I had a very challenging childhood. My biological father died of a heart attack when I was four years old and somewhere deep inside I decided that nothing is really ever totally safe, or secure. So perhaps it wasn't such a surprise, that, even though my mom remarried an amazing man who adopted me and my sister and has been my blessing of a father my entire life to this very day, some traumas just never go away.
I also had a rocky beginning when it came to fitting in and being successful at school. I quit my first pre-school because I was being bullied by kids who wouldn't let me play on the jungle gym. Then I was kicked out of my next pre-school because I was caught writing on my desk. Then I enrolled in elementary school and my parents were promptly informed by my teacher that I "failed' nap because I couldn't even sit still, let alone actually lie down for any length of time without talking. In Kindergarten my teacher was so frustrated with my incessant talking that she put scotch tape over my mouth. Bullied, kicked out of school, failed nap, scotch tape over my mouth, and then I got to FIRST GRADE.
I was at Franklin Elementary from kindergarten through 6th grade and I recall the school having an awful lot of rules: "No running in the halls," "No talking unless you were on the playground," "Students were not allowed to be tardy to class." If you violated any one of these or the other million rules at Franklin, there were monitors that roamed the halls and playground just itching for the opportunity to give any student the dreaded "monitor slip." If you got one you had to present it to your teacher and if you got more than one in one day, you were sent to the principal's office.
I somewhat embarrassingly admit that perhaps the real high point of my entire elementary school career was the fact that I, little "Stevie Reuben," held the Franklin Elementary School record for amassing the most monitor slips ever given in one day -- 23!
Every single year, every single teacher magically seemed to know MY name by the end of the very first day of school in the fall. Always. And my report cards? I remember them ALL to this very day. Why? Every single report card had the same words written by nearly every single teacher I ever had -- "Dear Mr. and Mrs. Reuben, I believe that Stevie has "a lot of potential." But, he is so easily distracted that so far he is clearly an underachiever."
Well, that was me for most of my life. At least my student life, and my student life was really a long time -- after high school, it was four years of college for a BA in Philosophy and a BA in Political Science at UC Davis, five years of graduate school to get a Masters in Hebrew Letters and become ordained as a rabbi at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, Los Angeles and New York, a year and a half to get a Master's Degree in Education from USC, an internship to get Certification in Aging and Gerontology from the University of Georgia, and two years to get a Ph.D. in Religion from Sierra University in Costa Mesa.
So what's with all those degrees? Actually, I was never that great a student, I always just got by with grades that were "good enough." Not so many "A's" not so many "C's" or God-forbid, "D's," but enough "B's" to end high school with a solid "B" average which at the time was "good enough" to get into college. Then I just kept doing "good enough" to move from one level of school to the next, set another goal and do "good enough" to move to the next level and on, and on, and on.
"Good enough" continued to be my personal theme throughout my entire academic career, and actually, throughout my professional career as well. As I grew into an adult, became a parent and a teacher, and sometimes even a mentor to others, I realized that one of the greatest lessons I have learned from the successes of my own life is that most of the time, good enough really is.
That is why I am sharing all of this in the first place. Even though I was never a really good student, and evidently was consistently an "underachiever" at least in the eyes of my teachers, somehow I figured out how at every turn, with every challenge, in every situation in which I found myself in school and ultimately in life itself, to do and to be "good enough."
I started writing parenting books in 1987, and whenever I would be lecturing to groups of parents I would often begin by pointing to myself and simply saying, "This is what a hyperactive kid looks like when he grows up -- not perfect, but good enough." The renown psychologist Bruno Bettelheim's last book before he died was called simply, A Good Enough Parent. For Bettleheim, and for me, "Good enough" is just that -- good enough.
It's foolish to burden ourselves or our kids with expectations of being perfect, acting perfect, achieving everything, never missing a shot, making every goal, winning every trophy, being the best at everything, or any number of a hundred different totally unrealistic expectations we so easily slip into for ourselves, our spouses, our partners, our children, our parents, our siblings, our teachers, our friends, and even our rabbis.
No one has a stress-free life. No one gets out of this world without loss, without pain, without sorrow, without failing at one goal or another. So stop and think about all that we do and say every year that somehow validates the idea that each and every one of us is an underachiever in some way, with some relationships, in some setting -- work, or school, or family. Because that really describes every one of us. And so what? The quality of our lives is not a function of getting an "A" on the test, or coming in first at the awards ceremony, or having the fastest car, or the biggest house, or the coolest stuff.
Everyone has failures in life. It is never our failures that define us, but rather our resilience that is the measure of our true character. I know I have experienced pain and sorrow, the death of loved ones, the grief and sorrow of learning to let go, of disappointment after disappointment and yet all of it I now see as necessary elements that ultimately helped create the remarkable life I have been privileged to live.
I was married once and divorced. Having failed in my first marriage, I remember thinking, "What kind of rabbi gets divorced? What kind of role model is that for others?" But then I met and fell in love with Didi, my wife now of some 30 years, and I realized it was my resilience that was the true role model. I was rejected by the college where I first applied and felt like a loser when my second choice university accepted me instead. And then that college sent me to study in Jerusalem for my junior year, and the experience there changed my life and the direction of my career forever. It led me directly into the most fulfilling and remarkable years of my life.
The success of our lives is never dependent on being the best, or always winning, or never making mistakes. It is never about falling down, we all do that all the time. It is always about simply getting up again, dusting ourselves off, accepting every experience as a gift to be learned from, and remembering that most of the time good enough really is.
Life is filled with blessings and curses, but the kicker is, you can never tell for sure which is which. Our job is to grow our souls deeper each year, with every experience we share, with every loss, with every pain, with every joy, with every celebration, with every sorrow, with every tear -- every one of them is part of the building blocks of our lives and who we are is the result of every experience we have ever had. What matters most is never the circumstance or experiences of our lives alone, but the meaning we choose to ascribe to those experiences.
Ultimately, I believe the most important lessons we can learn about life are that it is up to us to fill every day with gratitude, with loving, with kindness, and enough meaning to remind us each day that what we say matters, what we do matters, and who we are matters most of all.