A Productive Sulk
Make your name but not too big.
Yesterday, I received another rejection. This one wasn’t from a job but rather a fellowship. I allowed my expectations to get a little high on this one and then I got the e-mail, and wham, I was immediately in my low place, sulking hard. It’s challenging to not let my self-worth deflate in these moments no matter how much I tell myself not to define myself by it.
Part of the reason I felt so saddened by this one is that the idea I pitched has really become the center of my future vision of my work. So to hear it rejected was tough. Nonetheless, as I sulked, I felt my other voice coming through. The voice starts as a whisper and reminds me that I don’t need “them.” Then it gets louder. Whatever organization, fellowship, fund, group, etc is “them” can’t prevent you from doing your though. It’s on you.
One of my favorite quotes is “reconcile by winning.” I am going to make this thing happen. It may start small and move slowly but it’ll happen. One part of me is excited to do it so I can show them how much of a loss it’ll be on their ledgers. But that’s not solely it by any means, because it’s not just about me.
This idea that I am building is one that I think helps the world and makes it a healthier and more fulfilled place. Sure, I want to make a name for myself. I’d be lying if I said otherwise. The hope though is that the name I make for myself is a byproduct of producing something meaningful for the world.
That is also a lesson we glean from this week’s Torah portion, where we read about the famed Tower of Babel. Before it became the language learning app, Babel was a tower “with its head in the sky” that the descendants of Noah gathered to build. God seems to be disturbed by this plan so God “confounds their speech” - which has generally been understood to mean that God made them all speak different languages, so that it would be too confusing to work together. And then God scatters them all over the earth.
What’s so bad about building this tower though. After all the Torah tells us all these people spoke the same language, came together, and built this amazing feat of engineering. Unity at its finest right!?
Perhaps, actually, it wasn’t the tower that was the problem. After all, in God’s punishment, God doesn’t destroy the tower. God’s punishment of the people involves a confounding of their language and a scattering, through which they wouldn’t understand each other.
God’s issue with the building seems to be the almost maniacal focus the people have on making themselves a name. The word for name in Hebrew is repeated 7 times throughout the story. That word, “shem” meaning name though, can also mean “sham,” there.
Our name, “shem” is what provides us a unique identity and purpose. “There,” on the other hand, denotes the ordinary or incidental nature of the object or phenomenon, negating any sort of special or unique quality. As Rav Gad Eldad notes, through a creative word play, the text tells us the story of the Tower of Babel, which started with the hope of thereby “making a name” (shem), ultimately ended “there” (sham), scattered about.
The Midrash takes this even further as it imagines how this sole desire on making their name plays out in practice. During the building it says
If a person fell and died, they wouldn’t pay any attention to him, but if a brick fell, they would sit down and cry and say, “How will another take its place?!” (Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer 24)
The building had become an obsession. It was all that mattered. They had lost any sense of ethical concern or basic human compassion. They just had to keep going, higher and higher. They wanted to reach the heavens, to achieve greatness, and to conquer. They would do so without any regard for their fellow human.
This was the tension I found myself in and continuing to try to process through. In my frustration and anger, I found myself wanting to lash out. "I’ll show them!” But it’s not just that. Sure, I hope that they’ll regret their decision.
Even more than that though, I believe in my idea, not just for my own name but for building something that brings divinity into the world. That is my service to the world. That is what I am working on. I sulked and now I take off.
Shabbat Shalom and happy weekend!
Remember to take a breath.