I think the original idea was to write out a list of things for which I was grateful about my life, but I wanted the cheshbon hanefesh aspect too, so I tore out a piece of notebook paper and scrawled a line down the middle.
In the left-hand column, I wrote:
Things for which I'm grateful/Things I like about my life.
(Because I couldn't make up my mind about exactly what that column should represent.)
In the right-hand column, I wrote:
Things I dislike about myself & my life/Things I wish I could change
(Again, I couldn't quite make up my mind, so I just wrote out a category that would cover everything I meant.)
And then I started filling out each category, sometimes bouncing back and forth between the two columns.
It was similar to a freewrite, in which you just dump out whatever comes to mind.
And it was all very messy, from the haphazard line down the middle to all the scribbling, including the scribbled "Oops, I forgotten to mention THIS!" notations.
Sometimes, a self-accounting isn't so nice 'n' tidy.
Anyway...to my surprise, I discovered that some things appeared in BOTH columns.
Actually, that shouldn't have been so surprising.
The Love/Hate Dynamic & You
Well, let's say you like heroin. So you might hate the fact that you ever discovered heroin or that you're addicted to it -- but if you're being honest, you've also felt pretty good on it at times. So if you've enjoyed yourself, then why not go ahead and express gratitude for the pleasurable experience, forbidden and illegal though it may be?
Sure, God certainly does not approve of your heroin indulgence, but you thank Him anyway because everything really does come from Hashem (both the good and the bad) and gratitude is always a good thing when it comes to you & Hashem.
So why not just say it like it is?
The same thing can apply to a serious gaming addiction or the food addiction behind one's obesity. You kind of hate yourself for wasting time or for being so darn fat, but at the same time, you admit that you do enjoy hunting down imaginary thugs in an underground tunnel while dressed as a hotshot noir detective or that you do enjoy the unlimited availability of buttery croissants from your nearby bakery.
You may hate yourself for the pettiness of all-consuming envy and you may hope that people continue to believe that your finely aimed verbal barbs are simply a result of a misunderstanding or you feeling victimized. Yet at the same time, you admit that you enjoy the feeling of self-pity or forbidden smugness at another's misfortune that accompanies the envy. And you admit that you experience sadistic pleasure as yet another well-aimed barb hits its target.
(BTW, I've never played a video game beyond Tetris, nor do I consider myself particularly envious or snarky, nor I have ever sampled heroin, and so on. These are just objective examples, not personal ones.)
Anyway, I wrote everything down, looked it over, felt kind of weird and embarrassed, and then I read it out loud to Hashem.
I thanked Him for all the stuff I enjoyed, even if it wasn't "good."
And I asked Him to help me out with the stuff in the negative column, the things I disliked about myself and my life, and wanted to change (even if I also enjoyed them; I wanted NOT to enjoy them).
Then I shoved it in my closet and forgot about it.
But I took it out again around the Days of Awe, the major teshuvah time, and I looked Heavenward and sort of waved it around toward God. (Yes, I know He's technically everywhere, but I still tend to aim my gestures upward when addressing Him.)
And I said (to the best of my memory) to Him, "Look at this. This is a big mess. I'M a big mess! I cannot possibly deal with this all on my own." I glanced at it again, then shook the piece of paper at God. "This is crazy. You know that I don't have the money or time to deal with all this stuff by conventional means. I mean, LOOK at this column! It's like demanding that I fight 30 yetzer haras ALL the time -- all at the SAME time! How realistic is that? And You know that I barely have any self-discipline in the best of times. I always feel like everyone else is managing better than me and trying harder than I am. Yet I've got this whole big load of inner stuff to deal with." And I waved the paper at Him again, gesturing toward the column of negative stuff. "I mean, to give someone like me 2 or 3 things to work on is challenge enough...but all this? This whole entire list? I mean, my gosh...this is just not realistic." I continued, "Because if I'm being totally honest, a part of me actually enjoys a lot of this stuff, even as I also hate it. And You know what? I just can't stand this about myself. Aaaall this! I can't stand to deal with all the things in this right-hand column and I know they're really bad. So if you could please just fix it for me? Please just do it Yourself because I'm failing. I can't even make an inch of progress on this stuff. And I don't want to deal with that tension of constantly needing to fight and overcome the overwhelming desire for something You don't want me to have or do. I know that some people feel so great and victorious when they overcome stuff or when they're all organized and self-disciplined, but I mostly feel deprived and miserable when I do that. So could You please just do it for me? I'd be very grateful, thank You."
And then in davening, I would just make a quick reference to the list, something like, "And please fix all the stuff I listed in the right-hand column in my cheshbon hanefesh list. You know the one I mean? Yeah, that one. Okay, thanks so much."
From "Ooh, Shiny!" to "Meh"
And you know what?
It worked! Not long after Sukkot, I realized that I just wasn't into certain behaviors anymore. Even when confronted with the same situation, I'd look at my former indulgence and be like, "Meh. Who needs it? I don't even enjoy it."
A couple of things went away completely. They're not even on the radar anymore.
Others were greatly minimized. I might slip in it a couple of times a year and not with the same intensity or duration as before.
And alas, there are still some things for which the end STILL seems nowhere in sight.
But that's what we're here for.
Some negative stuff takes a lifetime to eradicate.
But what surprised me was that according to conventional wisdom, I was supposed to need intensive therapy and 12-Step programs in order to have even a chance of overcoming certain things -- and instead, they either went away or were greatly minimized completely on their own, with no effort on my part.
But like I said, I still have several monstrosities to work on. So the party's not over yet.
EVERYTHING is from Hashem - Literally
Needless to say, I did not come up with the idea on my own.
It was greatly influenced by Rav Shalom Arush and Rav Ofer Erez.
It really is important to express gratitude for both the good and the bad (even if you can't muster up the actual emotion of gratitude; just saying it is still very powerful).
And Rav Ofer Erez in particular emphasizes the idea of thanking Hashem for your bad qualities. After all, He was the one who pasted them on you in the first place! So as counter-intuitive as it sounds, you really should say bizarre things like, "Thank You, Hashem, that I'm so attracted to dressing immodestly" or "Thank You, Hashem, that I so dislike dragging myself to a minyan 3 times a day" or "Thank You, Hashem, that I'm such an unspiritual superficial blob."
Or whatever your personal Achilles heel may be.
And then you ask Him to fix it for you, to heal it for you.
Whether you write out your own pro-con list, or whether you say it out loud, or whether you paint it in watercolors on printer paper, or sculpt it with Play-doh, it can be a powerfully helpful tool in overcoming certain traits and behaviors.
(Especially if you, like me, tend toward laziness or laisse faire or butter croissants.)
May God enable us all to complete our tikkun in this lifetime, but not through trials and tribulations.
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