My eight year old daughter, Ahuva, came home from camp very upset.
“I’ve taken the deep water test a few times already this summer and I keep failing! I can’t take it anymore. It’s the last week of camp and I just have to pass that test before the end of the summer!”
“What part of the test gives you the most trouble?” I probed.
“I can tread fine. I can do the strokes great. But I just get so tired doing the laps. I start out strong but then I get to midway and cave in. The pool is enormous and they make us do the full length back and forth!”
I thought about the problem and gave her the following simple advice.
“When you start to swim the laps think one simple sentence: ‘I’m almost there. . .I’m almost there. . .I’m almost there.’ Then when you get to the end of the pool, and have to turn around, catch your breath for a brief moment and start thinking it again, ‘I’m almost there’ over and over again.
Ahuva seemed happy with the strategy and said she’ll give it a go.
The next day she came back beaming. "I did it! I passed the test!"
And it all it took to get her over the hump was a little self-encouragement. Ahuva learned to be her own coach.
There was one basic yet major element in the advice I gave her. When you look at the end goal of what you’re trying to do, it’s overwhelming. We feel like it’s impossible and can’t be done. “I have to swim two full gargantuan laps. I’ll never do it!” The stress and the enormity of the task knock us out.
But if we break up the challenge into manageable ‘bite size’ portions, before we know it, we’ve reached our goal.
“It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer.”
We have begun the month of Elul, the Jewish month when we are bidden to change and improve our spirituality. But it’s hard to change. Truly becoming a different person can be overwhelming.
Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, of blessed memory, one of the foremost leaders in spiritual growth and mussar of the last generation, instructs us that changing habits must be a gradual process. We must be careful not to accept upon ourselves anything that could be more than we can handle. This is because our evil inclination, yetzer hara, is ever-ready to fight spiritual change tooth and nail. In order to be successful against the yetzer hara, we must implement changes that ‘fly under the radar,’ and cannot be detected as being significant changes.
If we grow slowly and gradually, our tilt toward laziness is caught off-guard when, after a while, significant change is attained.
When we are motivated to change, we must think of some small area in which we can grow. If we take on something too overwhelming and drastic, then it is all the more likely to fail.
We should take, for example, the area of prayer and accept upon ourselves to recite a short section with real awareness that we never said meaningfully before. Or we can choose the area of Torah study and learn for an extra few minutes per day. We can decide to perform an extra act of kindness, daily. There are thousands of small things we can change. Of course, the long-term goal is to increase amounts and levels of change but we must start slowly if we are to change at all.
After all, life is a deep water test.
We begin life in the shallow water with some limited tests and struggles. We don’t really have to know how to swim yet -- we can walk around the water splashing away just fine.
But as we grow, the challenges get harder and we face deeper water. We are forced to either ‘sink or swim;’ there is no other option.
How do we learn to swim through life’s deep and troubled waters?
By accepting challenges in small increments and being our own coaches. We should to tell ourselves, ‘We’re almost there. . .We did it so far and we can make it to the end.”
Like Ahuva, we can all pass the deep water test. We’re almost there.