Bitter Herb

The curse of comparison

By: Rabbi Dr David Fox

“He sensed that he, as their oldest shared child, had been doomed to be ‘the Contrasted Kid’.”

A reserved adult, he surprised me during his therapy session when he finally discovered the roots of his chronic depression. “I never felt special. Since I was young, I sensed that my parents were disappointed in me. They would compare me with other children, and I was never good enough.” This intrigued me, for I knew him to be an accomplished rabbinic scholar and to have the respect of students and colleagues. Yet he confided that he had been depressed for much of his teens and well into his middle-age years. It began, he explained, when he felt that despite his accomplishments, he did not match his parents’ ideals.

His parents, Holocaust survivors, had both lost prior spouses and children, and when they married after the war, he was the first of their “new” family. He sensed that they had never gotten over the losses of their first respective families. He sensed that, as their oldest shared child, had been doomed to be “the Contrasted Kid”, quietly compared to the children they had lost, never able to replace the void left in his father and mother. He became a high achiever, a superior student, a committed scholar, and a beloved teacher. Yet, within himself he felt inferior, as if he did not matter or amount to much. Long after his parents had passed on, he remained a sullen, bitter man.

During his years of therapy, he described how his attitude continued into early adulthood. In rabbinic seminary, he had been close to a classmate who was composed, calm, and well mannered. My patient Herbert would talk about his Talmud-study partner with envy, contrasting himself in a way that paralleled what his parents had seemed to do with him, to do to him. “How I wished I was Hersh Greenman[1].” “I wanted to be Hersh Greenman.” “Everyone liked Hersh Greenman.” “Why couldn’t I have been born Hersh Greenman?”

He had become preoccupied with his bitter envy, never voicing dislike for the other young man but constantly embroiled with how great his peer was; how inferior he himself was. As years passed, now an ordained rabbi, he had lost contact with the other fellow. He took important positions, applying his own acumen to produce the next generation of Talmudists. But within his thoughts were the self-tormenting words of how he would never be as good as Hersh Greenman. With the passage of the years, thoughts gave way to feelings. His mood plummeted into an ambulatory depression: he functioned, studied, taught, counselled, and yet his mind was afflicted with self-disdain for being the failure which he assumed himself to be. He was not the favourite son, not the first child to his grieving parents. He was not the best student. He would never be Hersh Greenman.

During a particularly dark session, he agonized about his feelings and thoughts. He could not stop brooding nor halt the recurring refrain of contrasting himself with his lost acquaintance, his internalised nemesis. In his meek voice, he asked: “How can I halt my thinking?” I made an observation: “Herb: you are an introvert.” With a wounded expression, he asserted, “I am not an introvert. I do not only care about myself. I’m not self-centred. Why did you accuse me of being an introvert?” I explained the psychology of introversion. “Some people are at their best when they interact with others, testing out their skills. They are not at ease with solitude and need to experience themselves through the reactions of others. Those are extraverts. You are an introvert. You are comfortable with your solitude. You experience the world through your own private thoughts and feelings. You are at ease when you work on matters internally rather than needing others to prove yourself to yourself.”

He sat back, liking that. He now had a means of framing the role of thoughts in his mental life, preferring to view the world from the safety of his private mind. He could challenge himself to create better solutions, on his own, for making his mental life comfortable. Now, mere words or simple formulas cannot bring instant change, so Herb’s transformation was gradual but over the next months he began to view himself with acceptance, more at ease in his mind, content to entertain thoughts without needing to compare himself to others. “I am an introvert. I like that. I can like myself.” He slowly eased out of the therapy and when he checked in from time to time, the bitter intensity had been replaced with a reflective inquisitiveness. He was self-accepting.

Postscript: decades later I was invited to speak in a far-off community. A member of the audience approached me, introducing himself as Hersh Greenman. Professional standards prevented me from revealing that I had spent years hearing about him. I responded to his questions about my lecture and asked him what he did. He had a position, not prominent, and seemed to be what my former patient had depicted: poised, calm, and polite. I decided, deftly, to test out my hunch, sharing with him that I had heard that he was an accomplished scholar.

“I struggle trying to do well. Years ago in seminary, I learned to study seriously and apply myself. I still remember that I was influenced by my study partner who was intense and serious, and I learned to be like him. I still give him credit for what I have become. It’s not about me. It’s what I gained from him.”

  1. This is a fictitious name

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