[Haveil Havalim is here!]
From time to time I am called by a local hospital or hospice to meet with unaffiliated Jewish patients and their families, to help them through a tough time. It's never easy to enter into that sort of sort-of-counseling, sort-of-officiating relationship with people you've never met, but I generally come away feeling that I have accomplished something good.
But it doesn't always work out that way. I received such a call a few weeks ago for a local hospice, I visited, and came away cold. The patient was terminally unconscious, and in terms of the family I had no sense at the end that they wanted follow-up, or that they had felt anything at all from our interaction. They had said at the start, "We just want a rabbi to come recite a prayer," and, indeed, it seems that this was all they wanted.
I felt like I could have done more, made some connection, developed some tie with them. I felt like I had failed them (and of course myself), by not becoming more than just a functionary. Yes, I had tried, but effort isn't what counts; results are what count.
From the earliest ages, when we swing a bat and miss, when we scrawl our first letters and compare them to the teacher's perfect A and B, when we bring home our first report card with less than an A, we are taught this merciful refrain: "It's the effort that counts." "It's the thought that counts." "What matters is that you try."
This is fine pedagogic medicine if delivered in measured doses, and it certainly mirrors a Torah philosophy. The gemara delivers this lesson many times, in many different ways:
"HaShem considers positive intentions as though they had been converted to deeds."
"It's not up to you to complete the task, but you are not free to do nothing."
"Whether one does a lot or a little, it is all the same so long as he directs his heart Heavenward."
Nonetheless, for me, and, I think, for most human beings, this mantra is unsoothing, unsatisfying - and wrong. It's not the thought that counts, it's not the effort that counts, it's the result that counts.
Try telling an engineer whose bridge collapsed because of an unforeseeable flaw in the materials, "You did everything you could."
Try telling a rabbi whose words of Torah and humanity failed to inspire or comfort the relatives of a terminally ill person, "You did your best, and that's what matters."
Try telling a physician who just lost a patient, "It's the effort that counts."
And this is certainly true for those children who hear the mantra most often:
Try telling a 10-year-old boy who struck out with the bases loaded, "But you tried."
Try telling a teenage girl who is mocked for her weight, "You're doing the best you can."
It seems to me that the concept of valuing effort is not wrong, but it's inadequate for the human psyche. We don't take solace in trying, we take satisfaction from succeeding.
My rebbetzin (of course) has a good answer for my dissatisfaction: The effort counts, even without total achievement, because there generally is some achievement. Whether it's muscle development in athletics or learning 90% of the material for a test or making one friend instead of ten or prolonging a patient's life for one week instead of finding a cure, that achievement still matters.
Even if I really made no impact on that family I visited, I know I made an impact on myself. I took another step in the lifelong process of habituating myself to chesed, by getting out of my house in the middle of the night to go help someone. I took another step in that process by doing it for a stranger, and by overcoming the anxiety of meeting someone new, in this terrible context, for the sake of helping another human being. I did achieve, I did succeed, even if it wasn't in my ultimate goal.
Still, that's clearly a bedieved, an after-the-fact consolation prize. Ultimately, I don't just want to succeed at something, I want to succeed at my goal.
Or as Bruce said to Rachel: "It's not who I am underneath; it's what I do that defines me."