A New ERA: Success, Perfection, and the Paradox of the Human Mind
Of all the bumps in the road of life, what are often the most harmful are also the hardest to detect. In this essay I intend to address a specific strain of apathy, or sense of futility- one that arises from witnessing someone else, seemingly through no special effort on their part, achieving much more than one’s self. While other emotional issues test the human being’s resolve, this sense of hopelessness eats away at the very foundation of man’s capability to deal with those problems- his drive to achieve. Why press forward, one may reason, when others seem to be able to accomplish so much more than I can? And how can I fall so short of my own expectations of myself, when others seem to have no problem achieving success?
Lacking a suitable answer to these troubling questions can wear a man away from the inside out, as he is pressed against the incessant grinding wheel of life. In explaining the solution to this issue, I will introduce the revolutionary perspective Chassidus brings to the concept of achievement, and demonstrate how a healthy outlook on the struggles of the human experience can foster a more wholesome, stable state of mind, and a happier life in which hard work is not merely a means to an end, but the satisfying and fulfilling journey G-d intended it to be all along.
A SHORT INTRODUCTION: PERSISTENCE, SURVIVAL, AND THE HUMAN REWARD SYSTEM
The story is told of a prisoner of war, set to work by his captors at the handle of a vast grindstone. Throughout his years of grueling servitude, he sustained himself with the one modicum of solace that he had- the thought that somebody, somewhere, was deriving sustenance from the fruits of his labor. However much he suffered, his work, at least, was not in vain. This thought kept him going, even as his hairs slowly grayed and his body broke from the strain. When at last the day came for him to be released, however, his cruel jailer decided to play one last trick. Leading his erstwhile captive around to the other side of his cell wall, he revealed that in fact, the handle he had been turning was connected to no more than a series of weights. Faced with the sudden realization that all his years of toil had been utterly pointless, the crushed old man’s frail heart gave out and he died, at the very threshold of freedom, from sheer hopelessness.
The human being is a resilient creature. Throughout his relatively short history he has climbed mountains, tamed mighty seas, and established himself as the dominant species on planet Earth. He has braved extremes of temperature and climate, and built for himself an intricate network of interdependence that many scientists refer to as “extinction insurance,” ensuring his continued existence and mastery over the world around him. He is, in essence, the ultimate survivor.
The key to his success, and his sole advantage over all other living organisms, lies in a small grey mass, cushioned by soft tissue and protected by a reinforced shell of tough bone- his brain. A convoluted bundle of synapses and nerves that science has yet to completely understand, the brain gives the human being the ability to think creatively, invent, innovate, explore, and- perhaps most fascinating of all- allows for a highly developed network of social interaction.
Yet like the proverbial tree, who alone can provide the handle for the axe of its own destruction, this nearly miraculous gift is capable of incredible devastation. What fire and water cannot knock down over millennia, the brain can topple in hours. It, and only it, is capable of shaking the most indispensable of human qualities- indomitable tenacity. The same social frameworks that allow man to depend on his fellow humans for support, both physical and emotional, can become a crippling handicap.
Our sages tell us that “man was born to work.” A simple sentence, yet profound and penetrating in its telling truth. The entire human experience, from the cradle to the grave, is essentially a struggle, a climb. Psychologists speak of a sense of restlessness from the earliest stages of a child’s development, a striving to improve, to move, to explore. As he matures, the challenges he must confront become more overt, more intense, as the stakes become higher. In many ways, this sense of competition is a gift, driving the human being constantly onward and upward, forcing him to adapt, to improve, building him from a child to a man. This applies to all areas of life- from the acquisition of such basic skills as reading and writing, to more subtle and mature pursuits such as religious meaning and emotional fulfillment. Anything worth achieving comes with effort, with a struggle.
What gives the human being this drive to climb? In His wisdom, the Creator established a reward system, a kind of directional code written into the very foundations of the human psyche. From the start of man’s life, he quickly begins to associate achievement with pleasure. Parents condition their children to feel pride as each bump in their developmental road is surmounted, from walking to speaking to elementary social interaction. On a more visceral level, the brain is conditioned to send “pleasure messages,” discharges of dopamine, when the human being furthers his own existence- through such varied activities as the food consumption and reproductive activity. Conversely, a less animalistic, more refined pleasure is derived from activities beneficial to the spirit- such as music or stimulating intellectual exertion- or to the character, such as overcoming a challenge or having the courage to make a tough decision. This reward system, to one extent or the other, is the driving force behind man’s power of perseverance.
To be sure, this does not apply solely to the more hedonistically inclined- even refined, selfless people derive a certain pleasure from doing what they perceive to be right. Their actions, altruistic as they may seem, are generally motivated by a quest for fulfillment that, at the end of the day, is only separated from that of a coarse hedonist by shades on a spectrum.
PITFALLS IN THE ROAD OF LIFE: WHEN THE BRAIN BECOMES THE BRAWN
This system, however, is as capable of backfiring as the brain itself. While some might demand, from themselves or others, a rigorous standard of discipline transcending the pleasureful incentive system previously described, the fact remains that it is one of the most reflexive and visceral of human tendencies, and thus impractical to negate completely, if at all. This, then, opens the door to a lurking, dangerous dark side of the human reward system.
Take the example of our prisoner at his grindstone. His brain, faced with no alternative, had resorted to fueling its own “reward system” with the only pleasure it could avail itself of- the innate satisfaction that comes of productive work. The moment this pleasure was revealed to have been a facade, however, the entire house of cards collapsed, crushing his fragile spirit and, thereby, his body.
Though admittedly extreme, the same principle is all too prevalent in the daily grind we all experience on a daily basis. Humans, being the social animals that they are, constantly compare their success to the apparent success of others. A schoolchild, enviously surveying his friend’s superior test score, may decades later find himself looking with the same jealousy at the same friends happy marriage, while his own founders in the doldrums of monotony.
While this is certainly not a healthy state of affairs under any circumstances, when viewed as part of the broader picture of the journey of life, it becomes all the more troubling. A man bogged down with doubt, with jealousy, a man whose reward system has malfunctioned and begun to consume itself, can hardly be expected to run the uphill battle of constant growth with unwavering fortitude. Instead of the incredible tool for growth it has the potential to be, the brain can become a ravenous monster. A sense of futility can spiral into a dizzying nosedive of vicious cycles. Without the drive to achieve fueled by a healthy reward system, life becomes a drag, a burden. Marriages stall; guilt and jealousy build resentment; resentment breeds acrimony; acrimony ferments into conflict; conflict explodes into catastrophe. Anger, depression, a sense of listless futility- all can devolve from the malfunctioning of the human reward system. Man can only watch in horror as his brain destroys his very humanity, like a parasitic virus, from the inside out.
It is often at this juncture that the brain begins seeking alternate sources of pleasure, satisfaction, or distraction. In numerous cases, a person may attempt to quiet his mental hunger pains through stress eating, alcoholism, or drug use- all of which, of course, only make the problem worse.
So how does one nip this dismal chain of events in the bud? How can the human being hope to prevent himself from a sense of futility at what he perceives to be his own irremediable inadequacy, when this sense of futility arises from within his own psyche? Furthermore, how can one hope to prevent this same sense of frustration from escalating into listlessness or apathy? To answer this question is to understand the very foundation of what we term “accomplishment.”
Enter the founder of Chabad Chasidism, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, commonly referred to as the Alter Rebbe.
IMPERFECTLY PERFECT: THE DICHOTOMY OF HUMAN NATURE AND THE STRUGGLE OF LIFE.
For hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, generations of earnest, sincere seekers of G-d had been suffering from a widespread spiritual frustration not unlike the condition above described. For weeks and months, these men would follow their hearts in a quest for the esoteric, the transcendent, the divine. Undertaking numerous fasts and enduring myriad methods of self-flagellation and asceticism, they attempted to cleanse themselves of what they perceived as a dull, heavy impediment- their own human natures. Days and nights they labored, determined to rise above the human reward system, and touch the face of G-d.
Yet many times, very often directly after the most sublime, transcendent experiences, a coarse, animalistic thought would enter their heads- uninvited, unwanted… and utterly unbearable. All at once, like the old man at the cusp of freedom, their spiritual towers would collapse into rubble. What kind of incurable, hedonistic creatures are we? they would berate themselves. Surely, they reasoned, the improper thoughts they experienced arose from some failing in their own spiritual work! Crestfallen, they would start again, tears of remorse in their eyes, endlessly struggling at the grindstone, begging their Creator to forgive them for who they were, for who He Himself made them.
Then, in perhaps his most well known, fundamental, and powerful work, the Tanya, the Alter Rebbe shattered the paradigm that had endured for centuries, and changed the way we look at life forever more.
In the very first chapter of Tanya, the Alter Rebbe introduces a novel concept. Man, he teaches, is not made of one psyche, but two distinct personalities, two souls. The animal soul is a pragmatic, self-serving creature, driven towards physicality and the material benefits of life. The G-dly soul, conversely, is a divine flame plunged into a world unfamiliar, tasked by G-d with elevating the coarseness of its animalistic neighbor and the utterly foreign reality around it. In the human being the two are bound together, and thus begins the epic struggle of man.
Like fire and water, the two souls grapple with each other for dominance over the thoughts, words, and actions of the human body they inhabit- one striving to flow downwards, the other to rise up. It is this stalemate, this constant conflict, that finds expression in the conflicts of the human mind- to do good or evil, to remain constrained by mundane reality or to push beyond, to live or merely exist. Yet the goal lies in neither camp completely; to fulfill the purpose of his existence, the human being must merge the two. The divine soul must refine the mundane sensibilities of the animal soul, and the animal soul must aid the divine soul in bringing its spiritual ideals into practical fruition, working to make the world around it a little more G-dly.
That being the case, argues the Alter Rebbe, it is not only wrong to blame both souls for the innate desires of the former- it is downright ludicrous. All the ascetics of previous generations had been doing was reinforcing the natural yearnings of their Divine soul, while ignoring their animal soul’s existence completely. Is it surprising, then, that the natural cravings of the ever-present animal soul should occasionally assert themselves? And is that any reason to relegate all the years of work, all the strengths and genuine spiritual feeling of the Divine soul, to false, immaterial illusion, or self-deception?
Yet this new outlook was met with an immediate challenge. It is an undeniable fact that perfect, G-dly men do, in fact, exist- men such as our forefathers, Moses, generations of prophets and leaders- men to whose purity and sanctity G-d Himself attests in the Torah. Where, then, were their animal souls? How did they free themselves of the physical and mental constraints of their bodies, and how could we expect anything less of ourselves than to strive for the perfection they embodied?
The Alter Rebbe responded to this question by slicing humanity in half.
FLAWLESS VS. PERFECT: THE TZADIK AND THE BEINONI
The first category of man, the Alter Rebbe explains, is called a Tzadik. Hebrew for “righteous man,” the Tzadik by his very essence is a man of perfection, a man to whom the very thought of evil is repulsive and foreign. Though there are many gradations within the level of Tzadik itself, the common denominator remains an innate transcendence, an utter disregard for the physical and mundane. Needless to say, the Tzadik’s daily struggles are of a much loftier sort than those of an ordinary man, often pertaining more to spiritual imperfections in the souls of those around him than to any conflict within his own.
The second kind of man, however, is an entirely different story. Called the Beinoni, or “intermediate man,” he is a creature very much aware of the world around him. As described above, he contains two violently opposite inclinations, two souls constantly at war. Far from the pristine perfection of the Tzadik, the Beinoni’s life experience is one of ups and downs, a long and complex tale of struggle and triumph. A successful Beinoni, the Alter Rebbe explains, is one whose G-dly soul is constantly dominant, suppressing the animalistic urges of his animal soul. Yet these urges, he must know, will never be vanquished completely. He must always be vigilant, always on guard against the evil within himself.
The Beinoni, in other words, is every one of us. While the Tzadik’s service of G-d is a constant spiritual climb, the Beinoni trudges through the mud of life, occasionally stumbling yet never falling completely.
At first glance, the Beinoni seems to be inferior. Obviously the Tzadik, with his mind untainted by impure thoughts, his tongue free from sinful speech, and without a single unholy deed to besmirch his record, is much more beloved to G-d, the Essence of all purity. What then, is the Beinoni to think of himself? That he is doomed to remain second-class forever, consigned to struggle through life in the shadow of his divinely perfect counterpart? Why, then, was he even created!?
In this question, says the Alter Rebbe, lies the great misconception of human nature.
Life is not a race, a ladder all men climb, each striving to reach G-d. Had that been the case, then the Tzadik, being higher up on the spiritual ladder, would indeed outstrip the Beinoni so consummately as to render him obsolete. But in truth, every man has his own goal, his own mountain to scale with determination and tenacity. And when that goal is reached, be it by the Beinoni or the Tzadik, G-d derives immense pleasure.
G-d has myriad legions of angels, sublimely pure beings who chant sweet praises to their creator, beings free of sin or temptation. Yet the angel, lofty as he is, is as incapable of rebelling against his Creator as the reflection in a mirror is to act independently of the object it is reflecting. In man G-d created a paradox, a being of good and evil, an opportunity for true novelty- a creature of flesh and blood, possessing a hedonistic animal soul and set in a world where G-dliness is utterly invisible, who nevertheless strives to reach upwards. And when he does, he accomplishes something all the angels, with their millions and millions of sublime songs, cannot hope to measure up to.
Understanding this, it becomes clear that the service of the Beinoni is no less perfect than that of the Tzadik, no less precious. It is only our false human conception that defines it as such. It is we who confuse success with perfection, wewho erroneously measure the Tzadik and the Beinoni by the same yardstick. Is it no wonder, then, that a Beinoni measuring himself up to the standard of a Tzadik should feel inadequate?
Once the Alter Rebbe’s innovation is fully understood and internalized, all doubts and insecurities fall away. Why should the lion, looking up at the hawk cavorting gracefully in the sky, feel any inadequacy at being unable to fly? And why should that same hawk, witnessing a fish moving fluidly through an undulating azure obstacle course of aquatic sunbeams, feel the same? Each is adapted to his own environment, and beautiful in his own way.
Exactly so is the human experience. Like sweet and savory dishes at an elaborate feast displayed before the King of Kings, both the Tzadik and the Beinoni’s service find favor in the eyes of their creator, one no less than the other.
The Alter Rebbe did not justify mediocrity. He redefined success.
And that’s powerful.
So how does one apply this unique outlook of the Alter Rebbe to the daily trials of life? In the accepted tradition of older and wiser Meaningful Life Contest applicants who have come before, I have compiled my own methodology into a three-letter acronym.
ERA: EVALUATE, REDEFINE, APPLY.
STEP ONE: EVALUATE
The first and most vital step in utilizing the Alter Rebbe’s revolutionary perspective is to step back and take a good, hard look at yourself. In Chassidus the concept of “Cheshbon Nefesh,” literally “accounting of the soul,” is a fundamental starting point in any spiritual endeavor. In general, a true self accounting is a very personal and flexible process, and ultimately the correct manner in which to conduct this soul searching depends on the person, but a few guiding points specifically for this methodology:
– Start by making a list of your goals in life- personal goals, good resolutions, areas in which you have set yourself to improve.
-The bottom line here is to try and get a clear view on the expectations you set for yourself, or you feel have been imposed upon you. Whatever you find challenging, in any area of life, anything that you feel could be a source of anxiety or insecurity in the manner above described, belongs on this list.
-If possible, put your list down on paper. A concrete summary of the shadows of anxiety lurking on the peripherals of your brain can be a calming thing in and of itself. It helps reduce problems to their bare bones, eliminating the mystique the human brain tends to build around a problem, the sense of it being bigger than it is simply because it’s there, nagging at the corners of your psyche.
STEP TWO: REDEFINE
Once you’ve assembled your list of challenges and expectations, look inside yourself to gauge your true capability for growth. Make very sure to take in to account both its potential and its limitations, taking care not to over evaluate yourself while at the same time steering clear of selling yourself short. This can be done in a variety of ways:
– Look back to times you feel you’ve shined, times you felt you were truly using your gifts and being appreciated for it. What lengths were you able to reach then? How broad did your capabilities seem under the bright light of positive feedback? Reflecting on times like these can help remove any misevaluations of your own potential that may have arisen from outside forces, like peer pressure or self doubt. Look to the times you truly let yourself be who you could be, and realize that the same potential still exists inside you. What you find may surprise you.
-At the same time, make sure you aren’t falling into the same trap as the ascetics prior to the Alter Rebbe’s time. Look into yourself and really reflect on whether the goals you’ve set for yourself are realistic. It may very well be that you have set yourself goals based on the success you perceive others as having- according to the Alter Rebbe, this is a dangerous mistake. Compare your expectations of yourself to your own true potential- after all, as they say, everyone else is taken.
Once you’ve really spent time on delineating your own potential, forget every ladder you’ve built for yourself and redefine success. Success isn’t winning, isn’t reaching the top of some universal ladder; success by definition means utilizing your own potential to the extent granted to you by G-d. A farmer doesn’t expect himself to thresh as much grain as his powerful ox, nor does he expect the brutish animal to devise strategic planting patterns to yield maximum productivity from the field being plowed. Stop trying to be a Tzadik if G-d created you a Beinoni. Doing so can only result in wasted time, wasted energy, and frustration. A level-headed recognition of your own abilities can be a very refreshing thing, indeed.
STEP THREE: APPLY
Take your newly rewritten self-image and apply it to your daily challenges. Take note that you are not whispering yourself empty consolations, or putting up blinders against your own inadequacy- expecting yourself to achieve something you were never intended to achieve is just as wrong as not striving to accomplish something you were meant to accomplish. Stop measuring yourself by others yardsticks, by other people’s expectations of you. You’ve made your evaluation. You’ve set before yourself a clear, reasonable and carefully thought-out meter of what you can and cannot demand of yourself; why let someone else’s split-second judgement convince you that you’re inadequate? Let your confidence come from inside.
The next time you are nagged by self doubt, don’t let it throw off your equilibrium. Recognize that as the proud owner of a mint condition human brain, such thoughts come with the territory. You’re not an angel; you will always have those small twinges of self doubt. The important thing is to not let them own you. Take a look at the source of your insecurity. Don’t let your brain get in the way- look straight at the source of the problem. Is is a valid reason for concern? Is there, in fact, a lack in your fulfilment of your own potential? If the answer is no, let the floodlight of your own conviction shine through. Depression of this sort is a shadow, one that withers away in the light.
If the answer is yes, don’t allow that thought to haunt you. Make a resolution to fix the problem, to whatever extent you feel ready to, and then move on. You’ve heard what your brain has to say, you’ve taken the steps you feel are appropriate; you don’t need any further legitimization from anyone except G-d. Chassidus teaches that the entire creation is being constantly sustained and recreated by G-d Himself. Science tells us that the millions of possible life-ending mishaps within the cells of the human brain alone are being constantly avoided only by constant Divine providence. Common sense dictates that you don’t put effort into a venture unless it will yield a gain. Certainly the same applies to creating an entire human being, with all its complexities and intricacies. The very fact that you exist, that you still live, that your heart still beats, that your blood still flows, is the most emphatic statement of legitimization you can ever get, given by the only One who is even more aware of your true potential than you are- because He created you, defects and foibles and all.
And He, in His infinite wisdom, is happy with you just the way you are- striving, climbing, stumbling, getting up again- happier than He is with the most pristine angel.
Shouldn’t you be?
 It is worth noting that the system of pleasure delineated above describes only the animalistic aspect of man’s psychological makeup; the G-dly soul described in the works of Chassidus is of an entirely different caliber, as will be explained.
 Tanya, Chapter 28
 This meditation is explained at greater length in Chapter 27 of Tanya; also note there the additional reason the Alter Rebbe brings, explaining how impure thoughts should in fact bring the aspiring Beinoni to a state of great joy, which is beyond the scope of this essay.