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.