Ez men est khazer zol rinen ariber der bord.
As spectacular as the Jewish people are, nobody said we were perfect (certainly not us!). When I was 8 and as neurotic as I was chubby, I was issued a particularly devastating report card; a manila tri-fold of tarnation riddled with Ds and N.S.s. (The latter was an abbreviation for “Non-Satisfactory.” Hey, it was the ’90s and the beginning of the everybody-gets-a-trophy-G-d-forbid-we-hurt-the-child’s-feelings era. They weren’t about to call an F an F.) I earned these grades not because I wasn’t smart enough, and not because I was too smart to be challenged by the curriculum, but because I was otherwise occupied. Basketball and ballet, perchance? Soccer and sleepovers? G-d no! I’d have burst into tears at the mere mention of such paralyzing prospects. No, my extracurricular activity of choice (or rather, inheritance) was worry, and I have to admit I was quite the prodigy. (I believe the psychological term is “deigeh savant.”) But here’s the thing: when a kid spends day and night fretting about every conceivable “what if” and obsessing over what she’s convinced will be her parents’ imminent deaths, there’s little time and energy left over for Social Studies—hence the aforementioned academic standing.
On this particular day, the mail arrived as it always did right about the time I got home from school. As fate would have it, my mother spotted the oversized envelope before I did (how could I have been so careless?!), thus robbing me of the opportunity to privately process my failure and prepare myself before having to share my shame with others. It only took a momentary glimpse at the repugnant report to transform my baseline anxiety into full-on panic. As my mind performed its customary cartwheels of catastrophe, my body got busy sobbing to the point of hyperventilation. After all, not only would I be an orphan any day now, but I was about to fail Grade 3 on top of that! As usual, being the self-cleaning oven of a child that I was, the mere possibility of disappointing my parents was torturous punishment enough that in lieu of chastising me for my dismal grades my mother spent the better part of the afternoon trying to convince me that it really wasn’t a big deal.
But what about when Daddy gets home?! What will he say? Oh the horror! The horror! (I’m paraphrasing of course, as I didn’t encounter Conrad until much later.) As utterly plagued as I was by these questions at the time, looking back it’s apparent that my concerns were just another figment of my irrational imagination. Among Jewish parents who asserted they would surely die if their child failed to grow up to be a doctor (or at the very least marry one), my dad was an anomaly. Worrying about my father throwing a fit was as absurd and unfounded as fretting about a flounder taking flight. In reality, the worst case scenario would have been a look in Daddy’s eye (most likely imagined) that I’d interpret to mean he’d ceased loving me forever and would disown me publicly at the very next opportunity. Needless to say, it was a long afternoon spent eating my weight in bagels and schmear. When my poor, unsuspecting father finally arrived home, he was met immediately with the pale, puffy-eyed puddle that was his pudgy daughter, palliatively pacing and preemptively apologizing through snot-soaked sleeves. My mother handed him the disgraceful document and, after what seemed like an eternity, that magnificent man of so few words, rarely eloquent but always wise, looked up and said something I will never forget:
“Ahhhh! School-schmool, I failed Grade 4 and I run a company! Who you are on paper doesn’t matter, it’s who you are when you go out into the world, who you are to others, that matters. That, and just trying. Just do your best and for G-d’s sake stop worrying so much, would you? You’ll give yourself an ulcer!”
He went on to say that some of the most idiotic people he’d encountered in life—especially in business—had been straight-A students (an entertaining phenomenon that I’ve since discovered for myself).
And so with that, it was done.
Well, not actually. I went on to torture myself over bad grades for the remainder of my pre-university years, but Daddy’s words did stick with me and continued to challenge my perverse perfectionism.
Perfectionism?!? Yes, that's right. Despite popular belief, it is possible and actually very common to be both a perfectionist and an outright failure. (As an aside, my husband would like to point out that only a perfectionist would consider themselves an “outright failure.” I see little truth in his argument but promised to include it nonetheless.) You see, I live my life on either end of the spectrum; it’s all or nothing. I either set out to do it better than anyone in the history of the world has ever done it, or I don’t even bother trying. As you can imagine, more often than not the former prospect is so paralyzingly daunting that I spend most of my time doing the latter. But as I’ve come to learn, if you don’t try anything for fear of failure, you fail at everything for lack of trying. (Easier said than done, of course, but it’s still an important truth.)
Many a member of the Tribe struggles with similarly paralyzing pressures, whether self-imposed like mine or externally inflicted. But gems like my father—and a whole lot of Jewish wisdom and scripture that echoes his profound words—remind us perfectionists that the goal is not to be perfect but to get up every day and try; that getting mired in meticulous minutiae can lead to a life unlived. Our wise ones teach us not to worry about mistakes, because mistakes are what life’s about. And this proverb even goes so far as to say when you screw up, go all out. Be a perfectionist about it! Otherwise, the mistake wouldn’t be worth making.
When you make mistakes, do you go whole hog?
Despite the advanced cataracts in Joy’s left eye, she was driving at quite a clip on I-5 heading north to Los Angeles. Riding shotgun and singing show tunes at the top of her still-expansive lungs was her best friend and next-door neighbor, Golda. After 12 weeks of Weight Watchers and aquatics at the Senior Center, the two friends had turned heads at their development’s annual gala. Despite last meeting’s inspirational lectures from their Weight Watchers leaders about the exciting new frontier of “Maintenance” and their own vows to find fresh motivation and stick to the program, Golda and Joy were heading straight into relapse at a cool 85 mph. ...
Golda: “I don’t understand why we have to go all the way into L.A. when they have cupcakes in Laguna Niguel! What a schlep!”
Joy: “Go, you can’t be serious! We’ve been over this! These are not just any old cupcakes! We both read that article in the newspaper and I even TiVo’d that segment on the Today Show for you!! Everyone’s going wild for these cupcakes! I even saw a picture of that actress, that health-nut Gwendelyn Paltron, eating one! Even she can’t resist!”
Golda: “Why trust her?! She’d probably think Pauline Feldman’s rugelach tasted good after all that parsley juice or whatever she lives on.”
Joy: “It’s kale, Go, and you really should try it. Dr. Oz says—”
Golda: “Save it, Joy! You’re driving us almost 60 miles so we can throw our diets down the crapper for some fakakta cupcake, and you’re lecturing me about health?! Please!”
Joy: “(Very classy, Go.) How many times do I have to tell you, this isn’t just some cupcake! If we’re gonna jump off the wagon, we may as well go for it! You know what they say: If you’re going to eat pork, get it all over your beard.”
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