Karla’s Siyyum Welcome: Blessings on Becoming

Below is the welcome that Karla Van Praag, JOIN’s Executive Director, gave at the opening of our 21st Siyyum Graduation about the theme, “Blessings on Becoming.”

Karla at the podium, speaking into a microphone.

We were walking back from the library in April, Aitana and I, carrying a bag full of books.  My daughter is an avid reader: she reads on the bus, on the train, while walking down the stairs from the train…. Basically everywhere. This heavy bag I hoped would last a week.  We walked silently, and then, in passing, without thinking much of it, I said aloud, I wish I had your daily habit of reading. We continued walking silently. Then Aitana asked, “Well, what would motivate you to read more?” I thought of rewarding myself with a coffee, then a cookie, then a smoothie; unfortunately everything I thought of involved spending money or eating more, and were new habits I didn’t wanted to indulge in. “I don’t know.” I said. Then she asked, “What if, for a month, I did a chore for every hour you read?” I was shocked. She did it. She found me a motivation I couldn’t refuse.

 So, I read almost every day for a month. In my reclaimed time, I read almost three books. And in that time my daughter cooked dinner, put away dishes, set the table. It was wonderful. And I told this story to everyone who would listen. Later that month, I asked Aitana if I could tell this story at the Siyyum, as I’ve told stories about her brothers previously; she said with enthusiasm “sure”. I was a proud mom, and proud of my success. I would reflect on my accomplishment, why it worked, and what the story meant to me.

 Then May came around. I got busy, and well, maybe I didn’t have a good enough book or maybe I wasn’t feeling well. Regardless, I stopped reading daily. My habit was no longer a habit anymore. And the story I had planned to tell all of you, if I were to be honest, became something I wasn’t sure I wanted to tell anyone anymore. 

 Truth is, you don’t set a goal with the underlying purpose of trying to learn from your mistakes. You set a goal with the intention of meeting it. You want a happy ending you can shout from the rooftops. It’s possible to entertain failure as a detour on the path to success, but the detour should end by getting to your destination. When it leads somewhere else, well, you’re less likely to share the experience.  I, like most people who fail, was ashamed.

 Yet, the shame associated with failure is misguided. Because failure is inevitable. So, if you can get over the discomfort, you’ll figure out something exciting: sharing failure stories is usually met not with criticism, but with understanding and curiousity. Organizers know this. I’ll let you in on a little secret.  One way we judge trainers is by whether they are vulnerable enough to tell stories of their failures. And luckily, there are usually plenty of them.

That’s why I loved the Fellows theme the second I heard it. Or, once I understood it. Because the idea reassured me that my story still had a lot of value if I could overcome my need to conform to our cultural obsession with success by erasing my story from the Siyyum. My failed habit is still a story full of lessons and blessings. The concept of Blessings on Becoming is so rich because it embraces the fact we are always becoming something – there is no end point until it is truly all over – and that we should bless and celebrate the many points of the journey, even if they are failures.  

 So bless the fact that I learned again how valuable reading can be, even if two books were great and one was meh. Bless the daughter who acted as teacher, and who learned to cook a few new dishes that month. Bless the journey of setting a goal, and accomplishing it. Heck, bless the damn failure, for this lessons I learned because of it. And bless these fellows who taught me to recognize that the journey can matter as much as the destination. And that we are all still becoming.

 An aside: As I was writing this speech, I realized that the book I am in the middle of right now is Becoming by Michelle Obama. You know who her husband is – his first name is sometimes translated as to bless. Anyway, Becoming was auto-returned to the library before I finished it. But I enjoyed the four chapters I completed. I’ll eventually take it out again.


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