As the cryptic title implies, there is a delicate tightrope which we each must walk when balancing our personal strengths and assets with our challenges. On the one side of the rope is the terrible abyss of despair. Despair is the assumption that I do not have the skills nor the strength to confront the challenges of my life. They are greater than I am. That side of the abyss is associated with depression or, more commonly, endless complaining and a vague sense of irritation at the unfairness of the world whose challenges rest on my inadequate shoulders. Someone needs to lift the load for me. Even prayers, when they are offered (and often folks who have fallen on this side of the tightrope do not engage in genuine prayer), become a pathetic pleading co-mingled with angry accusations at the One Who has singled me out for challenges that are beyond my ability.
On the other side of the tightrope are those who are so convinced of their personal strength and skills that they need not apply themselves to the challenges of life. The challenges will simply fall away as I carry on with my endless potency. I need not give them any thought and I certainly do not need to invent any challenges in my state of well-being!. And while I may not carry this all the way to imagine that I am invincible, I need not address the process of overcoming challenges with any more attention than most healthy people give to their digestion. It just happens as I breeze along ‘doing my thing.’
The one side of the tightrope leads to paralyzing self-consciousness and the other, a lack of purpose and mission owing to a lack of regard and respect for the formidable tasks that are before each of us. In their extreme forms they lead to depression or mania. As Victor Frankl has pointed out, depression is the sense that life’s tasks are bigger than I am, while mania is the sense that I am far bigger than life’s tasks. But even without looking at the extremes, failure to properly regard one’s strengths and one’s challenges will lead to a tumble from the tightrope.
The trick, if it can be referred to as such, is an internal concept of fit. Fit implies that the resources and the challenges are in sync. An inventory of resources will yield a discovery of personal challenges and an inventory of challenges will yield a discovery of personal strengths. Let us imagine, for a moment, that I discover that I have a certain ability or strength. Perhaps it is wealth or prowess or intellect, physical agility or creative juices, deep compassion or a sense of orderliness. The list, with the unique combinations of skills both gifted and acquired, is as varied as there are people in the world. (But let’s leave the whole world for a moment and focus on one person, oneself. It is far too easy to pass this work on to someone else by noticing the fit between their strengths and their challenges. ‘C’mon – you can do it!’ alternates with ‘you poor thing’ and no growth happens.) Knowing that I have been given (or have acquired) a strength or gift means that I am summoned to put that asset to work. An asset demands a challenge. Just as one must keep a balance between what he eats and the activity of his lifestyle, so must we keep a balance between our assets and our challenges. To have an asset is to be called by a challenge. Asset without challenge is spiritual fat or lethergy.
The converse is also the case. Challenges summon us to review our assets. That does not imply that challenges can be overcome. As Logotherapists we have come to learn that the asset which some challenges summon is the ability to accept and bow our head before the Righteous Judge. However it is fair to say that every challenge is a call to revisit a resource. When a person feels challenged, that is the time to recall his resources. When he feels strong, it is the time to stretch the muscles and build resources. Every instance of life, each meeting, each page of study, calls on us to sense our resources and to stretch them. Without recalling our resources we are hopeless and without regarding the challenge we fail to stretch.
It has been said, correctly, that the place for Mussar and introspection must begin from an inventory of personal and trait assets. That triggers a meaningful course of personal growth. Others may start from the challenge at hand and the road leads back to resources. After all, imagine someone who is facing a business difficulty who does not first think of the resources available to address the difficulty?! It is natural to think this way when facing a challenge.
Unless, of course, one has forgotten about the tightrope.
Beautifully written piece. I would add that as we build our spiritual muscles we are given challenges to match in ever growing stretches. While this awareness might lead to a reluctance to stretch, on the assumption that if I just stay put I will be free of challenge, we can remember that WHAT we get as a challenge is not our choice; our choice is only whether or not to SERVE and whether or not to TAKE UP the challenge.
Excellent point! You raise a point about what we might refer to as ‘spirtual cowardice.’ This is the equivalent in a gym of someone not building his muscles for fear that he will then be called upon to lift yet more weight. The ‘leave me alone’ orientation towards spiritual growth ties in very closely to our relationship of trust and love with Hashem. That is, do I feel that those who grow come closer to Hashem and are more trustworthy in His service, or the feeling that those who grow get their heads chopped off… This requires exploration, and I’m grateful for your bringing it up.
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