I used to know how tough I was. Growing up playing a variety of contact sports, practicing martial arts and serving in the military gives you the sense that you know your physical and mental limits. That feeling of pushing yourself as far as you thought you could go and then giving just a bit more is an amazing feeling of accomplishment as well as an affirmation that you can always do more and be more. Going through officer’s course as a chaplain candidate with a Marine drill instructor and serving with people who had been in a variety of combat roles prior to being called to chaplaincy, I was constantly impressed by not only how amazingly tough some of my colleagues were (and are), but also how our Gunnery Sergeant could draw just a bit more out of each of us. I knew I was tough even with people who were much tougher than I am, but that’s not enough.
It’s not enough not simply because we all know that no matter how tough you are there is always someone tougher—even Navy SEALs and MMA monsters like Georges St-Pierre know that. I would suggest that people who are that tough know that better than anyone else, because they know what they had to do to get there. It’s also not enough because I know that no matter how tough any man is, I freely admit that any woman who has been pregnant and given birth is tougher. Seriously gentlemen, please take this one on faith—we as a gender are simply not that tough (be thankful for that). Not even the biblical Abraham—who at the age of 99 circumcised himself as a sign of The Covenant—was that tough. It’s not enough because the toughness that we see and show is only part of the picture and a very incomplete one.
When we see someone take a hit and seemingly shrug it off, we see that as toughness. Think about the number of times you’ve either been playing in or watching a game and someone just gets rocked. Maybe it was a bad landing, a hard hit, another player they didn’t see coming—but it comes hard and fast, so hard and fast that we feel it even as it happens to someone else. There is that moment of hard silence before we erupt into cheers as they get back on their feet and keep playing. Those are amazing and emotionally charged moments: the enthusiasm we feel when a student, peer, friend, classmate or teammate gets back into the game and keeps playing even though we know that they’re feeling it. That is one kind of toughness, and it is both mental and physical.
Some of that is a toughness born of necessity. When you’re part of a team, you have a role to fulfill, a job to do, a function to perform and an obligation to your teammates and coaches. You keep doing what you have to do even when it hurts because that is just what you do. Not just because you have chosen to be there, but because you know that you will and can keep going until it is time to rest. You have faith that your teammates are going just as hard as you are and that your coaches and leaders are just as driven and committed as you are. If you’re not doing your best, then what’s the point? You will drive yourself as hard or harder in practice so that you’re even better when it counts in a game, and that makes it seem like it is a gift—something effortless that you were given as opposed to the prize that you fought for and earned.
That is where necessity gives way to determination and dedication. It isn’t only a question of toughness or doing what you have to do, but recognizing that this is part of something greater. Sometimes we see sparks of this as we realize that as much as we’re already giving, we can give more, we can do more, we can be more. We are asked to do something extra and just give a little more than we have already been doing, and in so doing we realize that if we can go that far then perhaps we can go even farther.
So how do you act in those moments? To what do you dedicate yourself? What limits do you have that you can or need to surpass? You don’t have to be as tough as Abraham, a Navy SEAL or a top athlete. You do need to believe that you can do great things and dedicate yourself to making them happen. Push yourself, knowing that you might fail—but if you keep pushing, you’re even more likely to achieve greater success. Make the effort, and don’t be afraid to let it show, you’ll be all the stronger for it.
Jeremy Yoskowitz is the campus rabbi and assistant director for Jewish life. His column runs every other Thursday. Send Rabbi Jeremy a message on Twitter @TheDukeRav.