Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Nice to know

There's a concept in Judaism that the way you know you have really, truly repented from a wrondoing is that, if you are once again put into a situation where you could do that wrong thing again, you don't.

Most often, this is purely theoretical, because how often does one find oneself in exactly the same situation as before?

Years ago, I used to work for the New England office of a Jewish youth outreach organization called NCSY. This was my first full-time job after college, though "full-time" only begins to describe the 14-hour days, and the weekends given over to the cause. As the Director of Programs, my responsibility was to organize all the logistics for the weekend programs. I ordered buses and caterers, printed and mailed invitations, kept track of who was coming and who had paid, negotiated with venues, found fun activities for after Shabbat and ordered tickets, provided housing lists to the hotel or community members, and worked with the people who designed the educational program to make sure they had everything they needed. It was so much work, but I was good at it.

Well, usually I was good at it. In the days leading up to the events themselves, I was an emotional wreck. Inevitably, a lot of people would sign up late, and NCSY is loathe to turn people away, especially since so many people always sign up late. It is a self-perpetuating cycle. If people know they can sign up late and won't be turned away, then they leave the decision-making for the last minute. Which for me meant an enormous amount of last-minute work, since I had to update the housing people, the educational people, the caterer, the ticket counts, and the bus counselors.

I would stay up all night working to make sure everything would go smoothly, since, you know, excellence is in the details. And the fact that people had the chutzpah (the chutzpah!) to sign up late ate away at me. I was so annoyed. And so I got quite snappy, and basically did everything I could to let people know that I was martyring myself to this event, and so they'd better appreciate me. Luckily my coworkers were also my friends, so they tolerated this, but after I quit the job and was able to breathe a little, one of them mentioned how hard I was to work with in the days before an event. Obviously I had a lot of self-reflection to do.

That was 10 years ago, and in the last 10 years I have, in fact, done a lot of work to develop more patience and be able to "let things go" a little more. But I wondered whether, now, I would be able to do that job better than I did in my early 20's.

Well, now I'm organizing UYO. I found a venue, publicized the event, and am keeping track of who registered and who needs to be "nudged" to get in their paperwork and money. I'm working with the instructors very closely to make sure they have everything they need -- both in terms of information and supplies (in fact I'm going shopping in just an hour). I'm helping a few of the people find housing. My phone rings almost constantly in the evening from enrolled students who have questions, and from students who are enrolling in the last minute. The logistical and time commitments are enormous. It is a lot of work.

I acknowledge that I'm not exactly in the same situation as I was 10 years ago. The event has fewer people involved (up to 22 students and about 10 staff, as opposed to 200 kids and 50 staff), and the instructors provide the program so I don't have to think about whether we should go bowling or ice skating at night and how many tickets we need. But most importantly, I'm now dealing with adults, not teenagers, which means that not only are they, too, more patient, but also that they are more independent. I can tell an adult that the deadline for registering for the Shabbat meal is a certain day, and if they miss that deadline, they are welcome to make whatever other arrangements they want (ie eat at someone's house, or bring their own food). With 14-year-olds, it's just a little unfair to expect them to have more than a certain level of independence.

But the sea change for me is that I'm learning, let's say in the "dinner" scenario above, not to take on the responsibility for this event being perfect for everyone. There is a certain amount I can offer. I'm offering the UYO program, and have told everyone the hours of that program. I am offering an optional Shabbat meal, but only if people sign up by a certain day. The program and the meal will both be INCREDIBLE experiences, and obviously I want as many people as possible to participate, because I believe in what I'm doing. But I don't have to take care of everyone's every need. If someone registers in the last moment and therefore can't come to dinner, then I trust that they will find a way to make that work, and that they will be fine.

No, actually, I'm lying. I'll feel bad for people who can't come to the dinner because they signed up too late. And because they have done something that makes me feel bad for them, I just might get annoyed with them (inside, that is - I don't have to make my issue into their issue!). If they don't come to the dinner because they can't afford the extra cost, I'll feel bad for them and angry with myself for having failed to find a way to help them participate. But I'm learning. I'm learning not to take responsibility for things like where people eat dinner. I don't have to feel angry at myself for not making everything perfect for every person.

And as I learn it, I'm becoming less a martyr and a bit easier to work with. I'd say that my anxiety level is at 30-50 percent, rather than 100 percent, which is really a tremendous improvement if you think about it. And as my anxiety level goes down, it becomes easier for the people I talk to to look forward to the program and feel good about having signed up. Even if they have to do a little more planning and their own logistical work, they are excited about what they are about to do, and, I think, have a little more respect for me - because they see that I respect them, and believe in their abilities to handle any small problems that arise.

By giving them the responsibility instead of taking it on myself, I'm saying "I believe that you are a big enough person to be able to handle this." And also, I'm saying "I doing whatever I can to help you, and I believe my best is good enough. I don't have to become a martyr in order for you to appreciate me." (Again, this is the ideal to which I'm aspiring, and I'm finding myself reaching it more than I used to. I don't claim to be this serene and self-confident all the time!)

Now that I think about it, it's pretty amazing that by learning to say "no," my general aura becomes more one of "yes." By setting limits, I can accomplish more. By not always trying to take care of people, I'm meeting their needs better. How ironic, and how wonderful.

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