This week, most of the students are going back to school. For some, it is a holiday; the start of a new chapter in the process of learning. For others, unfortunately, it is a burden. I wish with all my heart that it was a joyful occasion for all. But it is easy to understand why it is so difficult for some of us. We’re not all the same. We all have different talents, and different interests. Once, there were trade schools for young people who didn’t have the patience to sit around all day, studying history, grammar, and mathematics. But in recent years there has been more and more focus on the academic education.
Somerset Maugham was a very fine English writer who wrote countless stories about human problems and how people deal with them, and in the best circumstances, manage to overcome them. He himself, though born into a privileged family, did not fit in. His most obvious problem was that he stammered. I read a book by him, ‘The Razor’s Edge’, which told the story of a man who searched for true meaning in life. Though I read the story more than fifty years ago, it has stayed with me all this time. What impressed me most about this story, was that his hero went to the far east in search of the spiritual meaning of life. But when he found enlightenment, he chose to return to his own country, and live the life of a common working man.
Society offers respect and financial rewards to certain professions, that are out of all proportion to the salaries given for other sorts of work. We need garbage collectors as much as we need doctors in this world. And so, I’ve always thought that garbage collectors should not only earn as much as engineers, doctors, and lawyers… but that they should get an added bonus for doing work that is not particularly attractive. I think it is not in the public interest, that all the talented young people go running after the same ‘glamorous’ jobs. How much better it would be, if we all tried to find what was really right for us? And those who were after the money, would do some of the less attractive work.
And thinking about this, I am reminded that in every profession, there are the A students, and the C- students. The ones that excelled in acquiring an understanding of their profession, and the ones that barely got by… some of them only made it because of the compassion of teachers and friends or because of the fraternity of students. And as we go through life, we are grateful for our good luck if we find ourselves in the hands of a truly excellent doctor, or plumber, or auto mechanic… and we find ourselves close to despair when we have to go back to the operating theater, to remove the glove that was forgotten inside of us, or return to the garage, over and over again, to fix that same leak that brought us to the mechanic in the first place. The lesson to be learned from this, I believe, is not to put too much emphasis on the position that a person occupies, but to look for excellence in all places.
There was another writer, whom I came across as a young man. He did not become that famous, but I loved him especially, because though he was a gentile, when living in New York, he learned to master the Yiddish language, and even wrote a column in one of the Yiddish newspapers of the time. His name was Alexander King. In one of his stories, he tells of being wakened very early in the morning, by the garbage men outside his hotel window. There were two veterans, and a young man who was learning the trade. He peeked out of the window, and listened to the lesson, and was amazed to discover how much there was to learn about something that we all took for granted, and thought of, as the simplest of jobs.
I have always been on the lookout for excellence, and found it in all professions. Here in Jerusalem, we are blessed with a fair share of beggars. I suppose, this is because the people of Jerusalem are known for their compassion and their pity. And begging is a profession too. The picture at the start of this post, is that of one of the most impressive beggars I ever had the pleasure to meet. I took this picture years ago. Unlike others, who tell of their bad luck, or sometimes exhibit a written statement of being handicapped or disadvantaged in one way or another, this man would greet passers by with great enthusiasm, and bless them with success and happiness, and then give them a flower as a gesture of his respect. And in conclusion, he would admit, that though they had no obligation, he would very much appreciate any donation. I was always glad to see him.