I’m so happy that Dory’s mantra “just keep swimming” has gone viral.
If you have no idea what I’m talking about you clearly don’t have a child or grandchild under the age of ten. Finding Nemo, just one of Pixar’s smash box-office hits from 2003, features a cute little fish Nemo who gets separated from his father. Nemo spends the movie searching for his dad, together with his scattered-brained but loyal friend Dory (voiced by Ellen Degeneres). Dory repeats over and over again, as a mantra, “just keep swimming,” almost more to herself than to Nemo.
Just keep swimming is great. It’s upbeat, it’s forward-focused. It’s like all the other inspirational quotes out there: “keep the faith,” “keep on keeping on,” “never give up.”
Beautiful. Except sometimes it’s really bad advice.
This year I got all motivational and decided I was going to hit that bucket list and defy aging and take guitar lessons. I’ve been playing piano since I’m a wee lass and I’ve always envied those guitar-toting hippies with that instrument slung over their back like a wicked accessory. You cannot strap a piano over your back. And no, a keyboard is NOT the same, since you were about to ask. (I know you were.)
So I had to stop saying “I wish I knew how to play guitar” and take lessons. I texted my friend Brynna Fish, a guitar teacher and asked her. We picked a time and date and kadima! We were on it.
I picked it up quickly. I enjoyed the sound. I had a great teacher. I looked up songs on my newly installed “guitar tabs” app like a boss and practiced regularly. But then I started to lose steam. I didn’t like having an extra thing to do every day. At the risk of sounding shallow, I didn’t like the way my calloused fingers felt. At all. And at the risk of sounding snooty, I didn’t like feeling like a beginner.
I’m proficient on the piano. It’s almost effortless for me, like something I’ve been doing my whole life. BECAUSE I’VE BEEN DOING IT MY WHOLE LIFE. It’s hard to eat humble pie and be a newbie at something musical when you’re used to feeling like the musical pro.
But I’m a secret Dory. I want to just keep swimming. I hate to be a quitter. I pride myself on being persistent and reliable and seeing things through to the end. But here’s what I’ve learned: some things should be quit.
Life is short and there are things that just don’t serve us. If I’m choosing to spend my time on something, it should either fill me up with joy, or be the right thing to do. Maybe even both. Tenacity to things that are not serving us, whether due to misplaced pride or some robotic fidelity to “just keep swimming,” is, frankly, dumb.
The single greatest regret of the dying, according to palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware, is this: I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. How many times do we just keep swimming because we think we should, never examining where these habits or practices are taking us?
So, I quit guitar. But I didn’t tell anyone.
A serious reflection and a complicated one. For sure if it’s not important enough, quitting is not just OK it’s mature and responsible and wise. No one can do All the Things so we have to choose. But. Two Buts.
1. Some of the most important things I have ever done were scary and hard and I had to keep at them for so, so long until I learned anything at all. So it can be tough for me to be honest with myself and know when this is a tough thing that’s valuable enough to stick with, or if it’s not, and it’s totally fine to quit.
2. Non orthodox families who make a bar mitzvah in our shul face the same kind of problem. In every other area of life, they are on top of their game. They are managers at work, they have earned degrees, respect, they Know Stuff. When they come to shul, especially the women who may never come at all (the men may have been asked to help with a minyan here or there, or have said kaddish) they are so unfamiliar, the kids know more than they do. That kind of experience is not at all inviting. No matter how friendly the other women are, no matter how much we lower the bar about how they dress, how patient the regular daveners are with the guests inappropriate behavior (because they don’t mean to offend, they really have no idea, and they are stressed). Is there anything we can do, or is it up to them to own their discomfort and decide how they want to manage it, if at all?
In regards to (2), I feel like many non-observant people feel that somehow, by virtue of being Jewish, they should know this stuff. It’s probably because whenever they do venture into a shul or another Jewish environment, it looks like everyone else knows stuff. Also, there is a weird combination of shame and pride in “not knowing anything about that stuff”. On the one hand, you feel like real Jews know that stuff. On the other hand, if you think of yourself as “a bad Jew” with the dangerous edge that implies, then there is a certain amount of pride in ignorance. You’ve been too busy doing real things in the real world to bother with that stuff.
When people tell me they are “bad Jews” I ask them things like “do you honor your parents?” “are you kind to others?” “do you give to charity?”. Yes, yes, yes. “Well, you seem like a good Jew to me. Honoring your parents is a mitzvah, keeping kosher is a mitzvah, maybe you’re just specializing in certain mitzvot.” When people tell me they “don’t know anything” I ask them what kind of specialized knowledge they have. They might have a Ph.D in physics, for example. “Did you know anything about physics before you studied physics?” Well, no. “Guess what? If you wanted to learn Hebrew, you could learn it. If you wanted to learn the prayer service, you can learn it. It’s up to you.”
I would try being very transparent with your guest bar mitzvah families. What’s wrong with saying “We want this to be a great experience for the whole family. We want you to feel proud and competent and on top of things. What can we do that would help you feel that way?”
NB – d”ash to Brynna Fish and hope she is doing well!