Health center staffer Carole Pertofsky has a message: 'Lighten up!'

To say that Carole Pertofsky—director of health promotion services at Vaden Health Center—was animated during her "What Matters to Me and Why" talk last Wednesday in Memorial Church does not do her delivery justice. She spent several seconds afterward untangling her eyeglasses from her bangs.

"Here's where I sprouted from—Brooklyn," Pertofsky said at the outset, waving both arms overhead as if they were tree limbs in the wind. "So, hands flying everywhere, in every conversation, in the stores. There was just so much being expressed all the time."

Proclaiming her Romanian roots and Jewish heritage, Pertofsky said she grew up surrounded by exuberant immigrants from Eastern Europe, Italy and Puerto Rico. And even in her own family, she said, joy and pain were expressed freely and flamboyantly. "This value of being expressive and of being exuberant was my first connection to life."

Indeed, Pertofsky said the unifying theme of her multi-layered message was "connection." Sponsored by the Office for Religious Life, the "What Matters to Me and Why" series is a chance for faculty and staff to share their core values, offer personal insights and give colleagues a candid glimpse into what makes them tick.

Connection, Pertofsky explained, lies at the heart of everything that matters most to her: community, friends, family, colleagues and career. She added that grace, humility and compassion are virtues she treasures just as highly. But to get to her moral core, Pertofsky likened the self-examination process to peeling off the layers of an onion.

"It's that first layer that kind of chokes you up and makes you want to cry," she said, adding that she was eventually able to probe deeper once she became accustomed to being awash in emotion. "I would say my core value—and thank you for giving me this opportunity to discover it—is connection."

In regard to her family, Pertofsky said her mother's exuberance was evident in the repeated change in the color of her hair, which she'd dye on a whim. Her mother also would stay up all night during her daughters' slumber parties to apply makeup on the girls and feed them first traditional Jewish food, then sometime around 2 a.m., "out she would schlep all the commercial American junk food."

But her mother's carefree nature was offset by sharp suffering, which inflicted Jewish families everywhere in the wake of the Holocaust. Pertofsky recounted how all the laughter would give way to abrupt wailing on the evening of the Sabbath when the candle was lit. In living with that pain, however, her mother developed deep compassion for any people who suffered, Pertofsky said.

"And sort of indirectly, I learned how to stand in the face of suffering and negotiate my way through it," she said.

From there, Pertofsky's talk dovetailed into spirituality and how her beliefs are based on very humanistic ideals. She said exposure to the concepts of Buddhism later in life gave her the language to articulate why people suffer—say, because of loss or catastrophe—and then understand the negative consequences, such as bitterness, blame and hatred.

She also discussed the cultural ideal of personal perfection that everyone seems to buy into, even the adults who should know better. The result is that everyone is running around stressed out and erratic, like chickens with their heads cut off, she said. "All these things that are eternally promised, and then withheld within our image-driven society, are false," she quoted from her notes. "As long as we are tuned in to that image that is being driven for us, we add suffering to what's already there."

The undue stresses of a perfectionist culture, especially for women, hinder people's ability to be comfortable in their own skin—and therefore live authentically and with exuberance, Pertofsky continued. The pressure also can cause a person to close up rather than live in the moment and maintain an open heart, actions that Pertofsky emphasized above all others.

"I've become more and more passionate about the way in which we hold ourselves in life, the way in which we take our authenticity and reduce ourselves to be smaller and smaller than who we really are," she said. "We're afraid to just stand up and say, 'This is the real me.'"

Further explaining her perspective, Pertofsky said individuals might to do well to embrace their softer, creative and more vulnerable side, instead of always trying to appear strong and to be perpetually in a competition-and-consumption mode.

But in spite of her professional training and personal insights, Pertofsky acknowledged that she herself is sometimes concerned about her looks. She also said she struggles to make time to connect with her more creative side, which yearns to draw and to write. In that vein, she said it is vital for people to step outside their comfort zones—for the introvert to try harder to reach out and socialize more with others—and to do this as a way of embracing and connecting to life and its joys.

In closing, Pertofsky described an episode the weekend before her talk: She was jogging among some redwoods in her hometown of Berkeley contemplating what really mattered to her. Deep thoughts eventually led her to the realization of her own mortality, and she stopped in her tracks.

Sunbeams were shining through the trees while she stood there sobbing. As she tried to regain composure, she looked around in search of some sign that might give meaning to her moment of distress. What Pertofsky saw instead was a very chubby, cross-eyed squirrel staring right back at her.

"OK, I was looking for a message. What's the message?" Pertofsky said she remembered thinking at the time. She chuckled uncontrollably as she approached the punchline of her talk: "The message is: Lighten up!"