Hero Envy and Why We Should Love Pain

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After analyzing, reading, and discussing the life of Nelson Mandela, I can’t help but feel envious. Death is something I think about frequently – questions like “What’s the point of it all?” and “What’s my purpose in all of it?” have haunted me and paved the way for my search for answers since preadolescence. Even after my investigation led me to my own backyard- Judaism- I still think about these questions all the time. There are many legitimate explanations for life’s purpose according to the Torah and I embrace them all but the explanations are more conversation-starters than the final word. 

There’s a video where Rabbi Moshe Zeldman talks about the point of life being pleasure and this article discusses how life’s purpose is spirituality. There are many, many mp3s, videos, and essays devoted to the subject but my personal favorite is the good old fashion Talmud (Eiruvin 13b) that reveals a fascinating debate between Hillel and Shammai where one school argued that it would have been better had man not been created at all and the other asserted it was indeed good that man was created. After 2 1/2 years, they compromise: It would have been better not to have been created but since man is already here, let him examine his deeds. So the whole point is self-examination.

Let’s face it- we’re all going to die- and those that won’t are already dead. The only question remains is what we’re going to make of our lives? How much of a splash? How much impact? How successful of a person in all realms of life? In the case of Mandela, he is the face of South Africa’s end to apartheid and for good reason. He fought the war and won. He rebuilt a country that embraced all colors and continues to be forever an international symbol for racial equality. He’s a hero. 

We have many heroes in history- both religious and secular- who effected dramatic changes or delivered a profound message in the lives they led. Abraham was the first monotheist, Queen Esther and Mordechai helped save the Jews in Persia from evil Haman, any one of the Ten Martyrs lived by and died for Torah. What is the common denominator for all successful people that defies when they were born in history or where or even their attitudes and beliefs? Suffering- and plenty of it. I dare you to find someone who made a noteworthy contribution to the world who hasn’t suffered deeply. Call it adversity, call it challenge, call it opportunity- whatever you call it- it amounts to pain. And like the saying goes: no pain, no gain. Pirkei Avot says it best: Lefum Tzara Agra– According to the suffering is the reward. Hey, even Batman suffered.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s most recent hit, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants, Gladwell asserts that a key to success is suffering. Suffering is the critical component a small, untrained, unprotected guy like David needed to beat a huge, armed, armored man like Goliath. Gladwell warns that difficulties, of course, can destroy a person but “desirable difficulty” is the sort that can flip what appears to be a no-win situation into a conquering of giants.

I was having coffee on Sunday when I overheard a middle-age man discussing his recent termination from his job, his slim prospects, and all the emotions that go along with it. I couldn’t help but lean in, since I empathize with anyone in the scary phase of unemployment – I know the stress and fear that surrounds it. On the other hand, I’ve discovered many positive byproducts of being stuck searching for a job including a stronger marriage, a deeper connection to God, extra consciousness to live meaningfully, gratitude for the kindness of friends and strangers, and humility that we aren’t as on-top-of-the-world as I thought we were Why or should be.

I’d love to be a hero. I’d love to go down in history for some sensational contribution and I envy Mandela’s legacy. On the other hand, my allotted challenges this year are filling my plate with purpose and my desperation is forcing me to turn towards God far more than I have before. Maybe we don’t need jail time to be heroes. We just need to face our pain and challenges with faith and our best effort.

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