Doing things halfway.

There is a Jewish concept called the yetzer hara. I’ve written about it before but there’s more I want to say.

Sometimes it is translated as “the evil inclination.” It is the thing in your head that says if you can’t do something all the way, don’t do it at all. It is what stops you from doing good deeds and from making positive contributions.

The idea is to catch it in the act and do something good anyway. It is better to do part of a good deed than nothing at all. Don’t beat yourself up for not doing the whole thing – at least you did something.

The part that I’ve just realized is that too many of us think that just doing that little something is enough and we stop there.

We shouldn’t beat ourselves up for not being able to do all of the good deed, but we also shouldn’t pat ourselves on the back for doing just the minimum. There has to be a balance somewhere. Do what you can, and then try to do a little more.

The Not-Me. (on the yetzer hara)

My Jewish friends may be surprised to learn how much Christians don’t know of their culture. There are so many amazingly useful parts to Judaism that the majority of Christians just aren’t told about, and thus don’t incorporate them into their lives. It is as if Christians stripped away all the awesomeness of Jewish life and went for the soap-box car rather than the Rolls Royce.

There are so many parts to talk about, but I’m going to only mention one part for now. This is the concept of the “yetzer hara”. This is translated as “the evil inclination.” I first heard about this from the podcast called “Living with G_d : spiritual tools for an outrageous world” by David Sacks.

He refers to the action of the yetzer hara as “spiritual identity theft” He identifies it as a thing outside of us that is trying to prevent us from fulfilling our calling. It is trying to stop us from being who G_d (or Hashem) needs us to be. It tries to prevent us from doing good deeds, or mitzvahs.

This is the most useful thing I have ever come across.

He says that sometimes it is useful to name it. I’m calling it “the not me”.

I now see that desire to stay home and not exercise as the not me. I see the desire to not read the daily Bible readings as the not me. The same is true of not writing every day. These are all the things that further me on my path toward wholeness.

I mentioned this to a guy about exercise. He had a YMCA membership but found it impossible to find time to exercise. He said he wanted to get up earlier in the morning and go, but he just couldn’t. I remember what this feels like. This feels maddening. You say you want to do something good, and then you don’t do it.

With this idea of the yetzer hara, you learn to see that negative inclination as an opposing force. It isn’t you. You want to exercise, to do something good, but the yetzer hara says you don’t. It sounds a lot like you saying that.

Part of the idea is that simply by naming it you have power over it. You know its tricks.

I have started to see this feeling as a very useful tool. The more I feel that I don’t want to do something that I know is good, the more I see it as a sign that I’m really on to something awesome. I actually use it as a spur to do it. The stronger the force against, the more I know I’m on to something.

It is like having a bratty older sibling saying that “you can’t do it” and working up enough energy to do it, just to prove him wrong.

It is about walking through an obstacle, rather than getting stopped by it. It is about using it as a stepping stone rather than a stopping point.

First you have to see that it is there, and know its tricks. It isn’t you. It mimics you, but it is actually a force outside of you that is trying to stop you. Sometimes, just knowing about an obstacle is helpful. It takes away some of its power.

May this tool be of as much use to you as it has been for me.


I think it is important to teach people how to take care of themselves. I’m concerned with the number of agencies that just seem to rescue people. This is the “give a fish” mentality, versus “teach a person to fish.” If you give to them, but don’t teach them how to provide for themselves, then they will simply have to come back for more help from your agency. They become dependent, rather than independent.

There are two resources at my church that are great outreach services. They are Second Harvest and Room in the Inn. Second Harvest provides food boxes to needy families so that they can eat. Room in the Inn is a partnership with a homeless agency that provides a safe place to sleep and a meal to homeless people. These are both very labor-intensive services that are essential to the community. They help people in our community, giving to them what we as Christians are called to provide our neighbors.

While I support the idea of Second Harvest and Room in the Inn for alleviating the symptoms of poverty and homelessness, I wonder if there isn’t more that can be done? Why are we addressing the symptoms and not the cause? Why are we catching people when they fall off the cliff and not when they are moving near it? It also takes away a person’s dignity to make them have to beg.

They need to be trained to provide for themselves. They need access to health care. They need education. They need job counseling and training. They need to learn how to take care of their children so they won’t grow up poor.

I think this way about church too. I think that the entire structure of church these days makes people dependent. It doesn’t teach people how to connect with God directly. In a way, I’m envious of my Jewish friends who have rituals about everything, every day. They are reminded with every moment that they are part of the People of God. I feel like the current structure of church encourages people to stay sheep. They don’t ever learn to take off the training wheels to the bicycle. I find it interesting that I’ve had more how-to advice on how to connect with God through my spiritual director than through any priest I’ve ever known.

Now perhaps I’m over-reaching, and I’m not seeing things in a helpful way. Perhaps this is part of my problem. There is a Jewish concept that refers to the “evil inclination” that says if you can’t do the whole mitzvah, don’t even do a little bit of it. So instead of focusing on the thing that can be done, I want to work on the thing before the thing. I want to dig out the root. Perhaps that force is what is at work here. Perhaps there is a mix of all the other big heavy stuff I’m dealing with right now mixed into it.

Because right now I’ve got a lot of my past and my future catching up with me. Right now I’ve got issues I’m dealing with that concern my childhood – issues that I’ve not faced. Issues about neglect and abuse. I’ve got issues with my parents in law and their impending deaths and how they treated my husband when he was growing up. I’ve got issues with what I’m called to be and do in this world. I don’t want any of this, and I certainly don’t want it all to be happening together at the same time like it is, but there you go. We don’t get a lot of choice sometimes. So sometimes things don’t come out the way they should. But they do. And that is part of this messy business that is life, and living in community.

But perhaps I’m on to something, and the fact that I can see it means it is something that I have to work on. I do want to wake people up, but yelling at them isn’t always the best way.

Begin at the beginning. (on writing, and any other creative exercise)

When you first start to write, it is not the time to edit. Don’t even slow down to check quotes or references. Just write. Write big and loose. Go wherever you feel called to. Jot down any idea that comes to you, even if it seems unrelated. The fact that the idea came to you while you were writing on that subject means it is connected somehow. It might be leading you somewhere really good.

I start with something I call seeds. Any idea can be a seed. Any idea can be the start to something great. I have a lot of them. I carry a small notebook with me at work so that whenever I have an idea I can jot it down. Those seeds then form the basis of what I start with when I have time to write.

Then is when I water the seeds. I take the time to add more words. I fill out the ideas. Sometimes my seeds are just a few lines, like four or five sentences. They are the basic ideas that I want to get across, but they aren’t filled out. I then take time to add to them so there is a logical connection between them. Then while I’m writing other ideas will come to me on that topic and I’ll add them. Sometimes I don’t know where these ideas are coming from, but I add them in anyway. This too is not the time to edit.

Once you feel like you are done, it is time to prune. Your seed has grown up into a big plant because of all the work you have done on it. Sometimes it has grown up too big and needs to be divided. Sometimes it is a bit messy and ugly looking because of typos or weird connections.

For me, there is a wave of energy that I feel when I’m adding to a piece, and when that wave dissipates I take the time to edit. Some sections work better than others. Some sections would work better being combined. Some sections need to be at the beginning, but I thought of them at the end. That is the joy of writing on a computer. It is really easy to edit.

I’m a big fan of writing longhand on paper because I don’t get distracted by the clicks of the keyboard on the computer and I don’t have to slow down to fix the weird autocorrect on the tablet. It is a lot more seamless. It goes faster. I think it is important that whatever tool you use to write, it doesn’t get in the way. You don’t think about it much, so you can concentrate on writing. But when I write on paper, I then have to type it up. I actually am envious of Neil Gaiman who has an assistant type up all his writing. The convenience of pre-writing on the computer or tablet is just too much to pass up so I’ve started doing that all the time. I’ve realized that I get about five hours during the week (in bits and pieces) at work that I am free to write. That is a lot of time.

Ideally, I’d get to write in several places at once. It would be nice to have three or four pieces I’m working on and be able to go to them wherever I am. I could start a topic at home on my computer, and then work on it a bit on my tablet at work, then finish it back at home on the computer. So far I’ve not found a way to do that. I don’t edit on the tablet because the last time I tried to cut and paste I lost three paragraphs forever. So I use it for raw writing. I then email what I’ve written to myself and I copy and paste it into a new Word document at home.

I usually have four or five different topics I’m working on at a time. Sometimes I’m more drawn to work on one. Sometimes I go to one because I don’t know what to write for the other ones yet. Sometimes I don’t feel like I’m ready to write on one because I am too close to it. Sometimes I feel like the yetzer hara, (the “evil inclination” that is referred to in Jewish philosophy) is trying to keep me from writing about what needs to be written about. I really want to blast on the “prosperity gospel” but I feel blocked right now. The fact that I’ve named it might give me the energy to work on it later.

I have at least 60 seeds on my computer. If I don’t have an idea of what I want to write about in the morning, I’ll look at them and see if any are interesting today. I’m ok with the idea that some may never grow. Some end up being grafted together. Some I’ll work on for a bit and find it is going nowhere. I then leave it and will work on it another day. Or not. At least I’ve spent some time on it. Any writing is better than no writing, and what I’ve done doesn’t go away. I’m closer to finishing that piece now. Even if I never finish that one, the fact that I wrote at all will help me with the next piece. Discipline and consistency is part of it. The only way to be a writer is to write.

I don’t feel like I have to have a finished post every day. I have a goal of three posts a week so I do have to be diligent and actually finish something every now and then. That is part of the problem – I have a lot of seed-starts. Because of the writing I’m doing at work on breaks I have a lot of one and a half page starts. Right now I’m getting a lot of new ideas so I’m trying to gather them in so I don’t lose them. I feel like I’m saving up for a dry spell when no ideas come. Then I’ll have pieces to work on because I’ve saved them now. Maybe I won’t have a dry spell, and ideas will keep coming and I’ll just have an excess. Who knows? Maybe the excess of ideas is a trick from the “evil inclination” to keep me from finishing up other things. Maybe even writing about writing is an excuse to not work on something important.

Sometimes writing is like going on an adventure. Sometimes it is like driving down a road. You have an idea where you think you are going. So you get started with the name of the city in mind. You drive a little way and you see an interesting store you’ve never noticed. So you stop. You get sidetracked. There is an alleyway that calls to you. Or you see a billboard for an attraction you’ve never heard of. You may never get where you were headed but that isn’t always the point. If you are writing creatively it is ok. Now, if you have an assignment then you have to rein it in and not go wandering everywhere. You may end up writing two different things- the one for the class and another for fun.

Sometimes the answer is within the asking. Sometimes just by writing the question you will hear the answer. That is the most magical part about writing. When done right, writing is like praying. You write, and you hear the answer. You learn from writing. You end up in places you never thought you’d go, and all from the comfort of your favorite writing chair.

How do you know when you are finished? Sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you’ll want to keep working on a piece over and over until you feel it is perfect. It won’t ever be perfect. It will be what it is right now. Sometimes it is good to just stop and let it go. You may have more to say on that topic later. Then write some more – but not on that piece. Start fresh. But just write.

By the way – the same rules apply for any creative exercise. Painting, beading, embroidery – the same is true. Just start. And then keep going. Or to quote from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland – “’Begin at the beginning,’ the King said gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop.’”