Stepping Stones

There’s a place we’d all like to be. And that place is different for every one of us.

Each of us having been born with a unique set of assets and drawbacks, our trajectories will necessarily be different—as will be our ultimate destination. We were put in this world to achieve perfection, or as close to it as we can get. That journey calls for highly individualized tactics, for the simple reason that we are all highly individual. The place called “perfection” is different for each of us, as is the road that will take us there.

When we contemplate the full panorama of our flaws, faults, and deficiencies, we can easily become discouraged. There’s so much to fix, and only one paltry lifetime in which to do it! Yom Kippur finds us making all sorts of resolutions aimed at getting us to that longed-for place, even as we know we will probably falter before too long. Because change is hard. And it is intimidating.

How can we tackle this all-important life-project without running out of steam? How can we make the road to perfection a little more user-friendly? How can we ensure that we go on even as we are tempted to lose faith in ourselves?

Giving in to despair is a real problem, and it rears its ugly head everywhere. For example, every balebusta is familiar with the instinctive clutch of panic as Pesach approaches. The sheer volume of work that must be done to prepare for that special Tom Tov can make us want to give up before we even get started. Or take a student who’s faced with a big, complicated test to study for. Her fear of failing may prevent her from being able to concentrate on a single word. She spends her precious hours not in study, but in worry.

And the hurdles are not only of the practical variety. We all face daily challenges to our middos and self-restraint. A certain child who brings out the worst in us. A neighbor who inspires constant material for negative speech. An inborn tendency toward jealousy, or honor-seeking, or insecurity.

Take the case of a co-worker whom you simply find it hard to like. No special reason; she just grates on your nerves. Or maybe there is a reason, buried deep enough to elude identification. Either way, the situation is not a good one. Despite your best intentions, your interactions with this colleague tend to be snippy at your end and wounded at hers. You just can’t seem to get from here—mired in negative feelings toward her—to there—becoming the gracious, pleasant person you wish to be. You make frequent and earnest resolutions to change. Before long, however, the things that grate on you start… well, grating again. You respond instinctively, despite your resolutions. And so it goes.

After a while, is it any wonder that we feel like throwing our hands up and just stop trying?

Let me tell you a secret: there is one trait that we all share by virtue of our earthly essence. We could call it laziness. Though our spirit longs to soar, our material bodies and earthbound emotions want to keep us pinned firmly to the ground. The heavy, lazy part of us whispers in our ear: “It’s no use trying to change. You’ve tried and tried, and where has it gotten you so far? It’s too hard! So don’t bother anymore. Just… give… up!”

But we are not entirely earthbound. Always, there’s that pull upward. Even as we seem to be running in place, we know where we want to go.

The question is: how to get there?

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Many wise people have offered this simple piece of advice: take a small step. Any step, as long as it moves you in the right direction. My friend has a child who was very difficult at a certain stage of his life. She found herself losing her cool with him multiple times a day, which made neither of them happy. Finally, she became fed up with a household that felt like a constant battlefield. She made a resolution: “Tomorrow, no matter what happens, I will not get angry at my son.”

It wasn’t easy. All day long, frustration and habit joined forces, trying to goad her into losing her temper. But because she’d made that one, small resolution—no matter what happens—she was able to restrain herself. Despite the provocations, there were no furious outbursts on her part, or sullen acquiescence on his. The day passed with surprising pleasantness. Which served to reinforce her resolution, and helped her carry it on into the next day.

The goal of becoming an unflappable, even-tempered mom was still far away. It stood winking at her in the sun, like a shining castle on the other side of a broad, broad river. But my friend had embarked on a journey that would eventually take her there. She’d gone to the riverbank and planted her feet on the nearest stepping-stone. Ahead of her stretched any number of additional stones, ending at the far shore. Had she gazed only at the shining palace in the unimaginable distance, or at that seemingly endless row of stones, she might have grown disheartened. She might have given in to our natural heaviness of spirit. She might have given up.

Instead, she set her sights on the nearest stone, and took one small step.

Someone else I know used to suffer from a sense of social inferiority whenever she found herself in a group of people she didn’t know well. Her personal “stepping-stone” was to remember to straighten her back, throw back her shoulders and stand erect in public. This confident posture reminded her that she was a person of worth and value, despite her insecurity. In fact, it played its part in helping her to eventually banish the worst of her insecurity.

It was just a small thing, a tiny step in the right direction. But small steps can lead to bigger ones, because they set the tone. They create an environment in which bigger steps are possible.

Take the case of the unlikeable co-worker. Suppose our hapless heroine decides to make one small change: she will make sure to smile at her colleague once each day. Just one smile, to counteract all the inward negativity. Doesn’t sound like much… But it’s amazing what a smile can do. It puts you in a better frame of mind, so things don’t bother you so much. And it creates a bridge to the other person. As she glimpses the surprise and gratification in her colleague’s eyes each time she offers that daily smile, she just may be prompted into further kindness. Who knows?

The important thing is not to scoff at our modest goals. In themselves, they may not seem like such a tremendous achievement, but they’re not the whole picture. Small achievements eventually lead to great, big ones. These minor accomplishments are actually stepping-stones, waiting to bear us across the great river to the doors of the shining palace.

As long as we make sure that we’re always moving in the right direction, one tiny step at a time will eventually take us where we want to go.