Forrest Gump was right. Life is full of surprises. But the surprises aren’t always as conspicuous as they were in the movie. You might wake up in the morning and feel like the life was sucked out of you. For many people a grumpy morning can lead to a few bad days. For some, it might be the onset of depression. Recently I’ve been feeling very grouchy. This slump was building and I just couldn’t kick it. Because I do hisbodedus often, I had enough self-awareness to know that something was bugging me, but I was too engulfed in my own negative thinking and all the introspection wasn’t helping me. I’ve been trying to figure out what’s making me so irritable, but even with all the alone time I couldn’t crack the code. Thankfully I had the wherewithal to pray for help, and then help came in an unexpected way.
A few days ago I thought of re-reading one of Rebbe Nachman’s great stories called The Sophisticate and the Simpleton. I finally picked it up again today. If you havent read this tale yet, I recommend you do. (Click here). It’s actually one of the Rebbe’s only stories that can also be understood straightforwardly. In short, the story tells of two childhood friends. One of them was very simple, limited in his education and abilities, while his friend, an intellectual and philosopher, was always looking to improve his situation with more education and training. The simpleton never feels he’s lacking and is always joyous, but his counterpart is perpetually miserable from his insatiable desire to increase his status. As it turns out the simpleton (like Forrest Gump) becomes very successful while the sophisticate, once a wealthy and distinguished craftsmen, loses everything in his quest to prove his shrewdness.
In reading about the simpleton’s innocence, I started to let go of my stubbornness to be the best. In thinking of his plainness, I was more forgiving of myself. I started to allow myself the space to be imperfect, easing the constant demands I place upon myself. When I read about the unfortunate sophisticate, I identified with his unrelenting drive to succeed and improve his situation, but I understood the endlessness and emptiness that more worldliness and overthinking brings with it.
I think what struck me the deepest was the following contrast: When the simpleton, a shoemaker by trade, would finish making a shoe, it was usually crooked. But he derived so much enjoyment from it that he would praise his handiwork saying, “My wife, what a beautiful, wonderful shoe this is”. Sometimes she would answer him asking, if it’s really so great, then why do other shoemakers get three coins for a shoe and you only get a coin and a half? He would answer her, “Why should I care about that? That’s his work and this is my work. Why must we speak about others”? From this we see the tremendous self-confidence of the simpleton. He believed in himself. He was totally unconcerned if other people did a better job than him. It’s precisely this belief in himself that keeps him from sophistication. He is satisfied with the way he sees things, regardless of what his colleagues achieve. The sophisticate, on the other hand, was exactly the opposite. After he became an accomplished physician, craftsman and philosopher, he decided to marry. “But he said to himself, ‘If I marry a woman here, who will know what I have accomplished? I must return home. Then they will see…[that] I left as a young lad, and now I have attained such greatness'”. Even though he had become so great, he still needed other people’s approval. In this line the Rebbe exposes the sophisticate’s deep insecurity. We’re left to assume that, to a large extent, his motivation for success was his lack of faith in himself.
Rebbe Nachman encouraged his followers to serve Hashem with utter simplicity. In Pesach 9, Reb Nosson develops this theme and says that if a person becomes depressed because others are better than him, that isn’t humility but arrogance. He feels that it’s beneath his dignity to serve Hashem when he is so far from Him, while others are so near. Instead, we must emulate our patriarch Abraham, of whom it is written “Abraham was one” (Ezekiel 33). The Rebbe explains this to mean that he acted as if there was no one else in the world. Reb Nosson relates this concept to the counting of the Omer. The verse says, “וספרתם לכם, you must count for yourself”. No one can count for you. The Omer represents the spiritual progress that our people made when going from Egyptian slavery to the revelation at Sinai. Every person needs to make his own count, without paying any attention to his neighbor’s progress.
Nobody likes to admit that they compare themselves to others, because when we think about it, it’s a pretty shallow thing to do. But besides the comparisons we make, we over-complicate everything. We often are our own worst enemies with how we demand nothing less than perfection from ourselves. If nothing else, this type of perfectionism cheats us out of the joy in performing mitzvos. Just like the simpleton had joy from his triangular-looking shoe, we need to know that if Hashem has even some pleasure from our imperfect work, then it’s better than any treasure and worth a life time of devotion.