In order to succeed at weight loss, responsible counselors advise -- no, not the grapefruit diet -- keeping a food journal. Amazing what "little" snacks we eat and don't even notice. We find ourselves shocked by the size of our portions, by the quantities consumed. And then we record our goals for tomorrow. This not only keeps us focused, the diary also acts as a powerful wake-up call. I thought I only had a few potato chips, a spoonful of ice cream, just a taste of chocolate cake… Now I see I really lost control!
For centuries Jews have been exhorted to use a tool like this, not just to deal with food issues (think a world before Weight Watchers and Atkins!) but for all our areas we want to grow and change. We call it a cheshbon hanefesh, a spiritual accounting.
Just as dieters write down detailed lists of foods consumed -- appropriate and otherwise, so too we list all our actions -- appropriate and… ahem… otherwise. To make it practical time-wise and reduce the chest beating and unproductive guilt, we try to list five positive actions and three less positive ones, with perhaps some suggestions for future improvement.
It's an opportunity to evaluate our behavior towards our spouses, children, parents, and friends, and to make plans for change where necessary. It takes a maximum 10 minutes (on a slow day) and it can be life-changing.
Just knowing that we have to record our actions helps keep us in line. Do I want to write in my journal that I yelled at my neighbor, screamed at my children, ignored my husband?
And we can give ourselves credit for any positive action, no matter how (seemingly) large or small. I smiled at my wife when I walked in the door. I called my mother just to say hello. I helped my son with his homework. We become more sensitized to our own actions -- and to those of others.
A friend related this story of desperate need for an objective accounting.
We had a house guest recently who arrived in his beautiful new $90,000 (at least!) Mercedes Benz. He parked it in front of our home under the beautiful blooming Jacaranda tree. After shmoozing for a few hours, we decided to leave for dinner. He couldn't wait to take us for a spin.
As we approached the car, his face turned ashen. I couldn't imagine what could have happened. To his horror, the tree had shed its soft mauve petals all over his new vehicle. He was apoplectic. He couldn't believe it! How could this have happened?!
On the way to dinner, throughout dinner, and all the way home, he couldn't speak of anything else, constantly wondering aloud how early he could get to the car wash.
Early the next morning we all awoke and began our search for just the right facility to return this car to its original pristine state. Finally we found it and the attendants went to work. But our guest was not satisfied. Yelling and screaming, ranting and raving, he berated all the employees of the car wash until the desired perfection was achieved. And I couldn't have been more humiliated.
Maybe the car was perfect; but our friend sure wasn't.
Were this acquaintance to make a spiritual accounting he would (hopefully) gain perspective on his lack of perspective.
But all situations are not so dramatic. Usually, we want to be just a little kinder, a little more focused, a little more thoughtful. And we want to feel we used our day productively.
My friend keeps her journal next to her tzedaka box, guaranteeing her first positive entry.
When we get busy, we get distracted. We can go through our days on automatic pilot, driving the same routes day in and day out, engaging in the same rote behaviors.
Keeping a spiritual accounting heightens our sensitivity. We are more conscious of our constant ability to choose, more aware of the consequences of our choices.
Some write this question at the end of their accounting, at the bottom of the daily page: What am I living for? The point is not to write an essay answer (with no points off for punctuation!) but to think. Am I living my life in a meaningful way? Do my actions reflect that? Am I deepening my relationship with the Almighty or distancing myself?
Just seeing the question provokes thought. If we don't write it down, our minds will be consumed with other questions: What should I make for dinner? Who's taking Shelley to her dentist appointment? Are those black shoes I like ever going on sale? And we'll never make to the deeper, more significant, potentially life-changing ones. (I know -- the right shoes can also be life changing!)
It's a small time commitment with the possibility of disproportionately greater gain. The shifts are subtle but significant. It's also possible to take a specific character trait that needs work or a particular relationship that requires healing and make that the focus of our accounting, slowly transforming ourselves or our relationships as we keep that daily recording.
A friend of mind used to be a "screamer" but seeing that description of herself day after day started to wear on her and she began to work on stopping.
The sages exhort us to "repent the day before we die." Since we obviously don't know what day that will be, we learn that we should repent everyday and resolve anew. We don't need to wait for Rosh Hashana, nevertheless the holidays bring with them unique spiritual opportunities. There's "something" in the air.
Passover carries the potential for freedom -- freedom from destructive habits, from activities that damage our relationships and callous our souls. So the days leading up to the holiday, as well as the Yom Tov itself, seem the perfect time to engage in spiritual accounting. To diminish the power of old bad habits. To enhance the power of newer healthier ones. Starting with a commitment to do the accounting.
At Passover time there is always a lot of shopping to do -- food, some new dishes, clothing for the kids (clothing for the mothers!). Perhaps we could add one small item to our list. As we roam the aisles of Costco or Target searching for the new hand towels and kosher for Passover shampoo, we could slip in one small journal. Our record book for our freer more spiritually aware selves.
The most effective weight loss plans are the ones where there is slow, gradual weight loss with moderation in eating. Sensational "new" plans come and go, as does the weight loss they promise! Only the slow, methodical, patient way works.
The same is true with personal growth. If we write in journal every day, rain, sleet, snow or shine, we will definitely see and experience change. Will we become new people overnight? No, and not a size 4 either (especially after all that matzah!) But we will be on a good, solid, healthy path, and much more likely to stop and smell the petals on our Mercedes!
Passover is a lot of work. But it's really worth it, especially if we take the lessons of the holiday with us long past the week of celebration. We will -- if we keep writing in our little black (or flowered) book.