close the shul.
Lastly I just wanted to deal with an interesting part of our avodah: When we feel like HaShem is telling us something. It's so easy to get stuck deep in the mud when we start trying to figure out what it is that HaShem wants from us. I have two simple tools for avoiding these issues: 1. Asking HaShem to make His will more clear. 2. Choose arbitrarily and assess later to see whether the choice feels right.
When it seems like I'm getting hints about how I should perform mitzwoth, what I should learn, what I should do with my life, that's when it's time to say to HaShem: "I'm sorry HaShem, it's just not clear enough, I don't understand, please make it clearer. I realize I'm only simple, please make it glaringly obvious. I'm going to keep doing what I've been doing until you make it clearer, because what I've been doing is my best guess at what I should be doing to properly serve you. Please open my eyes so I can understand your desires more clearly, so I can better serve you."
When I start to really go crazy about signs and hints, I remind myself that my rule is: "Only opportunities are true signs from HaShem." If HaShem sends me a choice, an option, an opportunity, only then will I expend my limited time and resources assessing its relevance to my avodah. If it's just a hint or an idea, but no opportunity is presented, I revert back to the first stage of asking HaShem to clarify the matter for my simple mind. If there is an opportunity and I find myself agonizing over it, then I obviously ask HaShem for clarity, but I often tell myself that either outcome is the same and the choice is an arbitrary one--both ways lead closer to HaShem. When the decision is particularly confusing and time-consuming, it's usually an indication that there really isn't an opportunity at all, and whichever option I choose, the outcome will force my hand in the right direction.
So I guess the short and simple answer is this:
I know that HaShem is there to help me no matter what. I know that HaShem will take care of me if I really screw up. And, I know that everything in life can lead me closer to HaShem.
Of course the safety line is being connected to a Tzaddik who can throw you a lifeline when you've gone astray.