Yosef asked us to close our eyes, think about our desires, let them wash over us, fix on one and ride it like a surfer to wherever it takes you. The ultimate goal of the exercise was to arrive at a prayer directed toward the fulfillment of that desire.
I was at a weekend retreat with members of my chavurah, my circle of Jewish friends who are the core of my Chicago community. Even surrounded by people I trust I have a problem with exercises like this. I don’t believe in a personal God, possibly any God at all as traditionally defined, so I deal with exercises like this by redefining them in terms that I find more approachable. In this case, I could find a way into the activity by focusing on aspirations rather than desires; that was something I could reflect on, rather than pray about.
Parenthetically, I also fail at exercises involving meditation. I respect my many friends who find the process meaningful, but I struggle to derive any reward from the exercise. I attribute the blank it draws from me to my own shortcomings, not those of the process.
Here’s where the mind-surfing led me. One of the things I aspire to is the ability to take my thinking and action to the next level, rather than settling for a product that is acceptable, but not excellent. I feel like I get off the train before it has fully arrived at the station but is vaguely close to my destination. Even as I write this, I find myself wondering if I’m pushing hard enough to formulate the idea that has only partially gelled in my mind, not investing sufficiently in finding exactly the right words or metaphors to capture my thought. Except on rare occasions, what emerges feels mediocre, somehow short of the mark. It may seem acceptable to audiences that, like me, are not pushing back hard enough to see how much more insightful and incisive my offering could be.
Although I have to own full responsibility for my shortcoming, I can trace some of its origin to my education. I can’t think of any instance when my work was rejected by a teacher who challenged me by asking whether this was truly my best effort. I had no mentors who were willing to press me to do better. My high school and college experiences were in massive institutions where there were few opportunities to engage in the kind of intellectual exchange that might have forced me to sharpen my thinking, to move from good to excellent. The curse of being a bright student in these large impersonal settings is that what you produce is better than the norm, but still lacking in hints of brilliance to attract a teacher to invest more in burnishing the unpolished stone.
There are many people who have had similar or lesser educations but who have by dint of will or the good fortune of finding a mentor outside the usual channels lifted themselves to that next level. They may also be smarter than me, but what I’m talking about is more than smarts. It’s about the acquisition of internal standards that are insistent in telling you that what you’ve done just isn’t as good as it could be. Every week when I complete a blog entry, I wonder whether I’ve let myself off easy again. I’ve met my personally imposed deadline and produced something readable and occasionally entertaining but is it really as good as it could/should be? The form invites sketchy undeveloped arguments and ideas. Maybe that’s what has drawn me to it, rather than tackling the same questions in an extended essay that calls for more meat on the bones of my skeletal thoughts.
The aspirations for what I produce intellectually have parallels in my physical world. I’ve never been challenged to use my body in ways that stretch my range of capability to run faster to swim longer or better, to take risks that might reveal something deeper about what was really possible for me to achieve. I was a runner for many years but never aspired to test myself in a marathon. Once I settled into an almost daily routine of running 4+ miles, I never tried to stretch beyond that boundary. What might I have discovered about myself if I had been encouraged to push against those self-imposed limits? As with my intellectual pursuits, I feel like I’ve never allowed myself the exhilarating feeling of breaking through to a realm of excellence that would have expanded my world.
As I approach the two- page limit that has come to define my blog entries, I’m left wondering whether what I’ve done here embodies all the shortcomings that have been the subject of this piece. Have I demonstrated what amounts to the kind of cowardice that I’ve been describing in my intellectual and physical life? Should I rip this up and try to do something better? That would be out of character for me, so I will let it stand, imperfections and inadequacies notwithstanding.
I don’t want this to read like a confession of failure. I am proud of much that I’ve done and took part in building and the relationships I’ve nurtured that have helped others grow. It’s more about looking back and seeing how much more I could have done, how much closer I could have come to realizing the aspirations that Josef’s exercise surfaced. But I think I’m not alone in struggling with the shortfall between aspiration and achievement. Even the most admired novelist is haunted by the gap between what they aspired to create and what actually emerged. I have someone in the next room of our apartment who can tell you all about it.