In A Perfect World
As a schoolgirl, I did not especially shine at team sports. What attracted me more were games like limbo, where you have to try to slip under a constantly lowered stick or belt from a face-up position that calls for bending your back way down to ninety-degrees—or its alternative, jumping over an ever-higher belt or stick held taut in the air. In modern lingo, I guess you could say that these games had us repeatedly raising or lowering the bar. How adept are we at doing that when it comes to real life?
Many parents have had the stomach-dropping experience of reading a teacher’s note on their child’ report card: Is not working up to his/her potential. We are born, it seems, with a certain amount of ability that gives us the potential to achieve. When that ability is underused, it’s like pouring away valuable fuel that could be used to build a house or power a city. What can cause a person to allow his precious potential to lie dormant?
The first cause, as we all know, is simple laziness. Being fashioned from the earth, we are deeply attracted to comfort and inertia. Exerting ourselves can feel like just too much trouble. For low-energy types, it can be torture. And yet, we are obligated to do certain things to promote our own survival and well-being, both materially and spiritually. So we do… the minimum. Enough to make us feel okay, even if not always enough to ignite the greatness that lies within us like a keg of undetonated gunpower.
The second thing that blocks off our potential is apathy, a close cousin of cause number one. We are apathetic because of our natural laziness, and vice versa. When we love something, we leap to do it. Anything that smacks of duty, difficulty, or the expenditure of more energy than we are comfortable spending, runs into the brick wall of our inner resistance. While theoretically we want to be good and harbor dreams of being successful, sometimes we simply don’t care enough to make it worth the extra trouble.
But even when we manage to overcome our innate tendency toward laziness and comfort-seeking, and even in an area where we are burning with a desire to accomplish, there’s a third thing that holds us back. And it’s a biggie.
The third reason why we habitually hang back from raising the bar of our expectations for ourselves is fear of failure.
This fear goes way back to the dawn of our lives, when we hesitated before letting go of the furniture to take our first independent step. The epic struggle between our craving for mobility and the fear of losing our balance, falling down and possibly hurting ourselves.
And so on, through kindergarten, school, the workplace and grown-up relationships. We enter the fray hesitantly. We long to emerge triumphant, but we’re deathly afraid of messing up. So it’s one step forward and two steps back, as we feel our way toward success.
Have you ever played an electronic game? Millions are addicted to them, and there’s a reason for that. Every time you win a point (or whatever kind of reward is built into the structure of the game), you experience an internal ding! of happiness. It’s a tiny feeling and an ephemeral one, but it can be habit-forming. You want to keep on playing because you want to keep on feeling good.
When it comes to game playing of any kind, including the real-life “games” that we play in every area of our lives, we tend to stick to the ones we’re good at. We’ll choose games where we know we shine, rather than those that pose a challenge we’re not sure we’re up to. We want to pile up those golden points. We want to bask in the trophies and the compliments and the admiring looks. We want to feel good.
What we don’t want is to go home feeling like a failure.
So we play it safe. We confine our activities to the games where we have a good chance of winning, or at least of playing creditably well. Because Victory is the prize waiting for us at the end of the last round. Or so we think…
I remember once receiving a phone call from my son, then a ninth-grader away in yeshiva for the first time. He was upset because there were some boys in his shiur whose grasp was quicker than his. While they seemed to absorb the material like sponges, my son had to work much harder to get the same material under his belt.
I consoled him by reminding that we are enjoined to toil in Torah. The mitzvah is the learning and the struggle to understand. Success is not up to us. Some boys may pick things up faster and some slower. But our job, and our obligation, is to put every last ounce of effort into the act of learning Torah. Success may be our reward, but it should not be our focus. Otherwise, we might be tempted to give up even before we start.
That struggling young bochur grew up to become a highly successful rebbi and eventually made his own siyum haShas. He learned to focus on the effort rather than on the hoped-for triumph. Because it’s the effort that makes us who we need to be.
This is true for any endeavor where we are afraid we may fall short. If we cling only to those areas where we are certain of success, we’re like children in the jumping-over-the-bar game that I played in school, who shorten the odds by keeping the stick at exactly the same height for every round. A height they know they can comfortably leap over.
What kind of satisfaction is there in that?
We are the only ones who know ourselves well enough to know where to set the bar. In our desire to remain in our comfort zone, we run the risk of setting the bar too low for genuine growth and accomplishment. We get by, doing what we’ve always done or what we know we’re capable of doing. We refuse to actualize that dormant potential waiting to explode inside us. We never go beyond.
Setting the bar a little higher than feels comfortable may produce failure at first. In fact, it’s almost sure to do so. But there’s always the chance that, with training and practice and a dollop of daring, we’ll become better at whatever it is we’ve attempted. Even much better.
In any case, we’ll never know unless we try.
Hashem could have created us all as supermen and superwomen, capable of doing anything and everything without the least bit of trouble. The fact that He didn’t do so ought to tell us something. Hashem doesn’t expect us to be angels. But He does expect us to be growing human beings. To be good and kind, not some of the time, but all of the time. To learn His Torah and sanctify His Name on a constant basis. He sets the bar high and demands that we stretch ourselves, even if it hurts, because aching muscles are a sign that we’re getting somewhere.
There is no comparison between the tiny ding! of success in a game we already know we can ace, and the awesome sense of accomplishment that comes from attempting something bigger and more difficult than anything we’ve ever done before. Though we may not triumph at first, when it comes to matters of the spirit Hashem guarantees us His help if we are only willing to try.
All we need to do is keep on raising the bar, one little inch at a time.