My five-year-old grandson Yehuda, upon returning from a day at camp, was asked perfunctorily: “How was camp today?” To which he responded: “Good enough.”
He is wiser than most adults.
One of the secrets to a happy life is the recognition and appreciation of things that are “good enough,” and one of the primary curses that plague man, families, communities, countries and much of civilization is the cynical dismissal of things that are not “good enough” only because they are not “perfect” – a literal fulfillment of Voltaire’s dictum that “the perfect is the enemy of the good.”
A dominant part of our culture is the negative preoccupation with the particulars that prevent the good from being the perfect. Though this certainly exists in politics, even more important is the personal dimension of the “good enough” mandate.
How many marriages disintegrate because one spouse decides to fixate on what is missing (however small) rather than value what is present? A failure to be grateful for what is “good enough” is a prime cause of the mid-life crisis. Little do people realize how good they had it until they squander it – until they discover that what looks enticing at a distance has the same (or worse) flaws up close.
Again, to quote Voltaire (that Jew-hater): “Paradise on earth is where I am.” The immodesty aside, the kernel of truth is the recognition that each person creates his own ideal state – in the here and now, in his present location, together with his loved ones and community. To dream of greener pastures elsewhere is often to overlook the treasure that is before your eyes.
Children often suffer from parents’ inflated expectations for them or attempt by parents to re-live their own lives vicariously, and to everyone’s detriment. Some children never recover and foolishly choose to live their lives in anger, seeking vengeance against their parents through destructive, anti-social acts (ironically confirming their parents’ low opinion of them).
Others take a different route; Winston Churchill, as a young adult, was told by his father that he had been a “constant disappointment” in every aspect of his life. Lord Randolph Churchill died relatively young, and Churchill was intent on proving his father – whom he admired – wrong. He did, but Churchill’s approach is probably less common among today’s youth.
Children are also allowed to be “good enough,” to make their own mistakes and grow from them. Perfection is impossible, so why be distressed by slight imperfections?
Life becomes more enjoyable when we embrace the “good enough” model. Vacations are more pleasurable, meals in restaurants taste better, and even the rabbi’s sermons become more than tolerable. The search for the negative – what he didn’t say, what wasn’t served to perfection, the flaw in every individual – is debilitating.
I’ve noticed how even the most favorable book reviews have to throw in a criticism – font too small, index not detailed enough, the wrong year was cited for a certain event – as if to say, “it’s a great book, but don’t for a moment think it is perfect. This is how it is not perfect.” Well, no one assumes that anything is perfect, and all the nitpicking does is reflect poorly on the reviewer (and/or demonstrate that he actually read the book).
Many of the critics of the extravagant Daf Yomi siyum in New Jersey were similarly afflicted, falling over themselves in harping on this speaker, that non-speaker or non-invitee – and completely overlooking the essence: a celebration of Torah study for all Jews by almost 100,000 Jews gathered in one setting, an affirmation about what is most precious in Jewish life and what makes us unique. Of course, no commemoration could satisfy everyone or fully satisfy anyone, but what it was is far more noteworthy than what it lacked. That is what should have been reported and emphasized, if we haven’t grown too accustomed to reveling in the blemishes.
Some might argue that the acceptance of “good enough” is tantamount to enshrining mediocrity as a desideratum in life. Far from it. Mediocrity is complacency with failure, while the life properly lived always involves striving for greater perfection, for constant improvement even if perfection will never be achieved. The real difference between the virtue of “good enough” and the vice of mediocrity is how we handle the intermediate stage. The former appreciates the current situation, and even if he hopes to improve it, he does not rail against the deficiencies even if they are not rectified. He has a concept of the “perfect,” as the standard, but is grateful for the reality he has now. Conversely, the mediocre does not idealize the perfect, and is content with the commonplace; he sees no need to push himself, and perhaps even discounts the value of success.
Worse than both is the person who cannot appreciate what he has – what he has been granted – because he is consumed by what he doesn’t have or what others have. For him, nothing is ever “good enough,” and that unhappiness is a heavy burden that is mostly borne by those closest to him.
Sometimes things are bad and unacceptable and require transformation. But usually things are “good enough” and might benefit from tinkering at the edges. The tinkering can improve our lives but should not detract from the fundamental goodness (and acceptability) of our blessings.
The Creator looked at His world as active creation ended, and pronounced it not perfect – but “very good” (Breisheet1:31). It certainly was good enough – for man to be challenged to continue G-d’s work and perfect the world, generation after generation.
That should be our paradigm for life as well. The realization that what is “good enough” is actually “very good” indeed makes for happier people and more fulfilling lives, with individuals, families, homes and communities in which the byword is gratitude for all our blessings.
Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is the spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, New Jersey. He is a member of the New York and Federal Bars and is a trustee of the RCA on the Board of the Beth Din of America, as well as a dayan on the Beth Din itself. He also is a member of the Rabbinical Alliance of America.