I discovered something amazing once I stopped linking Jewish oppression to other human suffering in the world. Granted, this took me more than 20 years. Like many other Jews sitting down to the Seder, our family would find another group that unfortunately has or is suffering and during the meal, we’d work to connect our national story with theirs. Every year, new Haggadahs come out in support of this effort, highlighting the plight of African Americans, women, farm laborers.
Thus the heaven and the earth were finished, and all their array. By the seventh day G-d completed His work; so on the seventh day He rested. G-d blessed the seventh day and sanctified it because on it He abstained from all His work of creating that He had done.” Genesis 2:1-3
As a child I always thought that to be a good Jew meant to be politically active. I was a proud Democrat, fighting for the poor and the oppressed. My mom had been a hippie, my grandparents proud liberal idealists. My father, whom I grew to disdain, was a Rush Limbaugh Republican. When my parents divorced, my father left and I was free to explore Conservative values without his face on them.
Disclaimer: The following words are not meant for the faint of heart. They may include ideas and concepts that challenge and contradict many of the underlying ideologies that drive our current society. I don’t mean to offend. I want to challenge how you think. If you don’t agree with me, that’s ok. But maybe think a bit before the gut reaction. The following also may include lines that don’t make sense. I have self-diagnosed ADD and not much time, so I’m driving at content over clarity. Bless you.
As June gloom lifts to the reported lazy days of summer, our college graduates go out into the world with the training that they invested thousands of dollars and 35,040 hours of their lives. Do you have clarity where to go from here? Job wise? Life wise? Are you already starting to reminisce about the good old days? Has responsibility started creeping up on you? With the advent of internships and grad schools, perhaps not. When will it? When should it?
One of the primary mistakes that our society indoctrinates us with is that a job and direction in life are synonymous. Even if you’re on the “making people’s life better” track (which is really every job I hope) the day in and day out of life will likely lead you, if not now then in another 30 years, to ask “is this the point of my life??” Once you even ask the question, you’ll have to accept that the answer is “no.”
As a campus rabbi, I find myself forgetting to wish people “mazel tov” on their graduation, because I’m not sure what they finished. I have the rare opportunity to get to know people for who they are, not their student number, their GPA, or sometimes even major. I don’t think it matters so much. Frankly, a piece of paper that may or may not (statistically not) get you a job doesn’t mean you’re ready for the next stage in your life. Most graduates don’t even know what the next stage will be. Grad student? Young professional? What makes those stages different from college besides different kinds of tests and hopefully a little bit more money (or not).
College graduates have to realize they are most of the way through the foundational stages of their lives. Now four years out of high school, you’ve had time to learn about yourself. Did you? Do you know who you are and what you hope to accomplish? Sure you know your “limits.” But do you know you? Sorry to offend, but at this stage you should. You should have some idea. For thousands of years of human history, by the time someone turned 22, they had an idea about what or where their lives should be headed. I hate to say it but most were married. Most knew what they wanted to do. And I’d like to submit that maybe they were on to something. Could be that by now people should know what direction they want in life.
A brilliant rabbi said that the teenage years were an American invention. In other societies, during the teenage years, when the body and mind are naturally becoming mature, people were out working, getting married, and starting their lives. Now that we have technology, and school, and college, the teenage years have become a time of angst, and looking forward, and awkwardness. But at least we grow up in college. Until Animal House came out. And now college is the time to party with no responsibilities (yes I was a history major, no I wasn’t an engineer or a bio major, but you still probably don’t know what you want out of life besides a good job).
At least post college we can get serious. Until our dear Jewish compatriot Zach Braff came out with Garden State, which gave people an insight that it was normal to go moping through your twenties looking for meaning as long as there are friends and drinking and the Shins (a band for the non-emo people out there) playing in the background. He’s coming out with a new movie about how you do that in your 30’s also.
Point is, as a society, we are increasingly delaying the age of maturation. Because why mature when it’s hard? Why take responsibility and commitment when we don’t have to? Why settle down? I was very pleasantly surprised to read in the introduction to the famous book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” that most self-help books from the time America started until World War 1 advocated that people change themselves in order to become successful. People would have to try to become better, more focused, honest, virtuous, service-oriented, etc. After World War 1, the self-help industry changed to teaching people how to affect how others saw them. The author of the book argues that this shift lead to the terrible dichotomy in people’s lives today, where they are living a perception that isn’t them.
So, deep down, screaming out, maybe there is a voice inside that says “hey I don’t know where I’m going yet.” On the outside, I have a job or a grad school or a life. Is this the direction I’m supposed to go in? Am I becoming who I want to be? Do I want to be a dentist? Is that what I want to do so much that once I leave or retire I have no other aspirations in life? I want to travel. Why? I want to be rich. So you can do what?
Growth starts with a commitment. Commitment can and should come with cutting off your other options. Cutting off options requires self confidence. Self confidence starts with self knowledge. Self knowledge starts with introspection. Do we think? Do we care? Or do we just take the pill called “partying” or “internships” or “grad school” to punt until someone comes to us and offers us a meaning or a job or a thing we can buy into?
It’s funny. Everyone on Facebook is having fun. Everyone is having a good time and taking over the world. So many friends. On LinkedIn, everyone has so many impressive job titles. It’s because we pick the pictures we want, and write the titles that make us sound good. And what we pick and what we want happens to make us look and sound like everyone else on a social media website. So go live. Become something unique. Try to live a life that is so unique that people have to create labels for you. Try to formulate an opinion without checking how the media or Facebook or the news thinks about you. YOUR JOB DOESN’T DEFINE YOU. DEFINE YOUR JOB. What are you here for? What will your contribution be. The world doesn’t need another rabbi, doctor, lawyer, salesman, executive, or intern. The world needs you. Did college teach you who you were? If it did, congratulations on graduating. If not, and you’re like I was, and everyone else is, welcome to the kindergarten of adulthood. Lesson one, figure out who you are.
It was a familiar scene…my son was taking a bath in his morning oatmeal. My baby had managed to get out of her high chair and was preparing to bungee jump without a cord off the side. I was on bucket of coffee number two and was oblivious to everything around me because 1) I’m a male and can’t multitask and 2) my lap top had decided to stop working.
After talking to it, throwing it, hitting it, and resetting it eighteen times, I began my usual thought process: it’s broken, let’s get a new one. Thankfully my wife stops me from half (well, less than that) of my emotional buys; at least the big ticket ones. But seriously, who fixes computers? Where would even take them?
This is a phenomenon that permeates our mindset much more than we might want to admit. How often do we try to fix broken stuff? Your blender breaks. Your shaver breaks. Get a new one. What about important things? Like ourselves, our computer, or our relationships? Is there an app for that? Could I order if from Costco.com or Google Shopping Express? I might not be able to yet, but who wouldn’t want to if you could?
The need to have a near flawless product is an expectation in our society. We want it new, and when it breaks, or gets old, we just get a new one. There’s no need or desire to have something get old, get broken, and then get fixed. You could say we live in a world of innovation, which is another way of saying we don’t like or don’t know what to do with someone once it doesn’t work like it used to.
Believe it or not, it’s easier to replace than to fix. It’s easier to medicate or ignore a problem that comes up that might suggest that the smooth sailing we’ve come to demand and desire isn’t as smooth as we’d expect. How many of us want to work through friendships or jobs when it gets tough, versus make a passive disconnect and “replace it” with something better?
The problem is that more often than not, the thing that needs fixing is us. Superimposing a new job, boyfriend (girlfriend), career, college, social scene or cover photo won’t help when we get tired or need to repair ourselves. That takes work. And work is bad, because we live in an era where somehow no one expects to or wants to do it. And app can do it without the work. So I just have to find the app.
Shameless plug; between the two of us, Julie and I lost over 60 pounds this summer. It was a great diet/lifestyle plan and I’m happy to tell anyone about it. I can get you started on it. EVERYONE wants to lose a few pounds. And while many have been inspired and want to be able to fit into the yoga pants I wear otherwise known as my dress pants (just kidding, it’s just the smallest size pants I’ve worn since I was born), very few people are willing to actually do the work. The excuses abound! “Let’s see if you can maintain it before I try it.” “I don’t think I’ll like the food.” “I’ll try to exercise more (yea good luck with that).” We want results, but we don’t want to work. We want to just order the smaller us from Target.
The coaching industry is big business these days. People claim they want a path. If I just knew how to do something I’d do it. College, for all of its merit, brilliantly plays of this basic human weakness to want to relegate the process to someone else. If I work hard in college, I’ll get a good job. If I get a good job, I’ll have a profound sense of meaning. I’ll be happy. So college = happy. Move in the Panda Express and charge your parents thousands of dollars! The proof that it’s such an effective marketing campaign is that people spend four years and thousands of dollars in college and then, once they graduate, realize that maybe life isn’t so figured out or people aren’t so thrilled to throw a six or seven figure job at you. Time and time again, I hear people say they’d take experience over education in a nutshell. Why is that?
Experience means that you cut your teeth. It means you learned how to work. You actually had to do something hard. If you get a person who’s learned that nothing is coming to you in life that you don’t work for, he’s worth more. You can work with a person who isn’t expecting anything on a silver platter. The highly successful people I speak to, and learn from, don’t have a straight path to success. Our reliance on technology has brainwashed us to thinking everything is simple. And we think that if it isn’t, we just haven’t discovered the right tools. The dirty little secret is that the only tools that make you successful lie within you, and actually have to be activated by you.
I learned this summer that the way you deal with fear is do the things you’re afraid to do. Fear is a mental condition which tries to stop us from doing what we really want and need to do. So the solution to fear is to do what makes you scared. Then you won’t be afraid, and you’ll own fear, and see it as an opportunity for greatness, not paralysis. We fear/despair fixing things. Like a fat person in a Chipotle that convinces himself it’s healthy because there’s protein in chicken, we attack and lavish the technological, materialistic culture we live in because everything is so quick to replace that we think that fixes and repairs are going to be a thing of the past.
Well, it’s not. To survive life, we have to be able to repair. It’s what makes us human, and the great news is that it means that we’ll never be replaced by robots or apps. The Torah says “See I present before you today a blessing and curse.” Two massive concepts come out from here that are relevant to the discussion at hand; “see” and “today.”
See. So often in life, we accept mediocrity because we don’t want to see that we are choosing the lives we lead. If we aren’t popular, successful, or happy, it’s because we’re making that choice to be that way. I recently told a dear friend and confidant during the stressful moments before Shabbat was about to start, that no matter what happens, for the next half hour until I make Kiddush, I wouldn’t get upset.
Now this moment was the perfect storm for me to get upset. People were over, so I had to look rabbinical and put together. We were way behind; everything was a mess. My daughter, who inherited all of my drama, had just collided with a door and was inconsolable. My baby had decided to bond with me, and therefore would scream with indignity should I put her down. My son had seized the moment, and decided to start eating all the dessert with his hands. I was about to freak out. But then I said, I can choose if I want to lose it or not.
And guess what? I managed not to get upset. I chose. It had nothing to do with the fact everything around me was stressful. You have to see for yourself that you can make the choice.
Secondly, Today. The time to fix, heal, repair, or become great isn’t yesterday. You can’t change what you did yesterday. Tomorrow hasn’t happened yet so don’t bank on being successful then. In my many years now as a college rabbi, the single biggest thing that disappoints me about most people (get ready) is their reliance that somehow they’ll be better tomorrow or fix their problems down the road. Maybe they will. But most people who can’t be excellent today aren’t excellent tomorrow. Today, this moment, is the time when you are obligated to become or try to become what you want to be.
The idea of “today” is fundamental in another way; change is in the small details. It is such an important idea for success. Rome wasn’t build in a day, so to speak. Little changes, over time, compound to create greatness. You can’t just drop the 90lbs I’ve lost over my life (trust me) in a moment, but day by day, hour by hour, eating or not eating is what creates the change.
A dear student of mine complained that while she wanted to embrace her Judaism and incorporate more spirituality into her life, her experience with Judaism thus far made her realize there is so much to learn and to do that it would take a long time before she felt proficient. Other things in life are easier and take less time. I pointed out that is a perfect indication that they are less valuable. It takes a long time, there’s a lot to do, but so what? You couldn’t do the whole thing now if you wanted to—no one can become great in a day, but you could do a little right now. It’s taking a bite-sized chunk now that over the long run will turn you into who you want to be.
So in short, the lesson is that you are not pre-programmed. There’s no app for you. There’s no path. In life there is no way to just replace yourself when you’re broken. You have to learn how to fix. You have to become conscious that you choose your life, what you want, and how you will respond to the externalities. You have to see your ability, your uniquely human ability, to choose.
And you have to see today as all that matters. As Al Pachino screams in Any Given Sunday (Not kosher, just one lesson from there) “It’s the six inches in front of your face that’s the difference between living and dying.” Life is determined by what we do now. Act now. Even if you wanted to, all you can do now is take a little step. A little step is not scary because there’s not so much you can do now. But it’s scary because you actually have something to do now. Those that do something now become the exceptional and not the mediocre. I don’t like mediocre.