Both Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka have put a spotlight on mental health issues that athletes face. Simone Biles, a four-time Olympic champion, withdrew from team competitions and individual competitions in the Olympics not because of physical injury, but because of issues of mental health. Her psychological state put her at significant risk. Naomi Osaka, the Olympic torchbearer in these Games, was eliminated early on in the competition and it is believed by many that her recent mental health break from the sport likely contributed to her subpar performance at the Games.
The Olympics are all about results – about winning medals, preferably gold medals, for your country. However, watching athletes of the caliber of Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka fail to meet the goals they had set for themselves at the Games has caused many of us to rethink some of our assumptions about talent, achievement, and success. These recent events may have sensitized us to the enormous pressure that these athletes feel to succeed, and have shown us that even for these GOATs, results can play second fiddle to one’s mental health. These Olympics have laid bare the fact that sometimes we can practice and practice and at the end of the day, the results will not be there, which can be so disheartening.
And we go through this struggle in our daily lives all the time. We strive for success. We strive to achieve goals that make us unique. We want to be recognized for our accomplishments, and yet, sometimes, we are not satisfied with our results. And even if we achieve, then we are typically unsatisfied. We want to achieve more and more and then the question becomes, should we give up the pursuit of success if at the end of the day, we will never be satisfied?
Rav Aharon Lichtenstein wrote an article entitled, “Mediocre Teshuva and the Teshuva of the Mediocre”. In this article, he explained that the Torah tells us that the mitzvah of teshuva, of repentance, is “lo bashamayim he” – is not in Heaven, meaning that it is attainable. At the same time, our Sages state in Masechet Eruvin 55a, that even if the teshuva was in Heaven, we must still go to the necessary lengths to achieve it. What this means is that the effort to achieve greatness must be extraordinary even if the results are not and that is all that God expects of us. That is what Rav Lichtenstein means when he distinguishes between mediocre teshuva and the teshuva of the mediocre. Our efforts to do teshuva must be excellent even if we are mediocre, because we can only control our effort and sometimes the result is beyond our control.
Put a different way, Rav Shagar once compared two different statements that the Rambam made regarding the tension of humility and self-esteem. In the first chapter of Hilchot De’ot, the Rambam refers to someone who walks along the middle path with respect to humility as a chacham, a wise person, and in the second chapter, he states that we should be exceedingly humble. Rav Shagar explained that, vis-à-vis society, we should walk along the middle path of wisdom acting with humility, with full knowledge of our worth and without excessive meekness. However, vis-à-vis God, we should act with extreme meekness. According to Rav Shagar, I am a something, and I am aware of my self-worth, when I evaluate my place in society, but I am nothing when I evaluate myself vis-à-vis God.
On the one hand, when we recognize our uniqueness and special God-given talents in our society, we understand that we have a responsibility to use those talents. On the other hand, when we realize that we are nothing compared to God, we understand that the actual results of our efforts are beyond our control. We have limitations to that which we can do. We have so much potential, and there are so many ways that we can exert our best efforts to achieve our goals. But ultimately, the results are in the hands of God. This dialectic of feelings of self-worth vis-à-vis others but complete negation vis-à-vis God means that we value the importance of striving for success, but we downplay the importance of actual success. We value the effort so much more than the result.
We live in a world when we need to focus on results. We need to have goals to help guide us to use our strengths in a productive manner. However, both our holy tradition and recent events at the Olympics teach us that ultimately, living a life of striving for excellence is most important even if we don’t achieve our desired results. At the end of the day, the effort is in our hands and the outcome is up to God.