I recently saw a Ted Talk by 17-year-old Sam Berns, a young man who appeared to be in his eighties. Although he has since passed on, he suffered from progeria, a disease in which one’s cells rapidly deteriorate. The disease caused Sam to appear bald, with many wrinkles, and a diminished frame. Despite his unusual physical condition, this young lad spoke with such confidence, more so than any healthy teenager – or adult – I’ve come across, before or since then. Where did this inner sense of self-worth come from?
Sam’s story resonated within me. It was Sam’s dream to play the snare drum for his high school’s band. He envisioned marching on the football field during the halftime show, performing for a stadium filled with fellow students. The fact that each drum weighed over forty pounds did not deter young Sam, who weighed only fifty pounds himself. Logistically, it could not be done, but Sam would not allow his disease to stand in his way. He and his family worked with an engineer to design a harness and snare drum that weighed only six pounds total. With much practice and dedication, he did in fact march onto his high school’s football field, proudly playing front and center during the halftime show. It was an epic moment for Sam.
This simple act of playing the drums while dealing with progeria was a major achievement, in and of itself. When we accomplish difficult tasks, our sense of self-confidence skyrockets. Although initially I did not give much credence to playing in a marching band as sufficient to heighten Sam’s self-worth, it was this overcoming this relatively minor obstacle that boosted his self-esteem in a very significant way.
No one gets a medal for simply walking across a room – unless, of course, they are a victim of polio, who struggles through every step. Overcoming individual challenges and accomplishing difficult tasks is the gateway to inner confidence.
In Miriam Adahan’s book, Teaching Your Child to Care, she shares wise words for an instantaneous confidence boost. When one is sitting on the couch and faces a choice between getting up to accomplish a task that he has been pushing off or continuing to sit, that person should stand up to do that task. It might be the last thing he feels like doing, but as Nike says, “Just do it.” The act of doing is so simple, but very effective in raising our self-respect, in the moment and beyond. Taking the easy way out can feel more comfortable momentarily, but it robs us of feeling uplifted long-term.
That kind of thinking works when it comes to simple choices like “should I get off the couch,” but what if the choice is a real difficulty? What if the challenge is just too hard?
I want to let you in on a secret. The voice inside your head that says, “I can’t,” is a liar.
The following quote inspired me tremendously during many of my personal challenges:
“Believe in yourself, and all that you are. Know that there is something inside yourself greater than any obstacle.”
That “something” inside is our soul, and it is strong enough to break any physical barrier. Our neshamah, our G-dly soul, is not made from wind, dust, or tiny particles, but rather is offered to us by G-d Himself, as we learn, “Hashem blew into Adam the breath of life.” (Genesis 2:7)
Do me a favor as you are reading this: take a deep breath, and exhale. When we do so, we are blowing out air that was once inside our body. The Torah uses the terminology of “blowing” because in essence, G-d blew into us something from Himself. We each have a portion of G-d inside: infinite power and infinite wisdom. Something untouchable.
This may help us on a spiritual level, but in practical application, tapping into this inner power requires tremendous self-discipline. Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller from Neve Yerushalayim defines “strength” as finding out what you deeply desire, and saying no to things that are less important than that. It is not about choosing between something you want versus something you do not want, but rather choosing between two very enticing options.
Rebbetzin Heller shared the example of setting a weight loss goal. Of course, as soon as one sets such a goal, she is immediately tempted with cakes, cookies, and donuts galore. Having strength, or self-discipline, is about saying no, because what you are getting in exchange for rejecting something appealing is worth more in the long run. In this case, we want the temporary satisfaction of the donut, but the weight loss is worth more.
Studies conducted at the University of Pennsylvania have shown that the number one indicator of success in college students is not IQ, or even aptitude. Rather, it is a strong work ethic and the ability to delay immediate gratification. Imagine, a student is trying to get an A in school. This requires buckling down and studying long hours, perhaps late into the night. Simultaneously, however, the student has a conflicting desire to promote his social life by going out with friends and partying. Learning to say no to what a student temporarily wants in the moment allows for him to achieve what he really wants, which is success in school.
Many years ago, my friend’s father, John, was addicted to cigarettes. Due to his failing health, a doctor ordered him to stop. He made a resolution to follow through, and had been sticking to it for weeks. At a social gathering, John’s friend pulled out a cigarette for himself and offered one to him. John stared longingly at the cigarette, seeing his friend offer it to him in slow motion. He was tempted, and even began reaching for it. Yet, what he really wanted, his deepest desire, was to be healthy for himself and his family. He knew he needed to kick the habit, so he pulled his hand away and declined. That is strength! This self-discipline is not something physical, for he did not stop himself by physically holding his own arm down. Rather, he reached inside himself and overcame a powerful temptation. Today, he is happily cigarette and disease-free.
There is a difference between authentic strength and self-discipline and the illusion of such things. The illusion applies when we say to ourselves, “I can do it on my own.” Real self-discipline is when we realize that our strength is not rooted in our own abilities, but rather in recognizing that we cannot change or overcome trials without a higher power’s involvement. That is where recognition that Hashem has placed Himself inside us all comes into play, on a practical level. In Parshas Mikeitz, Pharaoh summons Yosef to tell him that he heard that Yosef has the ability to interpret dreams. Yosef immediately responds (in Bereishis 41:16) that in actuality it is G-d that is the Master Interpreter speaking through the medium of Yosef. What we learn from Yosef’s humble response is that even when we push ourselves to “Just do it,” we must realize where our ultimate strength is coming from: namely, G-d Himself.
Challenges are difficult. Whether simply getting off the couch, beating all odds to play a snare drum, overcoming an addiction, or reaching a life goal, the strength we need is within us all, ready to be summoned, all with Divine Help.
Just do it.