In 1979, as I was about to enter seventh grade, my parents moved our family from one suburb of Chicago to another where we soon discovered anti-Semitism ran rampant. Changing schools for any boy of thirteen is traumatic enough, but finding myself persecuted verbally and physically for belonging to a particular religion made the transition so awful that by the end of the year my parents felt compelled to move our family back to the original suburb from which we'd come.
Only when I began practicing Buddhism during my first year of medical school did I ever seriously wonder why I'd allowed myself to be victimized as I had (I wasn't absolving my tormentors of responsibility for their behavior in asking myself this question but rather trying to take full responsibility for mine). There were many responses I could have had to the kids who persecuted me but didn't: I could have fought back rather than run when I was attacked; I could have boldly proclaimed I was Jewish when asked during the first week of school rather than skirt the question as I did (already knowing "they didn't like Jews" there as one Jewish boy I befriended during the summer had told me). But instead, everything I did was calculated to make me appear likable, helpful, and in general an all around good guy---not in order to create genuine friendships but rather to keep me safe. And every morning for a year I awoke feeling a horrible anxiety-induced nausea, terrified that my strategy was going to fail.
When I learned, however, a full decade later about the concept in Buddhism that we ourselves are ultimately fully responsible for everything that goes on in our lives, it didn't take me long to realize that the root cause of my experience had been nothing other than my own lack of confidence.
Confidence always results from a belief—specifically, from one of three particular beliefs that occur in one of three realms:
Why, then, did I allow myself to be victimized? Because I lacked confidence in the 1st realm (in my ability as a fighter) and was constantly afraid of being hurt or embarrassed, and because I lacked confidence in the 3rd realm (having had a thirteen year-old's self-esteem) and took the message my environment was sending me that I was in some way inferior to my tormentors as the truth. But what does not kill me makes me stronger, and since then I've built tremendous confidence in the 1st and 2nd realms, which have become the foundation of my confidence in the 3rd realm. And I suppose I could remain satisfied with that. But I'm not. There are still situations that confront me that sap my confidence in the 1st and 2nd realms and by extension my confidence in the 3rd realm. And that's not the kind of confidence in my self-worth I want. I want the kind that can't be shaken by anything. Don't you?
Dr. Lickerman's new book The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self is available now. Please read the sample chapter and visit Amazon or Barnes & Noble to order your copy today!