Friday, November 14, 2008

It's what I do that defines me

[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."


  1. It's a big task to try to break the sum goal into its parts... sometimes that is the only way to feel the success. I feel the emotional burden the oncologists in our department have taken upon themselves, the weight they carry when their medicine does not succeed, and I am relieved not to be a physician. But I understand that sometimes, just being with a person is enough, that is the hardest task, and it is something we can do even if we know we cannot completely heal a person's body or soul. It is an acquirable form of modesty, or humility, to know we cannot control the outcome, but even so, we dare to offer what little we can.

  2. But you DID have an effect. Years later, at their family member's yahrzeit, or maybe in the spring at their Pesach table, or when they walk by a synagogue they haven't (yet) affiliated with, they will remember:

    This nice rabbi came and said a prayer for our family member. Clearly, he was Orthodox. Clearly, he is used to dealing with observant Jews. But he took the time for us, for OUR need, without imposing HIS criteria of whether what we wanted was what HE would want.

    They'll remember that, and maybe feel a little warmer towards observant Jews or affiliation in general. Undemanding service is a great form of kiruv.

  3. This is my first visit to this blog and I think it's great!

    I would think a Torah hashkafa would come into play at precisely those moments when one feels frustration for not being able "to complete the task." When things go swimmingly, and one accomplishes one's goal, do we attribute success to ourselves? Torah says we shouldn't. Similarly, when we fail, we must remember that Hashem did not want that particular encounter to result in what "I" (emphasizing my own ego) think is a success. Surely we can always take away a mussar haskel from such an experience (ie next time I will try to do X better) but in general it is more hashkafically correct to say it is my WILL that defines me, not my successes and accomplishments (within reason, of course--I have to have put in a real effort).

  4. I got the movie reference immediately. The task is not yours alone but it is not yours to shirk either.

    The point is that you tried and it made some sort of difference. The hard part is not knowing when or where or how much of a difference it made.

  5. ALN-
    Agreed, absolutely.

    I certainly hope they'll remember it that way. And I certainly agree re: undemanding service.

    Anonymous 7:27 PM-
    Thanks, and welcome to the blog! Certainly, there is a great level in recognizing that wherever we end up, and however things happen, it is ultimately HaShem's deed. Re: "Will" vs. "Do" - I think we are using two words for the same thing.

    I was waiting for you... don't you have a radar that goes off any time that line is quoted?

  6. don't you have a radar that goes off any time that line is quoted?

    Yes, I felt the disturbance. You do know that one day we shall have to watch the movies together.

  7. You bet, Jack. You tell me when and where.

  8. This is a particularly striking post and I really enjoyed reading it. I don't have anything more insightful to say -- just that I felt I had to comment. Oh, and I agree with the Rebbetzin. The result may not be in the "C" one gets on the test, but rather in the improvement since the last test's grade of "D."

  9. Hi Allison,

    Thanks for reading and commenting! I'll pass it along to the Rebbetzin...

  10. As Nadneyda says:
    acquirable form of modesty, or humility, to know we cannot control the outcome

    We have to do our part, but sucess is ultimately not detirmined by us

    Many times when people say stupid things to me (concerning my special-needs daughter or any one of the other various nissiyonot that I have) it is because they feel that they have to FIX it. We have to have the modesty to know that not everything can be fixed.

  11. Rickismom-
    Agreed. Many of the unfortunate comments I have heard in shiva homes fall into the same category.