Thursday, Apr 11, 2024

In Pursuit of Excellence

Miss A has been shopping all afternoon and has finally found a dress that’s perfect… or almost. Anxiously, she turns to her friend. “Is it long enough?”

Her friend tilts her head to examine the hemline. “Hmm… It’s pretty good.”

“What do you think? Can I get away with it?”

Not only when it comes to modesty in dress, but in virtually every area of life, we have a tremendous urge to “get away” with things. To put in the minimal effort needed to win us the desired reward.

Miss B is looking for a birthday present for her sister-in-law. She doesn’t want to spend too much time or money on this venture. At the same time, she doesn’t want her gift to look chintzy. Spotting a possibility on the store shelf, she seizes it and submits it to an inspection. If she buys this now, she’ll be free of her obligation and can move on to something more enjoyable. Will this be enough to please her sister-in-law without breaking the budget?

In other words: can she get away with it?

Basically, she’s just going through the motions. And when we’re just going through the motions, our actions tend to be devoid of what we might call “heart.” If the sister-in-law is at all perspicacious, she may sense the lack of genuine feeling behind the gift. It is a rote gesture, based on the date on the calendar and the bald fact of their familial relationship. Nothing more.

Students rarely study for tests with the goal of deeply assimilating the material and enriching themselves as human beings. Their sole goal is to sail through the upcoming exam. Offer them a pass-fail scenario, and they are over the moon! Here’s a free ticket to do the very least amount of work necessary for a “pass,” and not a stitch more.

This attitude can extend even to our middos work. Suppose you have a difficult relationship with someone who brings out the worst in you. Being a decent person, your conscience urges you to improve yourself in this area.

The work toward this improvement, however, can take place on different levels, ranging from the profound to the super-shallow. The latter might manifest itself as something like: “I’m working hard not to speak nastily to So-and-So, even though he pushes all my buttons. I don’t have to actually like him, do I?”

Once again, here’s a person trying to get away with the bare minimum required to grease the wheels of his conscience. Never mind that it’s a choice calculated to leave him mired in pettiness and even hatred. In his own mind, improving himself in this area is akin to paying a bill. As with a credit card, there is an obligatory minimum payment. As long as we’re willing to shell out that much, we’re okay.

Conveniently, we put out of our minds the fact that we actually owe a much greater debt to our neshamos, and to Hashem.

The sad fact is that sometimes we don’t really want to be good. We just want to be good enough.

 

Spiritual Apathy

Where does this less-than-admirable trait come from? Is it a kind of spiritual apathy? Emotional laziness? Depending on the context, it could be either or both.

When it comes to standing up and getting things done, we have to fight our natural physical inertia. Gravity pulls us earthly creatures ever downward toward physical comfort. The same dynamic applies to less tangible areas. When we rush through a davening or mumble a brocha because we’ve never really learned to let our tefillos touch us, we are being spiritually lazy. Refusing to put in any more than the minimum effort required to have “done” the required mitzvah.

Similarly, when we give our children, friends, or anyone else the bare minimum of attention needed to keep ourselves (in our own minds) on the side of the angels, we are exhibiting emotional laziness. In our need to feel good, we can fall into the error of aiming to feel merely adequate. We do just enough to assure ourselves that we’re okay. Even if that means turning our backs on the heights to which we might have soared had we exerted a more genuine effort.

Much of the world’s population is content to walk placidly on solid ground. Only a select few set their sights on the stars. We’re supposed to be part of that select few.

On a material level, that translates into a program designed to explore the vast reaches of outer space. In our own lives, it means that each of us has the power to rocket above our lower selves until we break old barriers and transcend the “good enough” mentality.

But, as with everything else in life, we have to possess the desire to do so. That’s the key that turns the ignition to light the rocket. Nothing happens unless we want it to. And are willing to put in the work to make it happen.

 

Raising the Bar

How moved we are when we read or hear about some heroic or extraordinarily sensitive gesture! How awed by a narrative that describes a life dedicated to the purest ideals! Our instinctive reaction is to compare those amazing figures with ourselves. Would I be able to do or say something like that? Could I live that way? Even as we gloomily suspect that the answer is no, we wish with all our hearts that it could be yes.

I think these stories tap into something inside us that yearns to be more than just good enough. Something that wants to break through the pettiness, the smallness, the merely adequate. Though we may not recognize it, we all possess a deep and abiding desire for greatness. How can we access this desire?

Reading or hearing stories of greatness helps. They provide us with models to emulate, or at least to dream of emulating. Also, I’ve spoken before about that little voice in our head that tries to clue us in when we’re about to act in a way that disrespects our own values. This may be a quiet note of warning which we can choose to either heed or ignore. It can be a running monologue in our minds, trying to convince us that what we’re about to do is fine, even though the very fact that we’re having such thoughts hints that what we’re contemplating is probably anything but fine.

Again, we have the choice of listening… or not. If we choose to listen, we take a step on the road to greatness.

That road is made up not of huge, shining stones, but of myriad tiny, almost insignificant-seeming pebbles. Every time we face ourselves in a mirror and ask, “Can I get away with it?”, the answer will determine whether a new pebble will be added to the road we’re paving toward our best selves… or if it will drop instead into the depths and be lost.

It doesn’t take that much to join the ranks of those people we read about and revere. All it calls for is walking the road to excellence instead of the path to adequacy. It requires raising the bar of our own expectations for ourselves. Stepping away from the mentality that turns us into an escape artist trying to avoid our larger responsibility to ourselves and to our Creator, and embracing one which, while infinitely more demanding, has the potential to transform us into heroes.

“Is this good enough?” Maybe.

But we want to be the kind of people for whom “good enough” is not nearly enough. Ever.

 

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