Was I Really “Born This Way”?
Hi Rabbi, I have a big question. A class I went to taught me that a major purpose of my life is to “work on myself” to make myself a better person than I am. But, I like who I am, what I am! As Lady Gaga’s song goes, “I was born this way!” Or in rabbi-talk, “God made me as I am”. If so, why should I change myself? Thanks a lot!
Pardon me for saying this, but from a Jewish perspective what you’re saying is a bit “gaga”.
The reason is because, since you’re talking about personality and not physique, even Lady Gaga would agree that God did not actually make you as you are. True, God creates each of us with basic traits or tendencies. But many other factors affect these traits, and go into making us who we are. The major factor is what we choose to do with our lives.
Therefore, as far as who we really are, we cannot say “I was born this way” since we have free-will to choose to be different, to be better. So in “rabbi-talk” it would actually be more correct to say “God made me able to make myself”.
In fact, the Rambam (Hilchot De’ot 1:4) writes that there are three main factors which create any attribute: 1. Being born with the trait as one’s nature; 2. Having a natural pre-disposition for the trait; 3. Acquiring, or being conditioned to acquire, the trait.
Please let’s focus on this third point.
Take for example the trait of anger. “Person A” may be born with an ingrained angry temperament, which naturally results in “Person A” being easily angered. “Person B” may not be born as “naturally” angry, but may nevertheless be inclined to get angry. And “Person C” might not be “naturally” nor “inclined” to be angry, but may nevertheless choose to acquire the trait of anger for any particular reason — for example to intimidate others.
However, regardless of the cause in all of the above cases, God does not want the person to be angry. He wants the person to exercise the free-will with which the person was created, in order to overcome whatever factor would otherwise lead to anger. The same applies with all of the other negative attributes or traits that one has.
Even positive traits are not to be accepted “as is” simply because they were implanted within us by God. For one, they are not always manifested positively. For example, regarding mercy, our Sages (Tanchuma, Metzora) tell us that one who has mercy on the wicked is actually wicked to the merciful. One explanation of this is that having mercy on the wicked enables them to continue to be wicked to the innocent. Secondly, even a person who is naturally inclined to kindness can always improve his trait of kindness.
So, far from accepting ourselves as we are, the Torah approach is to first recognize who we are at any given time, understand how we got to be that way, and to use our free-will to bring ourselves in line with the way God wants us to be. This can be done either by changing or modifying negative traits, or by improving or perfecting positive ones.