The Scream by Edvard Munch

For the past couple of nights I have had some disturbing dreams.  The details are unimportant, but the theme is this:  I over-commit myself, which leads to my trying to please everyone and  be everywhere at once.  The result is that despite my good intentions, I accomplish nothing.  As I become more and more overwhelmed, I become increasingly careless and reckless in the frenzy to honor my commitments.  As my mother a’h would have said, I’m “running around like a chicken with its head cut off.”  My behavior results in neglect and abandonment; and despite my desire to do good, not only do I fail,  I disappoint those closest to me.  Needless to say, I awaken with tremendous anxiety.

Thankfully the actual scenarios in my dreams were fantasy, but the symbolism was unfortunately all too  real.

Although my specific failings of the trials presented to me in my life are my failings, the trials are my trials and can’t be compared to others or blamed on anyone else, I know I am not the only one who feels something is terribly wrong:

Friend A hosts a monthly gathering for 80 people from all walks of life, who come to hear amazing lectures from experts in diverse fields of science, medicine, and philosophy, tied into religious themes.  She organizes the speakers, supplies most of the food, sets up the chairs, cleans up afterwards.  Yes, people help her, but this is also after a week of her regular activities when she cares for an elderly parent, shops and cooks for people who are ill, helps out a daughter-in-law who is overwhelmed with childcare (and for whom she babysits several hours every weekday morning), and for whom she does carpools and many of her household chores.

Friend B works very hard to make ends meet.  She tutors children with learning disabilities (rarely getting paid on time).  She not only has a crowd of Shabbos guests every Shabbos, she has “regulars” who practically live at her house (some actually do live there for weeks at a time who literally have nowhere else to go).  She has serious chronic health issues of her own that make any exertion extremely trying.  She does get help from others, but it’s simply not enough.

Friend C has a very large family.  She works full-time so they can make ends meet and pay tuition for their children in day school.  Besides factors in her workplace that necessitate much preparation at home beyond the normal work hours, she also on a daily basis mentors people by phone who have tremendous life struggles and are extremely needy.  Despite a weekly housekeeper, her house is in constant disarray, and her children have behavioral issues that are especially challenging.  No matter how much attention she gives them, it’s not enough.

All three of the above people are in good marriages with supportive partners.  I can’t even imagine how much more difficult it is for single parents who are undoubtedly even more overextended!

As Jewish women, the tradition and mitzva of chesed (acts of loving-kindness and doing good deeds for others)  is the foundation of who we are and all we aspire to become:  a true eshet chayil, a “woman of valor.”  We read biographies of tzaddikim (righteous people) for further inspiration.  We give our all in this world in preparation for olam haba (the World to Come). 

I have it so much easier than most people; and still, I struggle.

I know I cannot be the only one who feels “why can’t I measure up?”  and lives with the resulting guilt.  I want to face the trials handed to me with love, happiness,  bitachon (trust in HaShem), a positive attitude and a sense of triumph, instead of dread and the feeling of failure and guilt.

Friends A, B and C have all “confessed” to me that there are days when they just don’t think they can go on.  That they are spent mentally, physically, and emotionally. That the smiles they have for their guests, friends and families and their cheerful “can-do” dispositions are often disingenuous.  That they need a break.  That they no longer enjoy or look forward to the chesed to which they commit, that it has become a burden rather than a joy.  In short, they are “burned out.”

A certain rabbi once gave a lecture and talked of the irony of women who get so into their prayers or recitation of psalms, that they ignore the needs of their crying child during that time, even to the point of neglect.

How do we learn to say “no” gracefully?  Or  do so without guilt, fearing that we are somehow not reaching our potential?  Or the belief that “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle?”   – – but what if we fail?  How can we follow halacha (Jewish law) when circumstances contrive to impede us?

I have been doing some serious introspection on how to work on this problem.  Besides asking HaShem’s guidance, one very little thing I can do is make a list of things I hope to accomplish the next day, and at the end of that day, to revisit the list, and do a cheshbon nefesh (personal accounting).  Perhaps things that seemed important will not be as urgent as I thought.  Maybe it will encourage me to prioritize and be better organized and manage my time more effectively.  For those things I was unable to accomplish, maybe I will be able to complete them the following day.  Maybe that day’s list will be realistically shorter!  Perhaps if I take difficult things a day at a time – or if they are really difficult, a moment at a time, they will be more tolerable.

And maybe my dreams will be calmer.

I’d like to hear your suggestions!


2 responses to this post.

  1. Postscript: Interestingly and fittingly, with what was clearly siyata d’shamaya (help from Above), I found this discussion on the na’ website, in a question posed to Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller.

    I am responsible for cooking, cleaning, and
    childcare, along with pursuing a demanding
    career to support my husband’s learning. At
    times this leaves me sad and angry as I feel
    unable to succeed in any area. Do you
    have suggestions for how I can be b’simcha
    even when I am tired, frustrated and
    You do not always have to be b’simcha. It’s
    ok to be frazzled when Shabbat starts at
    4:PM and you’re racing against the clock to
    finish on time. You don’t have to start
    dancing in the supermarket when you
    notice that the treif chickens cost a fraction
    of the kosher ones. The gemara says,
    “Lefum tzara agra. The reward is commensurate
    with the pain.” This means that your
    values are such that you’re willing to suffer a
    certain amount of frustration and difficulty to
    get something you want even more.
    It is admirable that you consider worthwhile
    this struggle so your husband can dedicate
    himself to Torah. Of course, a person should
    work at acquiring simcha shel mitzva.
    Appreciate that the trade-off you’re making
    is worth it. Look forward to reaping the fruits
    of your labor, a worthy husband, children
    who value Torah, and a home where the
    yetzer hara is defeated because “Torah
    tavlin lo.”
    It’s ok to find the going rough at times. Try to
    make it easier by drastically lowering your
    standards. Your house does not have to
    look perfect. Prioritize what needs to get
    done. I’ve spoken to respected Rebbetzins
    who told me that there was a good deal of
    disorder in their homes when they were
    raising young children and supporting their
    husbands in learning. You need to work
    b’emuna at your job, but you don’t have to
    be the star of the team. Give yourself permission
    to define success as working within the
    parameters of your real goals which are to
    build a warm Torah home, support your
    husband in his spiritual growth, and raise
    happy, healthy, well adjusted children.


  2. Posted by rachel malkin on April 23, 2012 at 6:47 pm

    may your dreams bring you restful sleep and the calm resolution of your life dilemna. not right or wrong here, just average (life).
    calm begets calm. stress is often phasic not basic. we can trust our basic instincts to deal as adultly as possible. perfection is a sabotage of yetzer hara.
    let us strive to do our good.
    saying “no” is just that, not judgmental, fearful and angry temper. choices offer us a view of our humility and objectivity. Gd wants us to make good choices for ourselves; we don’t need to be doormats, saints or martyrs.
    please Gd, may we not take our own dear selves so seriously.
    when we feel burn-out, it’s normal. step back, take a walk in a garden, hum a tune or niggun to ourselves . breath deeply and write 5 things we’re grateful for, and 5 challenges we could let go of.
    draw with crayons for 5 minutes. find a bargain.
    you are a wonderful writer; surely your talent is a tool for thoughtful comfort, please Gd. endorse yourself for effort, success is up to HaShem.


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