One of the great scourges of the human psyche, is that most of us spend our lives comparing ourselves to others. As a child I remember everything I did was either “good” or “bad” in my own eyes, in relation to how the same thing was done by someone else. Take sports, for example. I grew up feeling that I had no athletic ability and was basically a klutz when it came to playing baseball or football or whatever sport was popular at the time. I felt that way because the kids I played with always seemed better than me at every game we played. In retrospect, the biggest problem I had as an athlete was simply my size, and by the time I became an adult and my height caught up with everyone else, I suddenly found myself playing every sport pretty well. But the feelings of inadequacy in sports have never gone away.
Until late in high school I was always the smallest kid in my class. If you ever looked at one of the class pictures that I took in elementary school, I would be the easiest one to find. All our class pictures were lined up by height, so there I was always standing at the very end of the picture. The result was a warped self-image of myself as short and small, and to this day I am always surprised when I notice that I am taller than someone else.
The result of my negative comparison with others pervaded much of my perceptions of my abilities in other areas as well. Not only did I judge my height by those who were taller, I would judge my intelligence by those who were “smarter,” my looks by those who were better looking, and on and on. And I know my experience isn’t unique. Most of us are overly critical of our own abilities, talents and competencies, for we tend to judge ourselves by standards based on those who are the best at whatever category we are judging.
In my own case it was only after years of studying drums and percussion and suddenly finding myself playing professionally (when my drum teacher sent me as a substitute for himself one New Year’s eve) that I felt there was something I could actually do well. Playing drums as a teenager in professional bands with adults who were much older than I, including becoming Principal Percussionist of the Sacramento Symphony at age 17 transformed my sense of self-worth profoundly.
And yet, even as I write these words I realize how it wasn’t my personal competence alone that made me feel good and valuable, it was also the realization that the other kids in high school were not good enough to be professionals. So once again, “good” or “bad,” was as much a product of “better” or “worse” than any seemingly objective criteria of value. And so it is for most of us in life. We struggle forever to feel fulfilled by enjoying who we are and what we have without the need to keep up with the family next door, to compare our lot to theirs, to see whose car is newer, whose home is bigger or whose income larger
It is this same question that is raised by the Torah portion we read this week in the famous story of Noah and the flood. God decides that the world has become so filled with violence and evil that all human beings must be destroyed. OF course we have all read the story, so we know that God chooses Noah from among all the people on earth to repopulate the planet with his family and to take samples of all the animals into his ark so that all the species on earth can be saved as well.
What we may not notice, is that the very beginning of this week’s portion describes Noah as righteous “in his generation.” So the rabbis comment that Noah was really only “righteous” by comparison to how bad every one else was at the time. If Noah had lived in another time he probably wouldn’t have been considered so special, but because it was in his generation when everyone all around him was so bad, his otherwise ordinary behavior stood out like a beacon of light in the darkest of nights.
This week’s portion reminds me that life, and values and standards of behavior and even our ideals aren’t always clean, and neat and simple and precise and obvious. Sometimes the best we can do is to recognize that life is messy, that ethical decisions are difficult and unclear and often vague. Sometimes the best we can do is simply stand our ground on one decision, on one value that we do feel passionate about, and use that as our personal measure of self-worth regardless of the opinions of others.
Maybe the best we can do is to recognize that we don’t have to have the leadership talent of Moses, the spiritual passion of Abraham or the intellectual brilliance of Maimonides. Our job is to be like Noah – to do our best to be righteous for our own time, in our own neighborhood, with our own jobs and our own challenges. Be like Noah this week. Live in the real world of your struggles and pains, your successes and joys and do the best you can to do the best you can. For Noah it was good enough to save the world of the future. Perhaps it will be good enough for us as well.