Who are you?
At your core, are you a nice or nasty person?
If you think about the nice things you have done, you will likely answer, “I’m a nice person.” If you think about the nasty things you have done, you will likely answer, “I’m a nasty person.” So which one are you?
The real you is your core will, how you want to be, before temptations and the vicissitudes of life get in the way.
For example, most of us want to act ethically, but temptations cloud our judgement and we may occasionally act in ways we regret. When this happens, we have two options, we can think, “I’m an honest person who made a mistake. I’ll correct the mistake as best I can and do better next time.” Or we can think, “I guess I’m not such an honest person after all. Next time I’m tempted, I won’t even bother trying to resist.” In the first way of thinking, we define ourselves based on how we want to be, our will. In the second way of thinking, we define ourselves based on how we have acted most recently.
This latter way of thinking is mistaken for two reasons. First, it does not take into account all the times we overcame temptations and were honest. It focuses on just one mistake and not on how we act most of the time. Second, it does not take into account what our core will is before life pressures and difficulties cloud our judgement and hamper our ability to resist temptation.
Most of us are dealing with multiple stresses simultaneously, e.g., money, career, relationship, family and/or health problems. All these can negatively impact our ability to act in the manner we would like. For example, you likely have done things you regret, but you likely also had a number of life challenges going on at the time. Someone else may not have made the mistakes you made, but neither did they struggle under your burdens. The difficulties you had not only mitigate the mistakes you made, they also intensify the good you were able to achieve. Your struggle to overcome your unique challenges makes your service of God unique, an offering to Him unlike any other.
We often erroneously overemphasize our sins, thinking God will never forgive us for them and underemphasize our mitzvot, thinking God takes no pleasure from them. The truth is the exact opposite. God eagerly awaits our repentance, even for the worse sins, so He can wipe our slate clean and bring us closer to Him. And for our mitzvot, even for the minor ones, if we only knew the joy they bring God, it would take away our free will; we would be overwhelmed with excitement over the pleasure our mitzvot bring God.
If we knew the incredible force of goodness our mitzvot unleash, it would make doing anything else unthinkable. The doubts we have about the value of our mitzvot, are the heavy doors we need to push through to merit entering God’s Palace.
Before judging yourself or others
Before you are overly harsh with yourself for failing to live your values, think about all the times you did succeed, as well as the many pressures you were under; be compassionate and encourage yourself to do better in the future.
The same goes for others as well. It is wrong to pass judgement on someone just based on one act we observed or heard about. We do not know what the person’s core will was before temptations or challenges clouded his judgement. We do not know the full story behind the incident, or how he acts most of the time. Perhaps this person was well intentioned and thought he was doing the right thing. Even if he should have known better, he made a mistake; it does not negate the other good acts he did or his good qualities. Choose to become the type of person who focuses on the good in others and in yourself.
Give yourself positive reinforcement and compliments to develop a positive self-image. How you view yourself becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. If you think of yourself as honest and moral, that is how you will act, at least most of the time. When you slip up and act in a manner not in keeping with your self-image, you will be motivated to correct the mistake and get back on track. (See, “Debunking 5 Myths about Repentance.”)
Sometimes, people become so filled with guilt that it is easier for them to say, “I’m no longer an honest or moral person,” than to struggle with the shame they feel over having acted inconsistently with their self-image. They think that they cannot be considered honest or moral if they made one mistake. But as King Solomon said (Ecclesiastes 7:20), “…there is no man so wholly righteous on earth that he [always] does good and never sins.”
Is it fair to define yourself based on one sinful act? By that measure, we would all be judged as sinners. Instead, tell yourself, “Right now I’m struggling in this area, but I’m still a good person and I will do my best to overcome this challenge.”
If you feel guilty about a past or current behavior and are unsure how to address it, discuss the issue with a qualified rabbi or spiritual mentor. You will likely feel that a heavy weight has been lifted off your shoulders. They will give you practical guidance and encouragement. Sometimes, they may even tell you that what you thought was a sin was not forbidden under the circumstances, or not as serious an infraction as you thought. You can contact a rabbi anonymously if you do not feel comfortable discussing the issue in person. When appropriate, a recommended therapist, who is respectful of your beliefs, can be very helpful with dealing with issues of shame and unhealthy guilt.
You are your core will
To access your inner will, ask yourself, “If I had complete clarity of how God wants me to act, and I was in complete control of my behavior, would I choose to be ethical, moral and keep the Torah as best I can?” If yes, then that is who you are at your core. Put in your best effort and ask God to help you actualize your inner will. (See, “Am I a Faker or a Genuine Person?”)
The choices you make build upon your core will. A person can want to do a lot of good, but if they do not act on that desire, as best they can, than they are like prime real estate sitting undeveloped. Life is about building upon your inner desire to grow and improve. Never stop building and developing your personal growth empire.
To answer our original question of who are you? You are an amazing person who wants to do the right thing and come closer to God. At the same time, you have difficulties which make doing God’s will challenging. Compliment yourself after a success and encourage yourself after a setback. Never put yourself down or think others are better than you. In God’s eyes, you’re a star. And if not yet, soon you will be; as long as you are tenacious and keep doing your best. You will stumble and get dirty along the way; that is a given. The question is, what do you do when you fall down? Do you give up and wallow in the dirt? Or, do you pick yourself up and move forward, reaching ever greater heights?
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