EXCELLENCE AND EMPATHY
Introductory Note: Before reading this blog-post, please read my previous blog-post, entitled “Objects of My Sympathy.” It will establish the context for what you are about to read.
This is a tale about a 13 year-old girl named Rebecca. She’s a lover of animals and a person who can’t pass by a homeless person without trying to find a way to give him or her some money. She has a sweet voice, and has used it to chant Hebrew several times this year in front of our entire congregation, including on Yom Kippur. She’s a fine athlete, and an impeccable student. Most importantly, she’s very emotionally secure, so much so that she’s authorized me – her father – to tell the following story.
Last year, Rebecca was the only person in her middle school to make the county band. She made the band as a tenor sax, however, and this year, she took up the challenge of trying out for county and state band as an alto, where the competition is more fierce. The state band tryouts were scheduled for last Saturday from 10-12, the same time that she was supposed to attend her friend’s Bat Mitzvah. After we pointed out this problem to her school band teacher, she changed Rebecca’s tryout time to the - slot – which was just perfect.
The tryouts were in Howard County, MD, about 35 minutes from our house. When we arrived, we were told to go to the practice room, and there we found literally dozens of kids practicing their prepared songs. There were several alto saxes in the room, but two in particular impressed Rebecca with their skills. They didn’t just play their songs flawlessly; they had the songs memorized. They also seemed nonchalant about the whole experience; it was clear that they had been through this drill before – no doubt, with a successful outcome.
After about a half an hour of waiting and practicing, a woman came in to give the kids instructions on where they should go to play for the judges. I remember being struck by the woman saying that she hoped all the kids there would have a positive experience that morning.
Positive experience indeed. For Rebecca, it got off on a bit of a sour note when, after she performed her first set of songs, she looked down and accidentally saw one of the judge’s scorecards: she got a “10” on a scale of 1-15. Then she walked back to the practice room and awaited her second and final performance. She listened to the other two sax players who I mentioned before, and decided that she wasn’t in their league – that, presumably, explained her so-so grade in the earlier performance.
That probably wasn’t the ideal mindset to have before the second performance. But fortunately, she walked in and blitzed through some of her songs quite well. But when she got to the “fast” song that she had prepared and played reasonably well literally dozens of times, her nerves caused her to start the song too fast, and that resulted in her screwing up the part of the song that was supposed to be played most quickly.
That leads me to the key part of the story.
After Rebecca’s performance was over, she walked out of the room and saw the two afore-mentioned saxophone players waiting for their turns. Both of these young virtuosos were able clearly to hear Rebecca’s performance. And as they made eye contact with her, they each had the same expression on their face: a smirk.
They didn’t have to say anything. The smirk said it all. “Who were you kidding? When I go to Harvard, you’ll be at the state school. Deal with it. You’re out of my league. Maybe some day, when I go out to eat, you can take my order at the table.”
Rebecca was disappointed by her performance, but hardly devastated. She hadn’t counted on making the state band, and after hearing those boys in the practice room, she hardly thought she deserved to make the band over them. But she couldn’t help but notice a bit of irony.
“Last week,” she said, “the same thing happened at
“How did you react?” I asked.
“I smiled at him,” she said.
No doubt, it was a warm smile. Rebecca, you see, has internalized the importance of a seemingly irrelevant quality known as empathy. It’s a quaint notion. It doesn’t help you get into a good college. It isn’t tested on the SATs. It can’t create points on the soccer field. Nor does it assist a young musician with her tone quality or her rhythm. In short, when yentahs are bragging about their children or grandchildren and the “excellence” that they have demonstrated in their favorite field of endeavor, empathy is the last thing they have in mind.
I can think back to when my daughter was playing “Classic” level soccer – before she went “down” to recreational soccer because she missed her old friends. The single best player I’d ever seen in that league was so far above her competition that it wasn’t funny. But what I remember most about that girl was that when one of the players dropped to the ground with an injury, the best player was the only one who didn’t similarly drop to the ground in an expression of sportsmanship. No, the virtuoso played on – and scored unopposed. It was but one of several goals that she scored that day. Surely, her parents were quite proud: she did what they taught her to do. But as for me, the incident simply reminded me of the relationship between “excellence” and empathy … as if I needed the reminder.
I’ve tried to imagine the two smirkers rejoining their parents once their own performance was over. I’ve tried to imagine them describing this “crappy kid that played before me.” What I couldn’t imagine is what the parents would have said next. Something tells me they could care less if their children responded empathetically. They might – I repeat, might --have warned their kids not to visibly show a smirk, but as for taking the next step and showing a warm, heart-felt smile, that would not have been necessary. It has nothing to do with “excellence” – at least as that term is defined in our status-conscious society.
So what are the values that we’d like our children to develop in our society? Do we want them to value above all else, the need to excel – be it in an academic discipline, in an art, in a sport, or preferably, in all of the above? Or do we want them to value, above all else, the need to be warm and caring – to ensure that people can count on us for emotional support?
Theoretically, you can have both – you can be the most brilliant, richest, kindest, fastest … Blah, blah, blah. We know that’s not realistic. We know that there are always choices in life, always priorities, always tradeoffs. That’s where values come in: they separate what’s most critical from what’s merely preferable.
I told Rebecca after the incident with the state band tryouts that there were three kind of experiences in life: meaningless experiences, joyous experiences, and learning experiences. The tryouts were definitely a learning experience, and for that reason alone, I’m glad she went through it.
But what exactly did she learn? Obviously, she learned that if she wanted to be a top musician for her age, she had to practice more at home and play with the efficiency of a machine when it counts. Yet that wasn’t the most important lesson. She learned something that morning about what it means to be “excellent.” If you want to be an excellent saxophone player, or an excellent mathematician, or an excellent soccer player, or an excellent performer at any skill that yentahs value … then concentrate on your own skills and drive yourself to be the very best performer you can be. If, however, you want to be an excellent person, the kind of person that is worthy of the place we went to after the tryouts (if you can remember that far back in this story), then concentrate on your compassion.
And if you want to be both … you’ve got your work cut out for you.
As for the state band, I’m reminded of the fact that this band is run by school teachers, who work for school administrators. In my last blog-post, I discussed the kind of environment that these individuals are increasingly creating: one that is fueled by tests, tests and more tests. I wish that they could consider stories like this, when they realize the effects of the culture that is emerging in their hallowed halls. Are they trying to foster excellence in the virtuosos’ sense of that term, or in the sense more closely akin to Empathic Rationalism? If they’re not sure, they should reflect on this simple fact: if those virtuosos had responded with a smile, instead of a smirk, maybe, just maybe, Rebecca could have had the positive experience the state band wanted her to have all along. As it is, all that rotten experience accomplished is that it sent us to the Bat Mitzvah with a greater appreciation for the fact that there exist places like synagogues for people who grow tired of the rat racetrack that has become the modern schoolhouse.