The Lowering of Expectations

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01 Nov 2006

The man who was my business guru once impressed me with the following philosophy, “Learn not to expect anything from anybody else, that way you’ll never be disappointed.” By this he meant, don’t rely on others to rise to the occasion.

But he never meant, lower your own expectations about yourself. This is why I adopted him as a mentor. He always had the highest expectations of himself. And he pushed himself hard in that direction. “It’s better to expect the best out of your own self and fail,” he once reminded me, “than to expect less and be mediocre. Mediocrity is like a slow-growing cancer of the spirit. If you only reach for mediocrity, kiddo, then mediocrity is the only place you’ll ever reach. In other words…If you think you can’t. Then, probably…you won’t.”

So, when I decided to start playing the flute again (and I haven’t touched once since the age of 10), I decided to practice at it… as if I could one day play in Israel’s symphony orchestra. Which, at this point in my life, is an absolute absurdity. I’m already popping those little white pills in the morning for arthritis.

But savlanut (patience), savlanut, as we say in the Holy Land. If you are willing to have a little patience, and if you are willing to believe miraculous things about yourself, you are going to be capable of…the most miraculous things.

Which reminds me about the grocery store in Beit HaKerem. I’ve become quite a regular there now. They all seem to recognize me when I walk in. The guy selling flowers out in front nods in my direction, the security guard waves me through the door without a thought, the fellow behind the meat counter already knows which cut I need for making cholent, the man in the produce aisle actually smiles and points to whatever he thinks is the best selection. And the women at the check-out counters all know I don’t have a “car-tees”, I don’t want the “boh-lim”, and I prefer that my bank card charges get put through “rah-geel.” So tov (good), todah (thank you) and chaval al ha-z’man (can’t waste time). And no, I am never interested in any of the weekly specials.

The store is always bursting to the seams with customers. The amount of time it takes to wait in the checkout lane and pay usually exceeds the time it takes to get there, shop and get back home. There is an “express” lane, ha ha, but enter at your own risk and so I don’t. However, and this I didn’t understand for the longest time, the checkout lane on the far right is practically empty whenever I’m there. I bring my own little green- checkered agalah, although technically it’s not allowed inside the store, and since I decide to chance it in the aisle on the far right, I’m done in a flash, la-bree-yut (to health)! So what’s the problem here?

But I don’t understand the problem until I stop using my little green “illegal” agalah (cart) and start splurging five shekels for the regular-sized, mandatory grocery carts that are parked and chained right outside the front door of the store. The long and short of it is this: If you happen to be using the regular grocery cart, forget about the checkout lane on the far right. It’s too close to the wall and the cart simply won’t fit through there. B’emet (Honest). But I don’t discover this important fact of life until it is too late. I push and shove the cart. I angle it this way and that. Finally I get fed up and give it a sharp kick out of sheer exasperation. What can I do? So I decide to lower my expectations and move to the end of an infinitely long line in a different checkout lane.

But an older (and wiser) woman, who was in front of me to begin with, will not permit my lack of enthusiasm for the far right. She will not tolerate failure of any sort from me, even though we are complete strangers. “Savlanut, savlanut,” is all she says, directing me back into position, and with a few deft maneuvers that even an Israeli tank commander would admire, she shows me how to get the cart through the checkout isle. I want to thank her in an eloquent way, but before I can begin she surprises me by lecturing me in English.

“In this country, we do not lower our expectations; we expect the impossible, we expect the miraculous. And this is how we succeed.”

I take a good hard look at the grocery cart and consider the idea that I am, after all, living in an impossibly miraculous period of Jewish history. I bear witness to the existence of a Jewish state, a phoenix that rose from the ashes of places like Auschwitz. And despite the ashes of several wars and intifadas thereafter, my nation is still alive and kicking like crazy. Expecting the impossible, expecting the miraculous, and this is what they thrive on.

Reflecting back, I remember that my business mentor was a son of holocaust survivors, that he’s a Sabra who spent his childhood in Israel, and it was only much later that his family transplanted themselves to the United States. So of course he understood the secret of the collective Jewish soul. If you only reach for mediocrity, then mediocrity is all you’ll ever reach. If you think you can’t, then you probably won’t. And if you lower your expectations, then “low” will only be as high as you’ll ever go. Instead, we must continue to expect the impossible, we must always expect the miraculous, we must forever expect the world out of ourselves. And like those date palms that bloom with the fruit of improbability in our deserts…we will doubtless find the capacity to succeed.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.