Making an effort.
Whatever term you use in whatever language, the concept stands as a fundamental value in Torah Judaism.
However, many people mistake suffering for hishtadlut.
Unfortunately, this mistake blocks good people from actually making the effort they need to make in order to achieve their tikkun (rectification, repair).
So I thought it might help to discuss why people confuse the two concepts and how to make the transition from "just" suffering to actually trying.
An Example of Suffering Mistaken for Hishtadlut/Trying
A person describes a continuing problem in their life in the following manner.
- They describe how bad it makes them feel, how much they suffer.
- They describe their usual auto-response (which either never changes or reveals only 1 of 2 responses each time).
- They conclude with something like, "Oh, well. Nothing to do except just keep trying" or "Oh, well. Gotta just keep working on those middot."
But how does automatically responding the same way each time display any effort on their part?
How does automatically responding the same way each time show any kind of middot work?
When a person automatically follows the same script each time, how does that fall into the category of "trying" or "working on middot?"
But it FEELS like it does.
Why is that?
Clear Examples of Physical Effort & Emotional Effort
Well, first of all, a certain amount of strain always accompanies any kind of effort.
Whether it's physical, emotional, or mental, making an effort comes via strain or pain.
A marathon runner feels no strain regarding a leisurely walk through the park.
He considers it "effortless."
But a marathon runner feels strain during a marathon: the endurance, the pacing, etc. — a certain amount of pain and strain is involved as he encounters the need to PUSH himself — in other words, he needs to try harder, make more of an effort, to complete the marathon.
Likewise, a person physically disabled or out-of-shape experiences a walk in a park as a challenge.
He experiences physical strain as he pushes himself to complete a short walk along a straight, smooth path at a slow pace.
In either case, the person at certain points of the walk or marathon may experience a lack of enjoyment and even pure agony because of the suffering caused by their efforts and strain.
Regardless of the person's physical condition, we see their hishtadlus in how they PROACTIVELY PUSH themselves to complete a challenging physical activity.
An unmotivated or depressed person finds it difficult to get out of bed early in the morning.
Someone dreading their day's demands (getting children ready for school, driving in traffic or bad weather, dealing with stresses at work or school, a series of undesirable tasks waiting for them, etc.) can also find it hard to get out of bed, feeling like there's nothing to look forward to but stress that day.
So the effort of pushing themselves to their feet causes a certain amount of suffering.
They DON'T WANT to get out of bed.
But they must.
Doing something they don't want, something they don't like, causes a certain amount of suffering.
So they do it anyway; they make the effort and succeed in getting out of bed—and suffer all the while.
Physical & Emotional Suffering Combined
Let's say an out-of-shape obese depressed person needs to walk for health reasons and the only time they have exists in the early morning hours.
Such a person experiences emotional suffering as he forces himself to wake up on time to do something he does not want to do, something he does not enjoy doing.
And then he experiences physical suffering as he huffs and puffs down the path of the park.
So he makes an emotional effort just to wake up on time, and then a physical effort to complete his challenging but necessary walk.
Again, these are just a handful of examples out of many more.
So we see that a certain amount of pain (or strain, if you prefer) accompanies any kind of effort.
Maybe a tiny amount of pain or a huge amount of pain. Or suffering. Or strain. Or stress.
However you define that, it always accompanies hishtadlut.
Even joyful hishtadlus contains an element of strain.
(This includes middot work, which is yet another example of trying.)
Examples of Physical Suffering & Emotional Suffering with NO Effort or Trying Involved
An obese out-of-shape person receives the diagnosis of high blood pressure and bad knees potentially requiring surgery, plus the onset of diabetes solely due to lifestyle.
The person continues to sit on the couch watching cat videos and eating jumbo smores while wincing in pain whenever he needs to move his knees, plus feeling dizzy & irritable from all the sugar & chemicals.
Is this person making any kind of effort to improve his health or his life?
Even the effort needed to move his knees isn't considered hishtadlut because he isn't moving them to solve his health problems.
Continuing exactly this way not only does NOT solves his problems, but exacerbates his problems.
No middot work or effort involved.
With every fiber of his being, a depressed person does not want to get out of bed in the morning.
But his wife, recently after a Caesarean birth and dealing with another 3 kids under the age of 6, desperately needs his help to get them off to school after a sleepless and stressful night with a crying newborn.
His wife and children also desperately need him to go to work so their finances don't crash.
He responds one of two ways:
- He hunkers down under the covers, crying while feeling profound lethargy & despair.
- He screams horribly at his wife for making him feel worse when he already feels so bad.
And let's say this scenario repeats itself every day throughout the day.
He definitely suffers, but is he trying?
He's making no effort to deal with his depression in any way.
He also shows no effort toward working on the middot of compassion, gratitude, combating sadness & idleness, etc.
Examples of Not Trying vs Trying (i.e., Changing the Script vs Acting Out the Same Script Again & Again)
Let's say a husband yells at his wife.
And she AUTOMATICALLY responds ALL THE TIME in the same one of 4 ways:
- She shuts down. She sits there either not responding at all or crying helplessly for the duration.
- She runs into another room, locking the door after her, maybe putting on earphones so she doesn't hear. Or she runs out of the house.
- She promises to be better, to do whatever he demands, no matter how impossible.
- She yells back at him.
And the above scenario replays itself every day, several times a day, for weeks, months, or years.
Now of course, her situation is extremely painful and sympathetic.
And women in such situations will say, "I'm constantly trying, but there's no improvement."
But if she constantly responds in exactly the same way (or one of two ways, like maybe sometimes she screams and other times she sits there crying wordlessly), where do you see any effort on her part?
She's definitely suffering, but she makes no effort to change the script or the dynamic.
TRYING calls for her to respond in a way she finds unnatural or even scary.
For example, a wife who always fights fire with fire should NOT shout in response.
That's her challenge.
What could she do instead?
She could say, "I'm willing to discuss this calmly. When you are ready to discuss this calmly, feel free to let me know. Until them, I'm going to [choose activity of choice: sew a button, finish davening, go to work, tap dance while juggling mini-bean bags, sing Canada's national anthem, etc.]."
She could try to reorient BOTH of them to the real issue at hand:
"Wait a minute—hold on, hold on, hold on here...you claim you can't find your keys because a thief somehow entered the home to ONLY stole your car keys...but let's try another solution. When was the last time you saw them? Let's work back from that."
Say without emotion, "You can make your own coffee."
She can stand there glaring at him with steam fuming out of her ears, but her mouth firmly shut.
She can guide her thoughts to ponder, "What is Hashem lovingly trying to tell me by using my spouse's unpleasant behavior? What message is in this for me?" And become so absorbed in these thoughts that she tunes out her husband's diatribe.
Any of the above examples (and many more!) change the script and display a real effort on her part.
They are all legitimate alternatives to an escalating shouting match.
Also, it's important to note that sometimes, someone truly willing to try runs the gamut of all 4 options.
That's all they can think of.
And it might even prove effective.
That's fine...at first.
For example, someone who freezes or breaks down needs tremendous inner fortitude to make herself move in that situation—especially after she made a chazakah of always freezing or always breaking down.
So if she uses superhuman inner strength to pull herself from her rooted position and run to her room to block his shouting with music, that's fine.
That's definitely hishtadlut!
And so, therefore...what is hishtadlus for one person can be a stuck pattern in need of change for another person.
The point is to go AGAINST your nature.
Go AGAINST your automatic response.
When Externally Rational Behavior is Internally Irrational
For example, a wife may approach her husband later to explain why he needs to change.
Sometimes, the husband's repeated response is to blow up again, accuse her of being deluded...or he might agree with her (in theory).
Interestingly, a lot of otherwise dysfunctional or mentally ill husbands may tell the wife, "Yes, you're right, you're right, you're right"—and then do absolutely nothing to change in any way.
Such wives will view themselves as "trying" to improve their marriage or husband, saying, "I keep explaining to him why his behavior is harmful/halachically incorrect. I keep telling him, 'Don't you want our children to grow up in a happy and emotionally healthy home? Don't you want us to have shalom bayis?' And he says yes, but then doesn't do anything to change. I keep trying, but nothing works."
Initially, this can be considered as "trying."
Yes, it's good to attempt to calmly discuss and explain the problem.
But if it repeats itself with no improvement & only draining frustration, then it no longer falls under the category of "trying."
And I know wives who consistently repeat these same useless run-around conversations for YEARS...with no results.
The same holds true for their arguments.
NOTHING ever changes. For years!
It's the same conversation, debate, or argument EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.
Yet because they find these conversations so draining and frustrating (i.e. painful), they label their repeated & impotent script as "trying."
But again, as long as she repeats this script with no change, she simply goes according to her natural inclinations (with no thought, change, or attempt at solving the problem in a different way). Therefore, this is NOT "trying."
Regardless of how much she suffers, she simply allows herself to fall into the same pattern again and again and again.
That's not trying. That's "just" suffering.
Changing Your Perception as a Form of Effort
It can be scary and/or heartbreaking to see someone for who they really are.
But if your spouse really is a criminal (as opposed to merely "being influenced by bad friends," then you need to be honest with yourself about that.
If your child really is a drug addict, you need to acknowledge that (as opposed to claiming "he's just go through a normal, temporary—albeit difficult—phase right now...one that's oddly lasted for 7 years so far....").
You may need to realize your "best friend" is actually a psychopath.
(I know someone in denial like this. She attended schools for the gifted, holds a university degree, and always works in upper positions, plus she's a caring person, but she is really dumb with regard to person she considers her "best friend.")
You may need to acknowledge your mother really does not love you.
(Animals nurture their young by instinct. The same mama who risks her life to defend her young may conversely eat them or neglect them to death under different circumstances—I'm looking at you, lionesses and mama bears. As one mammal curator said about animal offspring devoured by their own mothers: "They become a resource; one she can't afford to waste." Unfortunately, some human mothers' instincts work that way too.)
Some people really don't mean well and never (or rarely) will.
It's never easy (though sometimes it's also a relief).
You can acknowledge a person's good points without it meaning they are overall good.
Some people have one or two good qualities or occasionally do a good act, but overall, they are bad people.
But seeing a person for who they really are can also be a form of hishtadlus.
(And after you get over the initial heartbreak, fear, and shock, the truth really can set you free.)
Fear & Dread are NORMAL
Standing up to bully is terrifying (especially after an ingrained pattern of submission).
Engaging in a behavior that makes you feel weak or threatened or overwhelmed or victimized (like remaining silent in the face of a verbal attack when every fiber of your being tells you to attack back with everything you've got) can be understandably very scary.
(Clarification: Feeling victimized or threatened doesn't mean you actually ARE. It CAN mean that, but some of the most aggressive & intimidating bullies are those who FEEL like they'll be victimized if they don't behave that way.)
New behaviors mean feeling off-balance until you get the hang of it.
It's very uncomfortable, possibly terrifying...and feeling that way is completely normal.
(Please see here for more on that issue: www.myrtlerising.com/blog/whats-stopping-you-from-making-real-change)
Sometimes making a dramatic change in behavior works best; other times, making very gradual changes via baby-steps works best.
It's exhausting, scary, and dreadful to face the response of extreme anger, rejection, or lie-based slander.
I've experienced these and it's grueling...at least, in the beginning.
Sometimes, the fear is based on other people and sometimes it derives from within yourself.
But it is nonetheless important to move forward regardless of the fear.
(Just you need to decide HOW to change the pattern and at what pace. Please do not feel you MUST go by the latest pop-psych trend or what psychology articles—and your friends who read them—insist you do.)
Results aren't Necessarily the Determining Factor in "Trying"
With some extremely dysfunctional people, all you can do is determine the appropriate response according to good middot and hold firm with that.
Lack of positive results does NOT indicate failure in such a situation.
The fact that you actually try is all that matters.
Fails, Ups 'n' Downs, Falling Smack on Your Face, Mistakes, Etc.
For example, someone whose auto-response is to fight fire with fire will sometimes find themselves firing back with everything they've got, no matter how much they meant to respond otherwise.
So you can try.
You can try very, very hard.
And you can still experience failure.
The difference is whether you sometimes manage to catch yourself in thought and make some attempt to change the script, to act out an alternative behavior.
Also, genuine attempts should result (at least sometimes) in different behavior and not the same response each time.
But your times of failure (if it's REAL failure, and not just an excuse to engage in the exact same pattern repeatedly) DO indicate "trying" and do not mean you are merely suffering without making any effort.
It All Depends on Your Unique God-Given Nature & Circumstances
As we progress in our character development, what was once legitimate hishtadlus becomes a no-longer-acceptable pattern, which needs another bump forward.
(Sort of like a woman who starts off with tsniyus by rejecting her miniskirts & skinny jeans, only wearing very loose pants. As a start, it's highly laudable. But if she never progresses to wearing long not-tight skirts, then her continuation of loose pants indicates she's stuck.)
It boils down to being honest with yourself and knowing Hashem knows what's in your heart.
As many verses in Tehillim remind us, Hashem knows what's in our hearts and "kidneys"—meaning, He knows how much we're really trying (or not).
It's very individual.
And the rule of thumb to keep in mind is as explained at the beginning:
Trying entails suffering. But suffering does not mean you're trying.
May Hashem please guide us to complete all our tikkunim sweetly in this lifetime.