In high school, I was not a very serious student, so it was unsettling for me when I entered Yeshiva University as a freshman and found myself in a class with very bright students who masterfully controlled the ebb and flow of class discussion. Because of my low opinion of my own academic background, I rarely raised my hand when I had a question and rarely contributed to class discussion. It was a case of low self-esteem that had ripple effects. Because I thought little of my own intellect, some of my professors thought the same of me. Because of my non-participation, they thought I was not capable of adding to the discussion, and so they didn’t call on me. It took me a couple of years to overcome this feeling of intellectual inferiority; but when I did, things changed for me and in my teachers’ evaluation of me as well.
Self-esteem is what The Nutty Professor is all about. Professor Julius Kelp is a shy, socially inept teacher, whose classroom experiments often end in disaster. When a bully humiliates him, he is motivated to join a fitness club in the hopes of overcoming his lack of style and poise. It does not work. However, in the recesses of his chemistry lab, he is able to concoct a potion that transforms him, albeit for a short time, into the suave lady’s man known as Buddy Love.
As Buddy Love, he has the confidence to pursue a relationship with Stella Purdy, an attractive student of his. Stella is repelled by Buddy’s arrogance but finds him attractive in a strange sort of way, suspecting that beneath his pompous and crude persona rests a person of genuine worth.
Complications ensue when the mystery concoction wears off at inopportune times, leaving Julius conflicted and confused. Eventually Julius comes to the realization that he has to be himself in order to become a whole human being.
Accepting himself as he is, he finally declares: “ I don’t want to be something that I’m not. I didn’t like being someone else. You might as well like yourself. Just think about all the time you’re going to have to spend with you. And if you don’t think too much of yourself, how do you expect others to?” It is a simple statement, but full of wisdom as Julius embarks on a new stage of his life with Stella, who now sees him as a genuine and likeable human being.
Self-esteem is a major focus of the works of Rabbi Abraham Twerski, a psychiatrist specializing in problems of addiction. He defines self-esteem as “a true and accurate awareness of one’s skills, capabilities and limitations.” If the awareness is not rooted in reality, then one is living a delusion. Twerski believes that a great many psychological problems are due to low self-esteem in which a person devalues himself. He possesses a negative self-image, which leads him to accomplish little and feel downcast most of the time.
A positive self-image grows where a person feels he has value. The Bible tells man he is created in God’s image, which implicitly means he has value. God does not command us to succeed in everything we do; rather He simply wants us to live a life of godliness as prescribed by the commandments in the Bible.
The Jewish institution of the minyan, the required ten men needed for public prayer, drives this point home. Nine great wise men cannot enable public prayer. You need a tenth, and how much wisdom he possesses is not part of the equation. Everyone counts. No matter how low on the status scale, you are still capable of making things happen, of enabling the community to thrive. The Nutty Professor reminds us to be ourselves, to understand that everyone matters, and to continually nurture our self-esteem.