| Musings |

A Fighting Chance

I was living my life on fast forward. Then I crashed headfirst into burnout



I come from a family of fighters.

There’s my maternal grandfather, the sole survivor of his family. We grew up with stories of hiding in attics, basements, forests. I knew the narrative well, and already as a little girl, trained myself in the art of invisibility.

I figured out the best places in my home in case Nazis ever invaded again; I imagined myself running to the “forest” next to our home — a narrow path between two rows of evergreen trees. I was certain bears prowled there at night, yet I knew animals were safer than those barbaric Nazis. I’d blast cold water on myself during showers, preparing myself for horrific punishments that would surely be meted out. It would take a long time before I realized my “preparations” were laughable. And yet the fighting spirit burned.

On my father’s side, my grandfather rose from poverty by opening a successful cleaning business. In those days preceding Pampers, he would pick up and launder cloth diapers. As family lore has it, a businessman once approached him, inviting him to join as partner of a new, up-and-coming industry: disposable diapers. Prideful and fiercely independent, he kicked the man out of his store, insistent such an outlandish idea would never succeed.

I don’t believe Grandpa ever regretted his decision. He’d fought to build his business, he would continue to fight.

Then there was Daddy himself, a spiritual fighter. He left his hometown, a secular wasteland to travel to Ner Israel in Baltimore to explore his Yiddishkeit. His parents refused to speak to him for years, and they only reconciled towards the end of their lives.

Throughout his life, Daddy continued to fight for what he believed in and to pursue his dreams, even when seemingly insurmountable obstacles faced him. When he was rejected from medical school, he immediately explored other options. He ended up attending a prestigious medical school in Mexico. So what if he didn’t speak a word of Spanish? So what if he didn’t know a soul living there? So what if they once gave a final on Shabbos, and he was forced to retake the semester-long course to attain credits? He dreamed of becoming a doctor, and a doctor he would become.

My mother’s a fighter too. She was orphaned of her own mother at the age of 12, within three weeks of her mother’s cancer diagnosis. Overnight, Mommy went from being a carefree young girl to the housekeeper, the cook, and the only female at home, naturally shifting into a maternal role. Yet she graduated school top of her class, and then juggled full-time college and a job. And she speaks of those days fondly, remembering the crazy schedule she kept, the all-nighters she pulled, her Danish-and-soda breakfasts. She fought for herself, for her family.

The fighting spirit flows through my blood; it’s in my genes, part of my very DNA. Go to karate classes, attend competitions, bring home the gold. Win the awards at school and obtain leadership positions. Write articles and get them published. Work hard, and do it well.

I brought this motto into my marriage, into my new family. Something needs to get done? Do it. Pictures need to be hung up? I can manage some nails and a hammer. Ladders are ascended, lightbulbs are changed, tarps are draped. No damsel in distress here, thank you very much.

My husband jokes I’m the handyman, doing his jobs. There’s truth to that — I’m determined to let him learn in peace. When something needs to be done, I’ll simply do it myself.

I’m independent and capable and strong. I’m a fighter. I push and push until I feel I’m about to collapse, and then I push some more. I do things well, I do things fast.

I probably would have kept living my life on fast forward if I hadn’t crashed head-first into the inevitable burnout. The anxiety, the pressure, the resentment. The utter exhaustion.

But we’re fighters, we don’t quit when the going gets tough — we’re the tough who get going! I was waging an internal war, questioning my values, my very identity.

If I’m a fighter, and now I’m calling it quits, who am I? Would I have survived the concentration camps like Zaidy? Could I have risen from poverty to build up my own business? Pushed against impossible time constraints to obtain a degree? Is it possible I’d ever pursue a spiritual or physical dream despite numerous obstacles?

I wasn’t given those circumstances, and perhaps wasn’t given the accompanying abilities to overcome those challenges. Yet I compare myself to these heroes, and wonder where my fighting spirit is. The question plagues me: What if I don’t want to fight any longer?

It occurs to me I excel at doing; it’s my comfort zone. But what about being? Can I just sit with myself, place the ever-growing to-do list on the side? Perhaps my frenetic business is a distraction, perpetually helping me feel good about myself, external boosts without any internal substance.

I say I also want to “be”; that it would be nice at some point (I’ll add it to my to-do list). But when was the last time I took a walk? Not power-walking exercise, but a leisurely stroll where I noticed the leaves. When have I last been fully present in my body, stretching and meditating? When do I nurture myself, sitting down to a balanced meal or hot drink instead of inhaling food or gulping down coffee? When do I allow myself to speak to Hashem, granting it time — not mumbling words to get through Shacharis, but really, truly connecting?

It’s challenging to schedule it in, to be kind to myself, to — ironically — fight to implement something new. It means readjusting my schedule, my priorities, shifting things around despite the challenges. There’s resistance on my part, my husband’s, my kids’. It’s a dance of two steps forward, one step back, recalibrating and changing. But with time I notice things start to shift.

I’m more present, calmer, less pressured and stressed — despite the fact that there are still things on the to-do list. I’m noticing a shift in myself, my marriage, my parenting. I’m seeing new facets in myself and in others. I’ve discovered that I love to draw. Maybe slowing down is speeding things up for me.

And just last week I asked my husband to hang up a new picture. I think we’re making progress.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 745)

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