Our lives on this planet seem to be totally results oriented. No matter how hard your tailor tries, if he doesn't finish the suit on time he doesn't get paid. We don't reward him with 80% payment if the jacket is only missing one sleeve. The suit is useless without it. He gets nothing. And that is reasonable.
But on the Heavenly Report Card the grading system is very different. Our Sages teach us that the relative success of our endeavors is not really in our hands. Surely we must put in our fullest efforts in any task we undertake, but what ultimately transpires is beyond our span. How often are we faced with a situation where despite our most heroic and skilled labors, the end result falls far short of our expectations? Conversely, sometimes things just seem to "work out" despite our paltry investment.
Upstairs, we are never judged by the end product; only by our intentions and our corresponding effort toward fulfilling our objectives.
"Ben Hei Hei says: The reward is in proportion to the exertion," (Ethics of our Fathers 5:26).
God, in His infinite wisdom, gave us free will - the ultimate gift. And in doing so, He designed a system whereby he could reward us strictly for trying. The results are totally up to Him.
Upstairs, we are never judged by the end product; only by our intentions and our corresponding effort toward fulfilling our objectives. When we do that, we are 100% successful - regardless of the outcome.
JAKE AND SHARON
Life's greatest insights come in all shapes and surprises. Often they are packaged in profound experiences and dramatic episodes. But sometimes they are delivered in simple little packages - containing reminders of things we all know, but too often forget. I have Jake and Sharon to thank for the previous one.
Jake and Sharon are devoted and loving parents. To them, raising children is much more than a filial obligation or a playful recreation. It is a calling.
When I first met them they were married for six years and already had four children. Jake had built a small but thriving consulting business while Sharon spent 24/7 consulting with bottles, pacifiers, and nurseries.
They had sought my counsel regarding Ari, age five. He seemed to be moody at home with a penchant for tormenting his sisters, and his teacher had used the word reclusive in describing Ari at a parents/teacher's conference.
J and S were overwhelmed, but at least they realized it. They pulled no punches. They came with prepared questions and freely confessed to their helplessness with Ari.
"Don't ask me how a 42 pound five-year-old can completely take over a family of six, but it has happened. I've seen it," cried Jake.
The details are not especially relevant. Suffice it to say that we spent five subsequent appointments discussing some management strategies for dealing with Ari. At a three month follow-up session the parents reported some very minor improvements in Ari and only slightly more substantial progress in their own coping skills.
It was 12 years before we met in person again.
"Let me guess," I said when they called. "Ari turned 17."
Jake wore an enormous yet artificial smile as he entered the office but Sharon's tension could not be masked. I barely had time to ask, "How are you guys doing," when Sharon dropped her purse on the floor and blurted, "We are losing our son."
Jake and Sharon then proceeded, taking turns spilling out the specifics of Ari's swift and steady decline into a world of confusion. I was doing little to interrupt their venting voyage, just letting them unleash some of the agony was probably more valuable than any great wisdom I could offer them.
Ari never did better than 'C' work, usually worse than that, despite his obvious intellectual capacities. Only in 7th grade, under the tutelage of an exceptionally dynamic Hebrew teacher, did Ari display any real motivation to learn.
"He was so happy that year," recalled Jake. "He had friends; he had a spark - he laughed. We thought we had turned the corner."
"But after his Bar-Mitzvah," continued Sharon, "everything went south. We tried to get him to see someone, but he refused. He wouldn't see you because he knew we had spoken to you about him. You were off-limits - but so was anyone else. He never said why."
Over the next few sessions I learned that Ari had become exceedingly withdrawn in high school. He vacillated between religious fanaticism and total secularism. He would often just seem to drift into his own world, displaying very occasional fits of anger that manifested his deep underlying frustration with himself and his situation.
All the while Ari continued to attend school, but he developed obsessive-compulsive symptoms that sometimes included bizarre rituals of excessive cleanliness. His grades even improved, but socially he was inappropriate and he certainly unhappy.
I remarked how tragic the situation was, especially since it was so clear that therapy and medication would likely have helped him - but he just wouldn't hear of it.
Jake and Sharon continued to come on a weekly basis for a while, detailing the heartbreaking odyssey that had unfolded before them.
"The pain has been unbearable," said Jake, "but at least it never divided me and Sharon. If anything, it has brought us closer. And ironically, maybe because of Ari, we have put so much more into the other kids. Thank God, they're all doing great."
She buried her face into her hands and the tears flowed shamelessly. "I'm a failure."
Hard as I tried there was simply no idea that I came up with in the ensuing weeks that they hadn't already attempted. They wrote him letters. They stayed up nights, both with him and with each other, trying to find some common ground to relate mutually with Ari. His grandparents pleaded with Ari to get help - to no avail. His teachers attempted to engage him. Neighborhood rabbis, even kabbalists, prayed for him. Nothing worked.
She buried her face into her hands and the tears flowed shamelessly.
"I'm a failure."
I could see that Sharon had reached the breaking point. I just let her cry; partly because she needed to and partly because I really had nothing to say to her. My only lame intervention was gently pushing my box of Kleenex closer to her.
Many minutes went by without a word being said. The ticking of my fake grandfather clock never sounded so loud.
Sharon finally looked up at me and wiped away her final tear. Her tired eyes seemed to beg me to say something…anything…that might remotely soothe her.
"I know you feel like a failure and that the pain you are in may never ever go away. The hurt is beyond description.
"All I can say to you is that as long as I have known you, you have been an incredible parent. Raising your children properly was and will always be your number one priority. That is something to be very proud of.
"But success in parenting, like in most things, is really not measured by how your kids turn out. That's a mistake. We both know kids who happened to turn out great despite having parents who couldn't care less about them. That's just the way it is. We don't really understand why.
Regardless of what Ari does with his life, you and Jake could not have been more successful.
"A great rabbi once reminded me that true success in life is measured by how much effort you put in. You're no failure. Frankly, Sharon, in my book, you are 100% successful. We all hope things will turn around, but regardless of what Ari does with his life, you and Jake could not have been more successful. You have done everything you can and more. You are both champion parents."
The quiet returned to the room. I wasn't sure if my impassioned remarks hit home or not. Sharon looked at the floor and then at me. I thought I saw her smile.
"Thank you," she finally said.
"Thank you so very much. I feel like I have waited 17 years to hear the words that you just told me."
A COMPLETE SUCCESS
We parents need to remember that we're judged by our sincere efforts, not the results. Don't get caught up in the mundane Earthly marking system. When you do your best to raise your kids with solid values, unremitting love, and sensible discipline, while also being an appropriate role model for them to emulate - you are automatically a complete success - no matter how they respond. It isn't easy to keep that focus, but it can save you barrels of frustration, disappointment, and guilt.
The same dynamic actually holds true in countless areas of life. As long as you're doing your absolute best, whether it's trying to raise money for a really important project, learning subjects that seem out of reach, attempting to close a mega-deal, or just baking a cake or choosing a cool tie - you can and should consider your efforts totally successful. It's hard, but don't be misled by the outcome.
What the future holds for Ari I cannot say.
And Jake and Sharon surely have some tough challenges ahead. They may still experience pain, frustration, and disappointment. No one can really know why.
Hopefully, though, failure is no longer in the picture.