Ancient Jewish ideas have a funny way of sneaking into the popular lexicon. From the "no pain, no gain" mantra of the 90's to the more enlightened prescription to "move outside your comfort zone," our modern society is echoing a precept from Ethics of Our Fathers, "According to the effort, so is the reward" (Avot: 5:26).
In many areas of life, true growth is only available when you make that extra push. My husband is fond of saying that however many children you have, it's always one more than you are comfortable with! (Okay, sometimes it's a lot more!)
This is not a world of comfort, a marathon golf game. This is a world of effort --and anticipation of reward.
But there are many levels and types of effort.
Large corporations frequently hire organizational psychologists to run team-building exercises for their management groups. The goals are unity, trust, and, you guessed it, moving beyond your comfort zone. I recently joined a group of young professionals engaged in rope climbing challenges designed to accomplish this purpose.
Although everyone was tightly strapped into a harness and there was no actual danger, it was very frightening. Extremely uncomfortable. But for those who made the leap -- who climbed to the top of a telephone pole and jumped off to catch the trapeze, or walked across a log-like balance beam suspended 20 feet above ground -- it was exhilarating. And empowering.
Jewish understanding is that the Almighty gives us tests to help bring our latent potential into fruition, potential that may otherwise never be realized. It's a gift and an opportunity. Our forefather Abraham's true faith in God was confirmed through ten dramatic trials. We may not believe in ourselves, we may have self-images shaped by negativity or criticism. But an unusual exercise or a specialized test may illustrate the limitations of our thinking. We don't realize what we're capable of; we've stopped dreaming big. We've gotten stuck in our comfort zone, even if it's not a particularly pleasant one.
If the reward is connected to the effort, there are two possible avenues of approach. We may earn our reward through arduous physical effort, or through difficult internal struggle.
Some activities are tremendously draining physically -- rearranging furniture, running around after screaming toddlers, cooking and serving gourmet meals for large crowds. To some this effort comes easily; to others it is completely overwhelming.
And some activities take a psychological toll. The most common fear among Americans polled (before terrorism and the ozone layer) is the fear of public speaking. I consider myself a card-carrying member of this club.
My friend's daughter recently got married. I baked cookies for her shower, I made her a personalized gift, and I cooked and hosted a celebratory dinner for 30 after the wedding. And where do I think I'm getting my main reward?
For the 1.5 minutes I spoke at her shower. For that brief space in time, I moved outside my comfort zone to do something for a friend. Because I cared I was forced to grow.
We've all heard the stories of parents whose burst of adrenalin gave them superhuman strength when faced with potential danger to their children. Of cars being lifted, criminals being chased, the drowning rescued.
We are capable of doing more. We are capable of pushing. We just need the motivation.
Instead of allowing the effort to intimidate and overwhelm us, we should embrace the opportunity to grow, to discover within ourselves hidden strengths and new potential. The reward for the effort is not only an eternal one but the pleasure in knowing you tried, and you stretched. It's the thrill of new accomplishments, the wonder in new skills.
We hold ourselves back. We can spend our days channel surfing, fighting over the remote control, or we can get up and do. The more we're used to lying around, the harder it is to act. But the reward is commensurate with the effort. It's definitely worth that extra push to just heave ourselves up off the couch and do.