Excellence vs Mediocrity

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to observe and participate in a few conversations about whether and why OTDers have higher expectations of themselves than necessary or useful.

Part of it for me, I realized, is that I have this nagging feeling that if I don’t achieve greatness in my chosen field, I won’t have the ability to say “see, there’s a reason I left, I would never have been able to accomplish this within the community.” In other words, it would prove that there’s something inherent in me that required me to leave in order to fulfill my potential.

Now, just to be clear, I absolutely hate that idea. But it’s a thought I’ve been having lately.

Truth is, of course, the only reason I need to have for leaving, the only justification I need to have, is that I fucking wanted to.

Will frum people accept me and my choices if I become an outstanding, top-of-the-field medievalist and teacher? Nah, probably not. They’ll still try to be mekarev me, they’ll still pity me for what I’m “missing out on,” they’ll still say “nebach, she couldn’t get sipuk or menuchas hanefesh from Hashem and from Torah, she had to settle for a shadow of it from the goyishe velt.” (This of course doesn’t include the frum people who actually do accept my choices now…) So who exactly am I trying to prove myself to?

The other aspect, one a lot more people seem to relate to, is the way we’re pushed to excellence in yeshiva and Bais Yaakov, and that doesn’t go away just because we’ve abandoned or rejected the object of that push to excellence. In the frum community, the goal of excellence was focused on Yiddishkeit and frumkeit and perhaps on Torah and gemara learning. In the OTD life, we transfer that goal of excellence to whatever we’ve chosen to do.

The problem arises when we should be happy with mediocrity and yet continue to push for excellence, when we overdo it and commit to way more than we should, when we pour our hearts and souls into whatever we’ve chosen to do because it’s been drilled into us that “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.”

Because ultimately, many of us OTDers abandoned the idea that there is a teleological purpose to the world, that we will gather some sort of reward based on our actions once we’re done here on this earth. But it takes a lot longer after discarding the “man in the sky” idea to fully realize that our new worldview doesn’t demand excellence or achievement, that the greatest excellence and achievement we could accomplish is living our lives fully and happily in the moment rather than accumulating accomplishment after accomplishment and aiming for the top.

Aiming for mediocrity is okay, too, as long as we’re happy.

8 thoughts on “Excellence vs Mediocrity

  1. Yes. I take great comfort in the thought that nothing I do matters in a cosmic sense. That one day I will die, and within a few generations no one will remember me. It’s a scary thought in an existential sense, but day-to-day, it means that if I didn’t finish X or if Y isn’t quite what it should be, it doesn’t matter. Happiness in the moment for myself and those I care about has more intrinsic value.

    > Truth is, of course, the only reason I need to have for leaving, the only justification I need to have, is that I fucking wanted to.

    Yes and no. If God is real and He gave the Torah etc., then He will smite you for leaving. And He is vindictive and petty.

    I’m working on a book showing why it’s reasonable to reject frumkeit in large part because it makes me angry when frum people say that people only go OTD because they can’t control their taivos. I want to be able to show systematically that no, going OTD is more reasonable than staying frum, people don’t leave primarily (or at all) because of their taivos, *and stop saying that!*

    1. Absolutely. Your second point is yet another conversation I’ve participated in multiple times 🙂 The question is, though, who is the justification aimed at? If it’s aimed at myself, the only thing I need to be comfortable with is that I wanted this – it’s nice to figure out exactly why I wanted and chose this, but I don’t need to justify it to myself beyond that. If the justification is aimed at frum people, it really won’t matter what I say – they’ll interpret it all as taavah – remember that rashi from… somewhere in chumash – every generation creates and venerates its own avoda zara in order to justify their specific taavos. (Apparently the generation that worshipped Moloch hated their kids and the one who worshipped Baal just wanted to publicly urinate… actually we were taught that Baal and urination allowed people to think of themselves as animals and not hold thenselves to higher standards.)

      Anyway, it is indeed a question and issue with great complexity and many thorny aspects, and I’m glad you’re writing about it 🙂

      1. > If it’s aimed at myself, the only thing I need to be comfortable with is that I wanted this

        As a teenager, I occasionally had dreams in which I stood before the beis din shel maaleh and had to account for my sins. (Such as they were – mostly thinking about girls.) What I wanted had nothing to do with anything. The accusation that people convince themselves that yiddishkeit isn’t true in order to make themselves feel better about their aveiros is logical. It isn’t true in nearly every case, and motivation has nothing to do with the validity of an argument, but it is logical.

        Some people don’t feel this aspect of religion as strongly, and so for them different issues/justifications may be relevant, but for me, whether or not it’s true has been the main question.

        > If the justification is aimed at frum people, it really won’t matter what I say – they’ll interpret it all as taavah –

        That’s true. It’s an example of a genetic fallacy – assuming that the skeptic’s arguments are invalid because of their motivations.

        > remember that rashi from… somewhere in chumash

        Based on the gemara (I think in Sanhedrin) “Ain oved avodah zara elah l’hater lahem arayos.”

      2. Thanks for the reference 🙂 I thought you might have it!

        And yeah, for me I couldn’t have left before I realized I didn’t believe it was true. Though I do know some OTD people who believe, or who believe in a slightly different version than chareidi dogma. I don’t understand it, because it’s not my experience, but it’s just as valid as a choice. But when my drive to find the truth was through philosophy and literature and intellectual means, guess what – I was told that intellect is my taavah and nisayon… Their really is no winning and the sooner we accept that, the happier we might be. (Preaching to myself here – I really still haven’t reached this point.) For myself, I guess what I meant was that *I* know why I did this, *I* know that I dont believe – even if at times I can’t effectively explain why I logically don’t believe.

  2. > I was told that intellect is my taavah and nisayon

    “Your problem is that you want to understand everything, and you think that if you can’t understand it, it isn’t true. Who do you think you are, to think that you can understand Hashem? Do you think the Gedolim didn’t think of these questions? Of course they did, and they still have emunah sheleimah! We don’t even come up to their toenails in chochma! How can you be so arrogant as to think you know better than all the talmidei chachamim!?”

    Something like that?

    1. Ouch! Yeah, something like that. Also “if you want to be so intellectual, fine, but start with the Jewish philosophers. If you didn’t learn everything there is to know about Judaism and Jewish philosophy (read: acceptable Jewish philosophy), how can you reject it? It makes no sense to learn goyishe philosophy when you haven’t fully learned about Yiddishkeit. The place to look for answers is bei Yidden, not bei di goyim.”

      1. Jewish philosophy? Like what? Certainly not Moreh Nevuchim. Mesilas Yesharim? Chovos Halevavos? Derech Hashem? Those are philosophical works only in the loosest sense of the term. They tell you how to be devout, and oh by the way, here are some reasons why.

  3. Exactly! But yes. That’s what was meant by “Jewish philosophy” (certainly not Spinoza, after all…)

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