We are taught early and often in life that we should shoot for the stars, dream high, aspire for greatness, and at any rate to never rest on our laurels. And there’s no question that we’ve gotten to where we are today by taking this advice to heart, and that the world is a better place because so many others have done similarly.
Yet we are also taught that the one who achieves happiness in life, is the one who is happy with his lot. Which is to say that there is a point at which wishing for more that we already have, or reaching for more than we’ve already achieved, will generate only frustration, unhappiness, or even despair. Of course we naturally hate the idea of accepting limits on what we can do. We resist the idea that we may not be as talented or smart as others are, or as we wish we ourselves could be. But there is apparently a time for stopping and doing exactly this, a time for counting one’s blessings. Not only because it is virtuous to do so, but also because this will keep us emotionally healthy and sane.
Two teachings, two directions. Figuring out where to walk between these two grand pieces of advice, can be a wrenching process.
Like you, I find myself reflecting fairly often on the things that I’ve not yet achieved in life. Sometimes these periods of reflection yield new motivation, a renewed determination. Just as often, they produce frustration and unhappiness, for which the only antidote – and it’s an effective and satisfying one - is to count my blessings, to count the things that I have been able to achieve. And to remember that all of these achievements are the result of God’s gifts and guidance to me, which makes my unhappiness a form of ingratitude. Yet, even at the times when I think I’ve succeeded at counting my blessings and being happy with my lot, the voice that views this whole idea with deep suspicion, buzzes by just within earshot. Am I just giving up too easily under the guise of being appreciative of what I have?
I had the great blessing this week of hearing my friend Rabbi Ari Leubitz speak at the bris of his newborn son. He spoke openly and movingly about the fact that he and his wife had prayed for this child for several years - for several long unanswered years. They had been blessed with two children toward the beginning of their marriage, and desperately desired to continue building their family, but number three just wasn’t coming. Rav Ari, his eyes dampening, went on to describe the way that he and his wife eventually turned their attention to counting their blessings, and to appreciating and loving their two children even more deeply, to fully internalizing how blessed their family already was, and to recognizing the goodness that God had already bestowed upon them. And then, as things turned out, just as they were doing all of this, their original prayer was answered. As if in the merit of learning how to rejoice in the lot they already possessed.
For everything there is a time and a season. A time to demand more from yourself, and a time to accept personal limits and count one’s blessings. And I guess there is also a time to wonder whether there is some great mystical interaction between these two things, one which brings new opportunities just when you learned how to be happy even without them.