Bumbling around at 6 AM that morning, I hardly knew what I was doing…but I was determined to look like I did. I pulled on a crisp tallit (prayer shawl) over my head and shoulders. I awkwardly wrapped tefillin around my arm that was painfully fresh (new tefillin take a while to break in). My siddur opened with a snap, as though it had just come off of the press. The Hebrew may as well have been hieroglyphics. Still, I was on my way to appearing to be someone who did this every morning. Let’s back up a bit.
I wasn’t raised Jewish. Despite the fact that I had never even met a religious Jew in person, I became pretty obsessed with Judaism late in high school. Really, I was obsessed with the idea that a set of instructions could be established into productive habits could help make the Creator of the Universe a part of my life — not on a daily basis, but on an hourly basis. One of my biggest bones to pick with my own Lutheran upbringing was that, theologically, nothing was required of me. I felt like a child who, even when they set the drapes on fire, still couldn’t get their parents’ attention. Judaism, however, seemed to give me the structure I was craving — a barometer for spiritual alignment.
A few years into my “Jew-ish” journey, I walked the walk and mumbled the talk…at least enough to fool the predominantly Christian Oklahomans around me. I had no idea what I was doing, and even though I wanted to, I wanted to look like I knew I was doing in the meantime. This brings me to my early morning bumble-fest in the dark.
About a year before this point, I had started a job as a sewing machine mechanic. I liked the job for the most part, but I had even interviewed saying, “I can’t work on Saturdays. It’s against my religion. If you need someone to work Saturdays, I guess I’m not the man for the job.” The boss who hired me later told me that my micro speech in the interview helped land me the job, saying, “I can teach anyone how to fix a sewing machine, but I can’t teach the integrity that I witnessed in your job interview.” Really? Oh, sheesh. Even though I meant what I said, this would mean that I was really going to have to walk the walk…as far as my boss knows about Judaism, anyways.
Fast forward a year. I was out of town at training sessions hosted by one of our vendors. I was sharing a hotel room with my boss and another sewing machine technician. By this point, I had never spent my morning, from waking till working, with my boss. In my mind, I thought he was expecting me to have the morning routine of the apparently deeply religious Jewish person he hired — rising, Modeh Ani, ritual handwashing, Morning Shacharit prayers with tallit/tefillin — the whole nine yards. In hindsight, I’m not sure why I thought this sewing machine shop owner from Missouri would know what this kind of morning entailed, but I was determined to be that person…at least for that morning.
Armed with a tallit I had kept in the closet for months and a set of tefillin that I’d maybe donned twice, I woke up in the room, wrapped up, and attempted to pray as a religious person would. While this seemed like an admirable attempt, I honestly did not know what I was doing. The tallit felt itchy, the tefillin were scratchy, and the siddur felt like it was never going to end. This was not a normal part of my morning routine at this stage in my Jew-ish practice. I just simply wanted to be a person who did do this every morning. That desire to be that person was the most honest thing about those prayers that morning…which my two roommates completely slept through.
Fast forward a decade or so, I’m now married with an infant son. Around the time my wife was pregnant with our boy, I realized that there would be no fooling my future children as to whom their father really was. If I wanted them to see me in a certain way, as a person who does certain things, I had to honestly take on the habits that would ultimately help me become that person. If I wanted to show them that their dad is a person who never cheated in business, I had to take on the habit of driving back to the store if the cashier accidentally gave me too much change. If I wanted my children to feel that their dad was someone who cared about his community, I would have to just be a guy who volunteered and genuinely did (it turns out that if you volunteer long enough, you will end up genuinely caring for your community—who dathunk?). If I wanted them to see their dad as a guy who valued morning prayer, I would have to honestly get up at 6 AM every week morning, don a tallit and tefillin, and reach out to the Creator of the Universe. There would be no more BS-ing about who I was. If I wanted to impart values and lessons as a father, they may hear my words, but they would definitely witness my actions.
One of my first positive habits to take on was the daily morning prayer I had tried so hard to fake that one morning. I wanted to be that guy who genuinely was not himself without his 9-mile run every morning…but, you know, for Jewish prayer.
One thing I noticed after a while was the attitude shift that was required in order to form positive habits. If I wanted to make sure I did not miss a single morning, I could not just be “trying to pray more often.” That attitude gives failure too much of a pass. No, in order to get this positive habit to stick, I would need to be “a person who prays every morning.” It was no longer about what I was trying to accomplish, it was about becoming the person who does. Beyond changing my attitude, I would have to build this as part of my identity.
Another way I’ve heard this form of habit adjustment put is in the framework of smoking cigarettes. Two people could have the goal of quitting a habit of smoking cigarettes. Both of them are out on the patio of a party and are offered cigarettes by a guest. The first person says, “Oh, no thanks. I’m trying to quit.” The second person says, “Oh, no thanks. I’m not a smoker.” The person who refuses, stating that they are “trying to quit” will likely fail because they still see themselves as a smoker who is a “trying to quit.” The second person, however, has changed how they see themselves. They are no longer a smoker. They are a non-smoker. Non-smokers, by definition, don’t smoke. It’s not a question smoking or not smoking, but rather of who the person is.
I felt this similarly when I officially became a Jew. Though religious for several years, my identity as a religious Jew now dictated my actions. This made some averot (transgressions) easier to avoid — I could just say to myself, “I’m a religious Jew. Religious Jews don’t do that.” and the decision was clear. However, what I underestimated is all of the positive habits that being a religious Jew would require of me. Suddenly, my identity as a religious Jew meant that I had a very wide variety of new responsibilities in addition to the bad habits I would need to break.
Even beyond Judaism or spiritual connotation, forming positive habits is less about intention and more about identity. It’s less a “I’d like to…” and more about “I am…” Before you set out to break a bad habit or to form a positive habit, I’d invite you to take some time to redesign your identity. Look at yourself in the mirror and ask, “What kind of person do you want to be?” Sit down with a pen and a notepad or an open document and write a description of the ideal you. This isn’t not you, but simply your best you — the you that you know exists in there somewhere. This is the you that you could be if you took the required actions, little by little.
Is this a person who is always honest?
Is this a person who helps the needy?
Does this person exercise and eat a balanced diet?
Does this person block off time for their loved ones first?
Does this person read books more than they watch television?
Does this person spend more time with friends in person than they do on social media?
Designing this person.
After you’ve dedicated yourself to intentionally living out the values you feel inside, pursue the goals that would be required to move the needle even a little bit every day. Even just taking a single step in that direction is the start of designing the best you that you can be.
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