Fifteen years ago, I had a life that many people envied. I was the Chief Psychologist of a prestigious New York hospital, with teaching appointments at a medical school and two universities. I had a busy, interesting, and lucrative private practice. I had already authored two books, was working on a third, and appeared on television and radio, and was interviewed by popular magazines. In my spare time I even managed to figure skate at Rockefeller Center several hours a week! How’s that for having it all?
It took a while for me to admit that being this accomplished was taking its toll. I virtually never finished dinner before 9:30 at night. I started getting heart palpitations when things went wrong and my hair-split timing to see patients got thrown off and I started running late for appointments. I found myself doing deep breathing to calm myself down when I got off the red eye plane from Los Angeles after a speaking tour, landed at Newark airport at 6am, and had to be in my Manhattan office by 8 to see the 12 patients that I had scheduled for that day.
I started getting heart palpitations when things went wrong.
Of course, one of my specialties as a psychologist was teaching stress management, but I rarely took my own advice, thinking that I could always cram in one more interview, one more patient, one more lecture.
Why was I running at such a frenetic pace?
RUNNING WITH THE PACK
It’s sort of like the frog that gets placed in a container of water that is being slowly warmed. At first, it feels really nice to be there, but by the time it realizes that it’s far too hot, it’s too late. Living among yuppies in New York, it took a long time to realize that something was wrong with what all of us were doing. The men I dated were mostly working 10 or more hours a day and often on weekends as well. Many women I knew were doing the same. Few people had hobbies, apart from the rare tennis buff, or the ones who worked out two or three hours a week. Almost no one took more than a week or two of vacation a year. Most of us had been cooped up in graduate or professional schools for so long we couldn’t wait to pay back our student loans and grab the golden rings that were finally, after so much hard work in school, within our grasp.
What turned things around?
A combination of things, the first being a series of illnesses. I knew that the Torah mandates taking care of our bodies. But when? Who had the time? It took some dramatic wake-up calls for me to recognize that if I wanted to accomplish in the future, I had better slow down now. I had cherished a dream of becoming a professional dancer. The metaphor was clear. I knew that I needed to stop dancing.
God gave us bodies and a material world to enable us to fulfill our soul’s purposes. I found it impossible to be consistently spiritual while running so fast. We all have our challenges. Some of my colleagues are obsessed with money, finding prestige, and being admired by others. I was driven to accomplish, NOW. I decided to try to step away from myself to gain objectivity about my actions: why I was doing everything that I did, and whether it was good for me, and the world.
LIVING FOR TODAY
I was so focused on the short-term. I was not living for today’s pleasure, today’s paycheck, today’s power, today’s comfort. But I was, like many others, living on adrenalin and willpower, a spiritual and material overachiever. Judaism teaches us to look at the long term. It tells us how to prioritize our time, our emotions, our efforts, and our money. It tells us to trust that if we make an honest, earnest, and realistic effort to earn a living and we give our fair share to charity, the real Master of the Universe will provide us with exactly what we need. Working ridiculous hours and following the stock market like a hawk will not land us a penny more.
It was a hard decision to make, but after having anxiety attacks, and dreading my hospital job, I decided to leave it. It was one of the best choices I ever made. I ended up making more money in private practice; working only two thirds the time that I had before, and feeling much more fulfilled that my time was being well spent. Miraculously, I also got ten more hours a week for writing my Judaica books!
God continually sends us situations that challenge us to focus on our spiritual pursuits.
Of course God continually sends us situations that challenge us to make our spiritual pursuits more central than our material, self-centered, or hedonistic ones. A few years after leaving the hospital, I was offered $100,000 a year to work twenty hours a week screening patients for a clinic.
I could have taken the job, but it would have meant not having a minute to write any more books about Judaism. While I probably earn about $5 for every hour I spend writing books, and I hate writing (!), I knew in my heart of hearts that I could do far more good writing than seeing these twenty patients a week.
I told myself that if I took the job, the extra money might come in handy and I would give 10 per cent of it to charity, but I certainly didn’t need that much to live on. It would have been easy to convince myself that I could retire earlier if I had that money, but let’s be real. Who ever says, “Now that I’ve made a million dollars I can retire?” It becomes, “Now I’ll need two million, or five million, or...I spent the extra money that I made now I need to work just as long.”
When I discussed this dilemma with a spiritual mentor, she told me the following Jewish idea: Once we have enough money to take care of our basic needs, we should prioritize our time according to what we uniquely can do, and leave to others what they can do. If I didn’t take the job screening patients, the clinic would certainly find someone else to do an adequate job helping them. If I didn’t write my books on Judaism, nobody else would.
I am now married, with two young children, and I often have to evaluate how to apportion my time and energies. Should I do what makes me feel best? Should I pursue my professional interests more fully, and let others take care of my children most of the day? One of the most important things that anyone can do is to raise good, moral, emotionally healthy children. If we physically bring them into the world why should we entrust their emotional and spiritual upbringing to strangers?
Raising children has been unquestionably the greatest challenge of my life. It is far more difficult than getting a doctorate in psychology. Instead of measuring my self-actualization in terms of how much money I’m making or how many awards I’m getting, I now view it in terms of my spiritual growth. Was I able to control my temper today? Did I model patience and respect for others to my children? Did I make them feel that they are important and loved? Did I live today in a way that they will want to be like me when they grow up?
Today, for me, being a superwoman means knowing that I need to weather the challenges of raising a family, because that is what I can uniquely do. I may be less involved in the professional world than I used to be, but I make my contributions there as well.
I chose to give up writing for three years while I was having babies and constantly taking care of them. I was comfortable reducing my private practice to ten hours a week or less because I believe that I can uniquely mother my children while potential patients can find another capable therapist.
I believe that I can uniquely mother my children while potential patients can find another capable therapists.
I teach Torah around the world, but we always travel as a family, so my husband and my children don’t feel that they’re being neglected. Since I’ve resumed writing, I do so only after the children are in bed at night or before they wake up in the morning. I am also more involved with charity work than ever before, but I do it in a way that gives me chance to recharge my emotional batteries, while including the rest of my family.
Torah teaches us that life is about growth. This is how I’m growing best right now. Check with me ten years from now and I’m sure that my juggling act will be different, just as it was meant to be.
Lisa Aiken is the author of To be a Jewish Woman; Why me God? A Jewish Guide to Coping with Suffering; Dating Secrets Your Mother Never Told You; Secrets to a Happy Marriage; and The Hidden Beauty of the Shema. She is co-author of The Art of Jewish Prayer and What Your Unborn Baby Wants to Know. She appears in twelve Who’s Who books and gives lectures to audiences around the world. To purchase her books, tapes, or for more information contact her at email@example.com
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