Perform a quick search of “motivational quotes” on Google and you will be greeted with a large sample of internet wisdom. Like these:
“Dreams don’t work unless you do.”
“Nothing is impossible – the word itself says, ‘I’m possible.”
With a little more effort — some exploration on YouTube, Facebook, and other media sites — it soon becomes evident that we associate words like “motivation,” “dedication,” and “persistence,” with great esteem. Such aims have become the currency of success in the 21st century, analogous to the silver spoon of our time.
Motivation has even metamorphosed into its own industry. Self-help books, for example, swarm bookstores and cyberspace alike. Life coaches, “gurus,” or even personal consultants, make their living by offering us their alternative to the malaise of ordinary, everyday life.
Self-help materials tantalize us with an optimistic allure of “change.” A fit, successful, attractive, or otherwise remarkable personality seems to talk directly to you, the consumer. “I’ve been there,” they’ll say. “Let me teach you how to build the motivation to get what you want in life. I will show you the other side.”
A few novels, online courses, and social media subscriptions later, the consumer is told that if they can muster sufficient inspirational energy, enough of a reason to push through obstacles, or if the cost of stagnation is made simply too high, then, we can be assured, motivation is sure to follow.
In my opinion, this view is faulty because it is both unsustainable and unrealistic. It is a pathway to overexertion and burnout — not a more productive and meaningful life. Think about how busy your gym might be during the first few weeks of the year — and compare that with the crowds in March or April.
Recently, I have come across what I believe is a superior and more effective alternative; one that is apt to foster real personal and character growth.The idea itself originates from a rather unlikely source – at least where one wouldn’t expect any relevance to our 21st century notion of “motivation.”
Upon examining the Ten Commandments — the Decalogue — the perennial stone tables with Judaism’s most fundamental principles and precepts engraved in them, there is one commandment which is somewhat of an anomaly.
The fourth commandment instructs each individual to “honor their father and mother.” Unlike other commandments, such as “Do not say My Name in vain,” or “treat the Sabbath as holy,” or simply the other prohibitions of murder and kidnapping, the instruction of kibbud av v’em — that of honoring one’s parents — is much less concrete, and rather undefined in comparison.
For instance, what does it mean to honor one’s parents? In practice, how does one do it? And, what are the requirements of the mitzvah — the commandment — to do so? These questions, indeed, have considerably more obvious answers when seen through the lens of the other commandments.
In his essay titled “Kibbud u’Mora: The Honor and Fear of Parents,” from the book Family Redeemed, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the great Jewish thinker and Talmudist, addresses these points by formulating the Jewish legal and halachic theory behind the fourth commandment.
In his writings, Rav Soloveitchik makes a profound conceptual distinction between what he characterizes as objective action and subjective experience. Ultimately, these, he says, are the two indispensable, yet complementary components of religious living.
In the case of the commandment of kibbud av v’em, as well as for other laws in Judaism, both components are at play.
Based on the letter of the law, Rav Soloveitchik says that the kibbud av v’em obligation can be fulfilled by our actions and outward deeds alone. From this halachic perspective, observing the prescribed standards of conduct is sufficient to discharge the obligation to honor one’s parents.
For example, Maimonides lists providing one’s parents with food and clothing as primary ways of fulfilling the practical obligation of kibbud av v’em, Moreover, it is also forbidden to sit in one’s parents’ seats or call them by their first names.
In this sense, the halacha is taking a rather neutral stance toward the inner attitude that a child actually feels toward his or her parents while honoring them. Judaism is more concerned, from a purely legal standpoint, with the actionable component rather than the motivational component of the mitzvah.
Nevertheless, despite the halachic salience of the practical prescriptions governing one’s conduct toward their parents, the ethically-based inward experience carries perhaps even greater religious significance.
Envision an “ecstatic soul made visible.” According to Rav Soloveitchik, it is our outward actions that serve as a mechanism for us to express our subjective, inner, and deeply personal relationships with our parents, as well as our commitment to their well-being.
Action becomes the agency through which we can express and concretize our inner experiences. The Rav teaches us: “The deed in such a stage consists not just of acting but in acting out something deep-seated, hidden in the inaccessible recesses of the human personality.”
Such insight sheds light on some of the halachic truths inherent in the mitzvah of kibbud av v’em. Ultimately, the mitzvah’s actional component becomes the facilitator of the more multifaceted religious experience.
Thus, based on his analysis of the unrelated mitzvah of kibbud av v’em, I believe that Rav Soloveitchik is striking at the core of the concept of motivation, and has provided us with a pathway toward inspired living.
The very essence of motivation is the notion that it is within our own, capable hands, to meet our goals and achieve our dreams. That a dignified, successful life is within reach, given that we persevere and take necessary action.
But how do we attain the motivation needed for self-actualization? Judaism teaches us that our actions must precede our beliefs; our performances, in fact, will herald our mental and emotional perspectives.
Thus, the best way — and perhaps only way — to build motivation is to take action and persist in our efforts. Much like in the realm of kibbud av v’em, our actions are the primary influences on our thoughts. Ultimately, these acquired perspectives will morph into our reality.
How we act toward our parents will inform how we ultimately relate to them. In practical terms, the art of honoring and loving one’s parents thus begins with the letter of the law: to buy their groceries, check in regularly, and be responsible, caring, and thoughtful children. The prized relational bond, that inward experience, can then begin to blossom.
Similarly, the best way to achieve any goal imaginable is to begin with meaningful, actionable steps. For example, in order to create motivation to succeed academically, one should start with action — hard work and diligent learning. To become physically fit, working out and exercising is the place to begin.
Conversely, indifference and procrastination are the greatest obstacles standing in the way of motivation, and of us reaching our goals. Inertia is not only non-productive; it also prevents us from harnessing the motivational power of our actions.
The best, and perhaps only way to motivate, is to do. Meaningful action will cascade into motivation. Inspired living, and results, are poised to follow.
“The views expressed in this post reflect the views of the author(s) and not UCLA or ASUCLA Communications Board.”