"Don't compare your life to another's," someone would tell me. "You can't know what struggles that other person has gone through and he can't know yours, either."
It's a lesson that has been hard for me to absorb.
The fact is, at those times when your life feels hard, or sad, or hopeless -- and we all have had those times -- it is nearly impossible NOT to see the other fellow's life as something all bright and shiny and free of worry. It's nearly impossible NOT to compare. It's tough not to take my hard times personally, or to see them all as the result of some character flaw I have or some mistake I've made. Some of us struggle more than others to see ourselves in a better light.
I'm someone who struggles. I know what it feels like to compare myself to what I see around me and feel like I constantly fall short. It's a human thing, I'm sure; but there are days when it seems like I'm the only one who struggles this way.
I know that's not true. I know, at least intellectually, that others around me have their own private struggles and challenges. The pressure to pretend that nothing is really the matter, to hide our troubles from others, is immense. I think it's especially so in Jewish communities. We are taught -- not so much in words but through observing the actions of those closest to us -- that to admit you are struggling is to show your lesser hand, the cracks in your armor, your weaknesses. Historically, Jews have been loathe to show their weaknesses to a world that has often been intolerant of us. Problem is, we're so good at denying or hiding our struggles that we don't even tell each other, our closest family and friends, when things are especially hard and we might need help.
I believe that level of denial can't be healthy for us, any more than bleeding my issues all over the place is. And when we can't find the balance, when we feel there's no one to lean on and we have to go it alone, that's when we look at other's lives and think that ours somehow fall short.
I've been guilty of a lot of comparing in the last few weeks. I've been guilty of forgetting my blessings -- the people in my life who love me, the things I've accomplished in spite of a lack of resources and access, the simple fact that each day I've awakened to another day of living.
During this Chanukah, I've had some struggles. Money's tight. My health has been a little wonky and my physical energy has been lower. Living the life of a freelancer is challenging. The weather sucks (lots of rain and cold lately, a typical Oregon winter). I could go on.
But I've also had reminders during this past week of the things I'm blessed with. A loving partner who understands me more than I sometimes like to admit. Family who care about me and celebrate my victories, large or small. Friends who reach out in love and kindness to draw me into their joy. A warm, dry house and enough food to share with others. My cats and friends' dogs to snuggle with. When I have the energy, a bicycle ride around the neighborhood I live in. And music. Always music. Music is the thing I can count on to give voice to what I can't always put into words. Sometimes all it takes is picking up my guitar and gently strumming some chords to calm things down and help me regain a little perspective. And that is a gift.
This past Friday, I welcomed Shabbat and the sixth night of Chanukah with friends at shul, leading music and basking in the glow that comes when everyone sings together. It was a balm for my soul. I was there to help facilitate others' worship experiences, but in the end I may have benefited as much, or maybe more. When I got home, I was greeted by the soft glow of candles in the window, and I rested in my blessings. The real ones, the ones that count, which sustain me and carry me through the struggles.
Tonight we light the last candle of Chanukah. Let's bask in the light, be gentle with ourselves, and pay attention for opportunities to reach out to each other. It's winter. It's cold outside. We have the power to make it a little warmer for ourselves and each other. Happy Chanukah, and Shavua tov (a good week).