By Aryeh Ben David
People ask me why I write so much about myself in my articles. They ask: “Isn’t that narcissistic? Does it always have to be about you?”
Educators ask me why I talk so much about myself in class. They ask: “Doesn’t that put the focus on yourself? Aren’t we supposed to be listeners?”
It is true what they say – I do write personally about what is happening in my life – whether it is a Shabbat disaster with my daughter, my struggle with Radical Impatience, or finding God in Central Park.
And it is true that I begin every class by talking about myself – how I relate to the subject we are about to study, whether we are learning about education, prayer, or Gemara.
Why start with my story? And why so personal? Shouldn’t our private lives remain exactly that – private?
I did not grow up with talking, writing, and teaching personally. In fact, my educational experience was just the opposite. In my many years as a student – through high school, university, and then many years in yeshiva and rabbinical school – I never had a teacher, professor, or rabbi speak openly and personally while teaching. Never. Ever. Not once.
For me, talking, writing, and teaching personally are very conscious and intentional.
Educationally, I want to break down the traditional classroom mindset in order to make it better. When students of any age walk through the doors of the classroom they intuitively begin to function from the shoulders up. They have been trained that the classroom is the setting of intellectualism, and they engage accordingly. The subtext of this experience is their personal disconnecting – with their hearts, souls, and lives. The students learn “about” every subject, but they do not learn “about” themselves.
I intentionally try to break this predisposition by sharing openly with my students that I want and need to grow personally from our learning together. I clearly express that I am a work-in-progress. Talking about myself is meant to be an invitation to my students, giving them permission to follow my lead and personally and fully engage with our subject. It is encouraging them to be less afraid, to risk letting their guards down. We are not just learning material. We are learning about our lives, ourselves. We are all works-in-progress. We always will be.
Why do I also write on such a personal level? I think I’m just tired of having friendships that are not open and real. As Brené Brown writes: There is no relationship without vulnerability.
A few years ago I was going through a hard time. Looking back I realize that it’s called “the 40s”, but I didn’t know that at the time and it was very tough. I was traveling in the US and spent Shabbat with a couple of close friends. Shabbat morning we intended to have a cup of coffee and then head off to shul. We never made it to shul. I shared what I was going through and then my friend said perhaps the most astonishing and wise observation that I have ever heard. She said: “Rock bottom is a very good place to be.”
What?! Are you kidding me?!
Rock bottom felt like the worst place to be. But her astute comment came from deep life experience. Rock bottom really is a very good place to be. At rock bottom, life becomes clarified. We can see what is really important and what is not. We can discern what we really value and what others think we should value. And this is the point where we let go of bulls%#t. Let’s be who we really are, without pretense, puffing up, or shame. At rock bottom we can have real relationships.
So when I write personally, it is also my invitation to others to share personally: so that we can have a full relationship, without all the guards and inhibitions that often encumber getting to know each other. We all have hit rock bottom at some time in our lives. We have all been broken, in something – relationships, career, health, family, livelihood. God created a broken world. But often we think we are the only ones. We share our light but not our shadow. It can feel lonely and embarrassing to be a work-in-progress.
We are granted a short time on this earth. In the classroom and in our lives – let’s dare to talk personally, and to relate personally to each other, to our learning, and to ourselves.
Personally, I don’t have the time to do it any other way.