This week I heard a quote which ended with this line, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” The quote is mostly attributed to the Pirkei Avot, a section of the Mishnah that is mainly a compilation of ethical sayings by rabbis mentioned in the Talmud.
One interpretation I read said the quote is referring to making an effort even if the task feels too big. It used the example that just because you can’t read all the books in the world, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read. Another article referred to the Jewish tradition of believing that real change requires generations, and if we put something in motion, it might be up to others to finish it. Another interpretation focused on the thinking that even though the world is a messy place and it doesn’t feel like one person can make much of a difference, we must still do what we can. From what I know of Jewish oral tradition, there might be other interpretations as well.
Regardless, that line was just what I needed to hear this week. Sometimes when you’re in a building stage, but not entirely sure what you’re building, it can feel daunting. I’ve got so many ideas about the directions my new work could take and the good it could do, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to do them all—not on my own anyway. It’s tempting to think, “it’s too big. I should go back. I should coast along as I have been. That would be much easier.” But taking it easy never got a big job done. Only hard work and faith can do that.
As a coach, I used to tell my clients, “You are in charge of your goals. They are not in charge of you.” But so often I forget to take my own advice. I set goals and feel like a failure if I don’t achieve them. What would happen if I sometimes believed it was okay not to finish the work, that just in starting it I’ve done some good? What if I believed the work I do might inspire someone else to take my ideas further? Or that maybe someone who sees my work will say or do something to inspire me to take my ideas further.
As a historian, I’ve learned that all of human history can sometimes turn on one person’s action, decision, invention, or idea, for better or for worse. We are all tied together. It’s okay to take a break, but it’s not okay to give up all together.
Try something, do something, contribute something in the hopes that we can all move forward together. Let’s do whatever we can in efforts large or small to improve this messy world we love so much. Let’s not abandon the work, no matter how difficult it may sometimes seem.
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