Since I was a child, I’ve been told I was a failure.
Actually, I’ve been repeatedly told that I’m not living up to my potential, but it means the same thing. Or at least that my life is being graded around a C or D average. In any case, it’s not a compliment.
If it were just one person telling me this, I could easily dismiss it. But I’ve been told this by parents, teachers, bosses, army sergeants, rabbis and others. That means that it’s either true or people’s expectations of my “potential” don’t quite match my own. Considering I’ve been pretty successful in achieving my goals in life, I’m assuming it’s the latter.
So the question is: what do people expect of me? Until college, I hated school. Despite being in advanced classes, my teachers did nothing to motivate or challenge me. Hence, I got B’s and C’s in classwork but very high scores on standardized tests. This didn’t fit their model of success, so every year my mother would come home from parent-teacher night and tell me I needed to work harder. I played my guitar and read books.
The army was a different story. After completing infantry training, I was shipped out to my platoon, which had two staff sergeants who were physically unfit and dumber than rocks. Being targeted for being of the “Hebrew persuasion,” my enthusiasm for army life understandably waned. This led to “conversations” about me not meeting my potential as a soldier and needing to be more “motivated” by lots of push-ups, grass drills, and mopping floors. This was all they could do since every time I was brought before the commander for more serious discipline, the sergeants were too stupid to make their case, angering them even further. When my enlistment ended, my platoon leader told me to go to law school, and the army and I parted ways.
Then came some of my bosses before law school, who thought I was lazy because I accomplished assigned tasks quicker and had more free time between assignments. Again, I was told to work harder. I quit and went to school and became the boss.
Now, I am being confronted by my failures as a Jew. Judaism teaches that when we are judged, we will be compared to what G-d expected of each of us individually rather than our objective accomplishments. Of course, none of us actually knows what those expectations are. But reading rabbinic biographies of people who are said to have learned all of Talmud by age three doesn’t give me much hope. Yes, I’ve learned a lot of Torah, went to daily morning prayers fairly regularly, and have helped a lot of people, but apparently it’s not enough and I need to work harder.
Which leads me back to those books I read in school instead of those I was assigned. One book which has stayed with me for over 40 years is Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden,” which I’ve read many times over since high school. One passage stands out in particular: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”
So I went for a walk in the woods.
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