At Arm’s Length
I was playing with a young relative one day when something interesting happened. The incident opened my eyes to a process that occurs inside people all the time. And not only in children.
The little girl, whom I’ll call Esti (not her real name), has a huge imagination and loves to play “pretend.” Falling in love with my robe’s big, ruffly sleeves, she insisted on wearing it all Shabbos long. Thus attired, and taking care not to trip over the hem of the robe, this delightful four-year-old roped me into a game of Princesses. She was Princess this and I was Princess that. With our identities established, the royal young ladies proceeded to embark on all sorts of rather repetitive adventures. If you’re at all familiar with four-year-olds, you’ll get the picture.
Toward evening, as we were waiting for the men to come home from shul after Shabbos, Esti’s demeanor changed. Whereas before she’d been cheerful and affectionate, now she showed another side. With one small but surprisingly strong finger, she poked me in the shoulder.
I protested, telling her that she’d hurt me. Whereupon she said, “Princess Tanya (her persona of the moment) likes to hurt people.”
“But that’s not a nice thing to do,” I said. “Isn’t Princess Tanya nice?”
She thought it over, and then answered, “Princess Tanya is nice. But when she gets tired, she sometimes likes to hurt people.” By “people,” I assumed that Esti was referring mostly to her younger brother, with whom she periodically gets in trouble for being too aggressive.
This comment struck me as quite revealing. My young friend was self-aware enough to know that being tired makes her cranky, which in turn makes it harder for her to control herself when she has an impulse to push or pinch or otherwise bother whoever may around at the time, usually her little brother. Yet she did not speak about all that in terms of herself at all. The insight was shared in Princess Tanya’s name only.
It was as if Esti wished to completely disassociate herself with the part of her that sometimes succumbs to the impulse to act less than nice. The part she doesn’t like. The poke in my shoulder, or aggressiveness toward her little brother, wasn’t her at all. It was her alter ego, Princess Tanya.
Child psychologists often use a tool known as “play therapy” to get inside a kid’s head. By projecting her feelings and experiences onto dolls or puppets, the child feels safe telling someone about it. She can put a distance between herself and the trauma or the unacceptable emotion, holding them at arm’s length, as it were.
I thought that Esti’s remark fell neatly into this category. Instead of accepting the blame for having hurt someone, she opted to remain “in character” and to dump both the blame, and the explanation for her action, on the imaginary princess’s shoulders.
Don’t we do something similar at times? In our desire to see ourselves as good people, we feel the need to bury, push away, or otherwise ignore the less beloved parts of us which may have led us astray. We want others to think well of us. We want to think well of us! And so, we loudly reject ownership of distasteful faults.
Here’s an example.
Suppose an “older single” young woman has begun to make snarky comments, under the guise of humor, to her newly engaged younger sister. An astute observe might accuse her of being jealous. But the single sister is either unaware of that unsavory emotion or, more likely, unwilling to “own” and acknowledge it.
In her eagerness to dissociate herself from this negative feeling, she will protest vehemently. She will assert that she couldn’t be happier for her sister! She was just being funny. Can’t anyone take a joke? Alternatively, she might accuse her sister of being too sensitive or of reading too much into things. Either way, she is holding her own dark emotion at arm’s length.
To view herself as a good person, she believes that she must dissociate herself, even in her own mind, from the unwelcome emotion called jealousy. She has a picture of how a “good person” thinks and feels, and anything that doesn’t fit that picture makes her so uncomfortable that she feels compelled to deny its existence.
Unfortunately, those around her see more clearly than she does. As we all know, it can be very hard to view oneself objectively. And so, no matter how obvious it is to others that she is indeed wildly jealous of her sister, she will staunchly maintain her innocence. She’s just fine with the fact that her younger sister is engaged while she’s still waiting. Doesn’t anyone realize that she was just being funny?
It’s perfectly natural, and very human, to want to deny the parts of ourselves that we don’t like or are embarrassed to air in public. Traits and emotions that we’d decry in others are certainly not things we wish to see in ourselves. But to be alive is to feel things, and some of those feelings will inevitably be tinged with darkness rather than light.
Anger, fear, envy, a desire for honor—all of these, and more, can be as much a part of a person’s makeup as the lovelier and more acceptable emotions. Pretending that they’re not there is like a child putting her hands over her eyes in the hope that something scary will disappear. Dark feelings don’t simply disappear. We need to work to disappear them.
Acknowledging the existence of our evil tendencies is an integral part of Jewish thought. In the Birchos Shema of Shacharis, we beg Hashem to unify our hearts in His service. The word hearts implies that we have not one, but two of those vital organs. The reference is not to physical organs, but to our good and evil inclinations. Judaism doesn’t put its hands over its eyes and pretend that evil doesn’t exist. Rather, it says, “Here’s the story: you have two clashing inclinations. Now deal with it.”
Our Torah is very clear about the fact that we were born with a tendency toward the unsavory. Yetzer lev ha’adom ra miniurav – the imagery of man’s heart is evil from his youth (Bereishis 8:21). Every person on earth is included in this description. Dissociating ourselves from the evil within us by pretending that it’s not there serves little purpose. Instead, we recognize it as a force that must be contended with… and then spending the rest of our lives contending.
Starting the Race
Youngsters like Esti may try to hold onto her positive self-image by displacing her negative impulses onto someone else, real or imaginary. But we need to resist the impulse to do the same. Denying the existence of the evil we were born with denies us the opportunity to uproot and rid ourselves of it. Our mission in life is to reject evil and embrace good. If we insist from the very start that we’re already good through and through, how can we ever make that conscious choice and fight that necessary battle?
I may have mentioned before the concept of the “tzaddeikes syndrome.” That’s when it’s so unbearable to think that you’re not the good girl you want to be, that you refuse to even entertain the thought that you have negative impulses living side by side with your undeniably wonderful ones.
Make no mistake: we are good people. We are good people with real flaws. We are good people with dark sides that must be acknowledged… so that we can leave the world of make-believe, the only place where you get to stand at the finish line before you’ve even started the race.
Only when we stop displacing all our less savory thoughts and feelings onto our own “Princess Tanyas” and take actual ownership of them, can we start the long but exhilarating process of pinpointing, outsmarting, and ultimately booting them out. Only by acknowledging the race can we actually run it—and win!