Returning from a successful run on the treadmill last week, I contemplated how much better I felt than when I dragged myself to the gym, after an early morning minyan. The most obvious reason was that I had made it there at all. Just showing up at the gym is its own triumph. The yetzer possesses an incredible number of ways to talk one out of subjecting oneself to pain.
No doubt the endorphins released by vigorous exercise also played a large role. There are few better guaranteed mood enhancers than exercise.
But the best thing about the gym, I suspect, is the feeling it gives one of growing. Whether one runs faster or farther or just stays the same while growing steadily older, there is measurable improvement.
Every run includes at least a half dozen conversations in one's head, in which any number of strong reasons are presented why right now would be a good time to stop. One experiences the truth of Rav Dessler's statement that ever since the Sin of Adam the yetzer hara speaks from inside us – "I want." When the yetzer hatov speaking from outside us – "You should" – wins one of those arguments, there is a real sense of accomplishment.
What I derived from my morning run was the close connection between happiness and personal growth. Human beings are the only ones of Hashem's creations whose actions are not determined by instincts common to every member of the species. Only we can contemplate the future and set individual goals for ourselves; only we can decide to forego immediate pleasure in pursuit of a long-range goal.
Hashem has planted in each of us a need to grow. That growth depends on overcoming our weaknesses, whether physical, emotional, or intellectual. The attraction of the gym is that it provides us with constant objective measures of improvement.
Recognition that human beings are hard-wired to seek growth has important implications for our role as parents. Most of us devote our parenting energies to shielding our children from pain and protecting them from experiencing failure. That desire to protect our children from failure has fueled the self-esteem movement of the last thirty years. My friend Rabbi Avraham Birnbaum wrote recently in Yated Ne'eman about the trend in our educational institutions to give every child not less than an A minus on their report card, regardless of either achievement or effort.
Instead of protecting our children from setbacks, our energies would be better spent on helping them develop the tools to overcome those setbacks and not give up in the face of adversity. Instead of inundating them in praise – which they, in any event, come to distrust when it is not linked to tangible effort or achievement – we have to teach them how to set goals and work towards attaining them. Let them experience the pleasure that comes from overcoming obstacles, both internal and external, while reminding them that growth is only measured in relationship to themselves and what they need to overcome, not in relationship to anyone else.
In short, our task as parents is to provide them with opportunities to experience the truth of Chazal's statement: l'fum tzaara agra – according to the pain is the reward. As Rabbi Noah Weinberg used to say, the idea that the opposite of pleasure is pain is a product of Western decadence: Pain is often the precondition for true pleasure. He felt it important to speak frequently about all his many failures prior to founding Aish HaTorah.
WHEN I PRESENTED my gym-based insight about the innate human need to grow to my morning chavrusah, he entered an important caveat: Don't confuse the moshol with the nimshal. The attraction of the gym is that it provides concrete, objective measures of growth. But such objective feedback is often not available in the most important areas of our striving. It is not easy, for instance, for a yeshiva bochur to measure his growth in learning b'iyun (in-depth). There may be indicators of growth – e.g., when one constantly meets "good friends," in the form of Rishonim and Achronim, as one plumbs the depths of a sugya – but progress remains notoriously hard to quantify.
Faster-paced bekius learning offers more concrete measuring sticks in terms of the number of dapim (pages) covered. And it is easier to formulate tests of students' command of the material in bekius learning. Those tangible measures of progress in bekius learning attract many to focus their energies there. I can still remember my rosh yeshiva warning me when I went off to learn the blatt, with regular tests, in the afternoon at Mirrer Yeshiva, "You'll find bekius so enjoyable that you won't be able to get back into iyun."
Yet it is a tragic mistake to focus our energies in life based on the ready availability of objective feedback. Some areas are intrinsically more worthy of our striving than others. Not all improvement is equal. Otherwise, we would be well-advised to spend every available moment in the gym, where feedback is both objective and instantaneous.
Middos development, for instance, is not easily quantified. Situations like that described by the Rambam in Hilchos Teshuva, where one finds oneself in exactly the same situation in which one failed in the past, do not occur every day. Yet the difficulty of measuring our development in middos does not detract one iota from the necessity of constantly striving to improve.
The perfection of our middos is ultimate goal of our lives. The more that we succeed in emulating the middos of HaKadosh Baruch Hu – just as He is gracious and merciful so must you be gracious and merciful – the more we are capable of bonding to Him, and the greater connection we will experience to Him in the World to Come. But we will only know our final score on the test when we reach the World of Truth.
From the gym we gain a sense of the close connection between our personal growth and our joy in living. Nowhere else do we so readily experience the pleasure of carrying on to reach a goal when part of our brain is screaming, "Quit." But once the lessons have been learned (and the endorphins released), it is time to apply them to more important goals than running faster or longer.