Esther: managing spiritual time
Let’s begin with Esther's narrative of well-being through management of time. Esther is a busy woman. She has six children, a full-time job and is enrolled in a doctoral programme. She strictly practices an ultra-orthodox version of Judaism in her everyday life while she keeps her family life within the frame of the Chabad community. This is how she describes her current life:
I’m feeling very good... and also proud [of myself]. Every moment we can decide what we do. The choices I made in my life - I'm proud of them all and happy about the process I went through. Of course, everybody makes mistakes, but I think these mistakes only came to teach me all kinds of lessons in life. First of all, I’m a mother of six; I’m very, veiy glad that I’m a part of such a big family. I am married to a man I love very much, together with a big and happy family. This place of family is very important. Beyond this, I continue to do my research that I love; I believe that it will advance properly... The fact that I’m doing one thing, and another thing and another... suddenly, this puzzle of me is created, and the tower that I want to build and advance Qekadem). I hope very much that I will come to that place I want to be in... in peace with myself (shlema), connected to myself, giving an education to my children, and my own personal example -1 want them very much to see my example in their eyes.
Esther is proud and happy. Narrating on her self - building it, cultivating and developing it, fulfilling it and eventually being happy with it - is central to Esther's religious language and experience. In her ‘life world', the value of selfdevelopment is linked to both her religious and professional identities. She uses life-coaching terms such as ‘taking choices’, ‘advancing yourself and ‘being true to yourself and ‘fulfilled’ simultaneously with Hebrew spiritual concepts, signalling religious metaphysics. In this way, the religious language is psychologized and the therapeutic terms gain religious content.
First, the focusing on the self as a value and its proper management can be found in discourses and practices of many religious movements. The similar discourse of self-management and self-development also dominates some professional sectors and institutions of care that serve as the main carriers of the therapeutic, neoliberal, psycho-managerial logic. Esther is part of this professional milieu; she works as a public relations director in an NGO that assists people in overcoming poverty. I ask Esther to describe the ideology of the organization, which she communicates as part of her job. She tells me that the ultimate principles that stand at the heart of the objectives of this NGO proclaim work of reparation, reducing the evil by investing conscious personal efforts. People are encouraged to push themselves harder, to take themselves out of the misery, to take responsibility for their budget and habits, and to control their life. People learn that Esther identifies herself with this approach. Moreover, Esther herself fulfils this principle in her everyday life while she combines it with religious meanings. She tells me that in no other place has she found what she finds in religion:
Religion tells me how I should fill my time. There is something flat in all rest of reality. So today I am trying to fill in this place for myself. Religion gives content to it, depth.
When I ask her about this ‘depth’, she answers:
Today the big issue in my life is time. I have just very little time, so how should I fill it and manage it? I have a way to evaluate what I do with my time. If I now invested half an hour in my child, I did the maximum in my life to advance myself. Or if I have invested half an hour in studying [...]. Today, I think that my life is very limited in time and in my ability to achieve my objectives, so I should know the correct goals and how to manage the time. Before I go to sleep, I write down the tasks of the next day. I write numbers: one two, three. And within the first I have A, B, C. I know how to manage myself. I know that if 3C will not work, it’s ok. But if I do not plan, it will not happen at all. But how do I know what is important to do? [If I] just go to a coffee shop.. .1 will feel emptiness. I had periods like this, it happened; I felt that I was standing in one place, not advancing what is important to me. And advancing in a spiritual dimension and in my work is most important to me. Now, for me, [whether] to explain to my child about what kinds of trees he sees in the forest or what kinds of animals are in the zoo or, alternatively, his ancestors; of course, I would choose to tell him about Avraham [and the origin of the Jews],
I suggest reading Esther’s story as a therapeutic narrative of self-management, self-empowerment and self-development through the management of time. She employs the logic and the style of life coaching while adapting it to her spiritual religious goals and needs. She learns to manage time well in order to have time to
Saving the Post-Soviet soul 83 give her children the basics of their religious knowledge. Hence, in her narrative, the recognizable neoliberal therapeutic discourse is assembled with meanings that derive from the Jewish religious cosmology.
Diana: managing vocation
Diana’s story, too, is a narrative of self-fulfilment, with a focus on the search for and investment in her true mission. In Diana’s scenario, this investment yields happiness.
Diana tells me her biographical journey, recalling how she coped with a difficult teenage period, and a family crisis that resulted in drug addiction. At that time, she discovered God and her Jewishness, and made peace between the two:
I just felt that God was angry with me and I had to make peace with him.
This harmony Diana found much later, in her mission of serving God in Israel while working for the messianic Jewish-Christian community there. But earlier, as a lost young woman, as she describes herself, she sought salvation everywhere. After one stormy mysterious night with a bible in her hands, Diana first ‘ran to a synagogue’:
The Chabad rabbi there started to explain to me something about God as a ‘remarkable notion’. And I was furious. I already felt that I did not know a lot about God, but I knew that He is not a notion. I wanted to die for him.
At that time, the next natural place to turn was a Russian-Orthodox monastery, and, indeed, that is where she ran: ‘I came and told them - please accept me, I want to be a nun! ’ Later, Diana discovered a young Evangelical community. At some point, her God became her career, and she worked as a missionary in St. Petersburg. This is when Diana began to tell herself and others: ‘My parents are Jewish; I am not'. But a speech given by a messianic Jew from Canada living in Israel that came to Diana’s community changed all that. Diana discovered her true mission of being a Christian Jew, moved to Israel and devoted her professional and personal life to the service of God:
In my character, I’m a total extremist. For me, it is all or nothing; if you are into something - so, only totally and until the end. That’s why I think that everything in my life is part of my faith and colored by it.
Diana established an organization that assists immigrant families in need. To the Israeli state authorities, it is an NGO supporting immigrant single mothers, and for her Christian world it is her ‘ministry’. She travels throughout the world, raising money among messianic communities for her ministry, something at which she is highly successful. Diana is in charge of all the activities of the organization, from distributing food to organizing educational activities for children, culturalevents and camps for the young and accompanying her care recipients to state authorities and the courts.
She explained her decision to live without intimate relationships and with no children in theological terms. But she also says:
Actually, I cannot see myself doing what I'm doing with a partner and kids: it’s impossible, my mission and work are total for me. I can live only according to God, and not to my husband. I am autonomous and independent, and there is a sort of Blagodat’ (Grace of God or Happiness).
Diana adopts the value of therapeutic autonomy and self-fulfilment in a remarkable way as she subordinates it to the Holy Spirit and religious mission. In her narrative, the self and the work are inseparable. It is the total investment in them both that results in her well-being.
When I ask about the attitude of her irreligious family to her way of life, she answers:
My father understands me, and he always protects me in front of others. My grandmother always reproaches me because of living alone with no sex and with no option for children. But my father says to her - leave her alone; don’t you see that Diana is happy? In fact, when I met my extended family around the table and someone asked: who among us would continue to do what he does if there is no need for money? I was almost the only one to say that I’m absolutely happy with who I am and what I’m doing.
Diana is indeed committed to the task she has built for herself. Like the logic of the organization for helping the poor where Esther works, Diana’s work with immigrant single mothers is ‘to help them to help themselves'. Her task is to bring them to the point where they become independent subjects and assume personal responsibility for their lives.
‘Personal responsibility’ is a concept central to the therapeutic discourse, especially in its neoliberal variant of self-managerial discourse. Contemporary critique ties the triumph of the therapeutic logic to the neoliberal economic and cultural regime that promotes the autonomous self-regulating subject taking ‘personal responsibility’ for his functioning. The personal responsibility for one’s choices, for personal failures but also a commitment to achieve well-being, is part of what is discussed in the critical literature as the contemporary ‘happiness regime' (Ahmed, 2010; Binkley, 2014). Linked to the economic system and moral normative perceptions anchored in the lifestyle of the professional middle class, the discourse of happiness is developed in particular in certain academic areas (such as positive psychology) and therapeutic professions, and also informs the agenda of organizational counselling and all sorts of life coaching, which translated it into the operational level of recommendations (see Yankellevich in this book). The logic of personal responsibility in the quest for happiness penetrates more spheres of life, becoming visible not only in private domains (parenthood,
Saving the Post-Soviet soul 85 marriage or food) but also in the public sphere (educational institutions, collective memory and politics). In the therapeutic discourse, taking responsibility corresponds to neoliberal logic; in Esther’s and Diana’s narratives, it is assembled with religious logic and appears as a spiritual practice. In Elena’s story, which follows, the responsibility also becomes embodied.