I would like to tell you a story about Mrs. Beneducci who is a fifth-grade Detroit writing teacher. It’s a true story. In 1960, she’s standing in front of her fifth-grade class, and she sees a mouse. And the mouse is running around, and she’s trying to catch the mouse, but it’s too quick. The children see the mouse and get up on the chairs. And there’s pandemonium in the class, because there’s this mouse going around. And she they can’t catch the mouse. But this one student has been challenging for Mrs. Beneduci, because he’s blind. Little Stevie, he’s sitting in the corner, and he’s blind. And he just isn’t taking part in this whole thing because he can’t see. Mrs. Beneducci then said to the children, “Little Stevie will help me catch the mouse if I’m quiet.” And everybody was like, well, the Stevie, he’s blind, how’s he gonna help us catch the mouse. She turned to Stevie. Stevie, your hearing is very sharp. I know that if everyone is quiet, you will locate the mouse for me. She got everyone to be quiet. Within seconds, Stevie found the mouse in the wastebasket. He was able to retrieve the mouse from the wastebasket and set it free.
Stevie would be interviewed years later. He would tell me that the day Mrs. Beneduci realized that he had a strong hearing, was a turning point for him. He stopped feeling sorry that he was blind. He started to look at the things he could do. He began to listen to the music in him head. He was one of the most influential musicians of his generation. His name was Stevie Morris. And if you don’t recognize that name, his stage name was Stevie Wonder.
That is a great story. Because it shows how pointing out our strengths can bring out the best in us. These things are already within you, and you can find them for yourself.
My uncle inspired me with music and looking up. It wasn’t till I was 40 years old, that he inspired me to become a cantor. Because in the late ’50s, early ’60s, when I was growing up, women weren’t cantors, especially in Orthodox settings. I never considered becoming a cantor. But I was spiritual. I studied Talmud and Hebrew, and I was 40 when I joined a conservative synagogue in California. And my uncle came to visit me and he heard me singing in the synagogue and he said, you know, Sue, you could become a cantor and I said, Well, my voice isn’t that great. He said, “But you have the knowledge, and you have a sweet vocal, you just need to train.” And so the next year, at 41 years old, I started training to become a member of the Cantor’s Assembly. Sure enough, I joined the Assembly before I turned 50. Within a few years of being a Canton, I was appointed to the Executive Council. In New York, I also attended meetings at the Jewish Theological Seminary. It was amazing. It was because he understood and nurtured my spirituality and courage.
Maria Sirois, another person who helped me get to where I am today is here to talk about positive psychology. My husband, who died in 2009, was my only child. I tried to function for a year after my husband’s death in 2009. [while] grieving, and it got to the point where I just didn’t know if I could take it anymore. I had to stop working. It was right after Passover, on the anniversary of his death. He had taken me to Esalen, a Northern California educational institute, and brought me back this T shirt. I’m a runner, and when I went running that morning, I didn’t notice what T-shirt I was throwing on. But I did what my Uncle David taught me to do—I looked to the heavens. I said, “Okay, what do you do?” Where should I go? I looked down to see Esalen written across my shirt. And I didn’t even know if it was still there.
I found out that Dr. Maria Sirois was offering a workshop called Water in the Desert: Faith, Hope, Awe in a Time Of Loss. I went online to find out more. It changed my life. Maria was my guide for many years. I wanted to learn positive psychology. It was never the right moment. But the right time came and that too has changed my entire life. I think I’ve been through about 50 transformations in the last 11 years.
Last year, I was hospitalized with COVID. And I’m now a COVID long-hauler, and I’m in that place of “no longer and not yet”—that liminal space of not having fully recovered. I need to create my new self. I found the BEST-I method from Tal Ben-Shahar very helpful. I’d like to skip to the very last letter, the I, the Ideal self that’s already inside you, and I want to start creating with you. I’d like you to take a few moments to write down what the qualities and values of a person who inspires you. Now in front of those words in front of those qualities, write the words “I am.” I am patient and creative. I am always learning. This is a quick and easy way to make a list of the qualities you want in your ideal self. You see, the words that you chose are the values and qualities that you admire in someone else, and also that you’re ready to bring out in yourself. You can make your ideal self by focusing on the strengths you have when you’re at your best, and observing those in others. These are known as character strengths in positive psychology. If you don’t know what your character strengths are, there’s a website from Values in Action: via character.org. The test is free and can be taken as many times as needed. Because these strengths and values change over time, I take it every three to six weeks. We can use them to build our ideal selves.
How do you use them? Well, I’ll tell you another story. I quit my pulpit back in 2015. It took me a while to realize that I needed to leave and that I had to move. I was afraid because there was no other pulpit I could go to. I was tired and I didn’t want to reinvent myself and go straight to another pulpit. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I felt like I was about to fall off a cliff by leaving my only source for income and my job. Maria had shown me my character strengths, and I noticed one of them was bravery. And I thought well, if it means that I’m feel like I’m going to jump off a cliff, that’s exactly what I’m going to do. So I hired an instructor in paragliding. He took me up to the top a Malibu cliff. He strapped me to his back like a baby carrier. I was now facing forward and was being strapped to his back. And he said, “Now, I want you to run to the edge of the cliff. And when the ground disappears beneath your feet, I want you to keep running.”
I don’t like heights very much. But I’m brave. So I start running, running, running, running, running. And as I’m getting closer to the edge of the cliff, it’s like, gotta do this, gotta do this. I’m running, running, running, running. And then I realize there’s no more ground beneath my feet. I keep running. And I realized that I haven’t actually had to jump. I was lifted by a glider. And this for me was such an image of abundance and of something greater than me—and that I can quit my job and I will be lifted, I will be okay. We stayed in the air for 30 more minutes. Another strength was needed to see the perspective. I was looking down at Earth from up there. Everyone looked like little ants. It gave me a fresh perspective. It taught me to see things from a different perspective. Perhaps I will find things that I can embrace when I jump off the cliff. So after 30 minutes up in the air, he said, it’s time to come in for a landing. He said, “Now when you come in for the landing, we’re going to land on the beach. You should put your legs straight down. And when you hit the hit the ground, stay upright, don’t go forward, you’ll be tempted to go forward, but don’t go forward, because the glider might be carried out to sea.” So I put my legs down, and we landed, and he’s behind me, and he’s like, twice my size and the gliders pulling, and I couldn’t stay upright, I fell flat on my face into the sand, and the glider started to drift out to sea. I heard him yelling behind me to the people on the beach, “Grab the glider, grab the glider!” And before I knew it, I was he was pulling me up and the glider had been grabbed. And what I learned from that is that even if I fall flat on my face, there’ll be people there to help me up. I can call upon people to help me.
That’s how you can use a strength—you look at, what am I good at? What can you do? How can I put these to work to become my ideal self? The key is to do it every day. That’s also what we learn in positive psychology, is that for something to become a habit, you have to do it every day. This practice of BEST-I can be done for a few moments in the morning or in the evening, but it must be consistent. After my COVID, I had no choice but to stop running. I started walking again. And the very first day I couldn’t make it to the end of my street. I kept going out, and each day I got back up to four-miles. So it’s those little small, incremental changes.
Breathing is the B in BEST, and I is the Ideal self. The E stands for extract. You have just read an excerpt. I have one here on front of my computer: “Appreciate everything, even the ordinary, especially the ordinary,” from Pema Chödrön. I have one from Maya Angelou: “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated.” I hired a technician to put in my internet router, and he’s putting in the router in my office and he sees these quotes all over the place. He then goes into the kitchen to see a quote by Caroline Adams Miller. Getting Grit “Do what scares you first.” And he comes back into my office and he says, “Your house is so inspiring, I just came to put your internet in, and I’m leaving with all this inspiration.” So you can inspire other people just by being who you are. These excerpts may inspire you. And it’s not necessarily an excerpt. It could be a poem you love. It can be an image, I have an image of Joan Borysenko’s Mandala of Angels, because angels are a thing for me. Sometimes I listen to [poet]David Whyte.
You’ve now been inspired by an excerpt or poem or whatever you’ve chosen for your inspiration image. Now, use all your senses to look at something beautiful. I look out at the fig tree in my backyard. Or a picture of a condor on my wall that’s flying over the cliffs of Esalen. Look at something that really brings you joy, gives you inspiration, or listen to music—remember Stevie Wonder, he couldn’t see but he could hear, he could engage his senses with hearing. Joan Borysenko states that touching something can release chemicals that provide comfort. Enjoy a cup of your favorite beverage. Enjoy that flavor. Enjoy the scent of flowers or essential oils. It will lift your spirits.
Because I lost my senses of smell and taste, COVID made me appreciate my senses of smell and taste. Now, I can taste sweeter things when I eat them. I am now referring to the T in BEST-I. The T stands for thanksgiving and gratitude. Sonia Lyubomirsky claims it encourages the enjoyment and appreciation of positive experiences in life. It reduces stress and trauma. It encourages moral behavior. It strengthens social bonds. Maria Sirois’s views on it are very interesting to me. She says, “Gratitude as a concept is interesting. But as a felt sense, it’s a game changer.” In fact, gratitude, thanks is so important that on the front of my book, the first chapter of the book talks about Thank you. It’s a book of questions about how to say thank you to someone, the questions to ask yourself to express the gratitude, to feel the gratitude. It can also be used for thoughts. It is a powerful feeling of gratitude that can change everything.
So we’ve gone through the B, the breathing, the E, the excerpts, the S, the senses, the T, expressing thanks, gratitude. The breathing helps you to find your ideal self, and to embrace it. I wanted to share the ideal self I wrote with you. When I started my positive psychology immersion I wrote. I am inspiring. I’m adaptable. I am visionary. I am successful at getting my message across—All those things. I didn’t feel I had them at the time. But I’m still working on them. I was able to adapt, and they came true. I’m told I do inspire. Even the technician who came to install my internet, I instilled him. Visionary. Hazzan is the Hebrew word for cantor. Its root means visionary. The Hazzan is the person who takes the prayers and sees them. He is also the conduit for the congregation’s spirituality to emerge.
One of the things that I do with my Bar Mitzvah kids is I ask them, “What’s going well?” And sometimes they can’t tell me what’s going well, nothing’s going well. So then I changed the question to, “What was the best part of your day so far?” And they can always tell me something. Even the smallest things. But what happens is that all week long they know I’m going to ask them that question the following week. So they come ready to answer what’s going well, what’s the best part of your day, and then looking for what’s going well, and they’re looking for what’s the best part of their day