“If you stop doing hard things,” she said, “you’ll stop being able to do hard things.” That was what my health instructor said during class a couple of weeks ago. She was lamenting how her mother, who used to be on her feet all the time while she was working, had retired, joined the YMCA and gravitated towards doing chair yoga as her primary movement practice. Because her standing muscles slowly atrophied, she took a fall in the locker room and was heading into surgery to repair various injuries.
When she said that, I realized that my whole life has been guided by a similar principle. If I had allowed my natural shyness to win the day, I’d have never taken a public speaking class in college. If I had never taken that class and gained experience facing my paralyzing fears, I might not have summoned the chutzpah to apply to Rabbinical school. If I’d have given myself over to those persistent and unpleasant nerves for the first 15 years of my rabbinate (!), I may have given up on being a rabbi. It’s not that I’m never nervous before speaking. It’s not that all my talks are amazing. It is that I’ve built a strong muscle for doing things that are hard for me because I’m doing them all the time: earning 3 black belts in TaeKwonDo, engaging in training programs that provide new challenges for my professional and personal life. There are easier paths. I’m almost 50. I could just keep doing what I’ve always done.
The truth for all of us is that the hardest aspects of life are usually in front of us. If we stop doing hard things, if we take the familiar road, we may stop being able to do hard things like let our children grow up and leave home, retire and find new ways to spend our time, live with new physical limitations, grieve a beloved, give up our homes and independence.
In 1910, Teddy Roosevelt famously said:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Living in the arena and daring greatly has made all the difference for me. You may reflect and discover the same is true for you. I am grateful to you for all the opportunities you’ve given me to learn and teach and stay in the arena so that I can better serve as your rabbi.