My parents thought I would be a doctor or a lawyer when I grew up. But things changed as I progressed through my academic journey. I did not have lots of success in science and math courses, so I gravitated towards History and English as college majors.
I remember sitting in the office of the college counselor who was helping me choose my major. I asked in what subject could I major where I would not have to take any math courses? He answered History and English, and so I chose an academic career in History and English because I knew I would experience rejection in the sciences. From the perspective of hindsight, I have realized that lack of success in one area does not determine lack of success in another. One just has to find one’s purpose in life, one’s mission in which you can make a singular contribution.
Another story. When I came to Israel in 2010, I wanted to work. I did not come here to retire. Fortunately, I found employment at two schools in Beit Shemesh, the town where I lived. One was a high school in which I prepared students for the Bagrut, the matriculation examination that Israelis take before going into university. The other was a charedi elementary school, in which I taught basic grammar and literature to eighth graders. Since I was past the official retirement age in Israel, the schools had to get special permission from the Ministry of Education for me to teach in those schools. This worked for five years, after which I was rejected by both schools since they could no longer secure permission for me to teach. My positions had to go to younger candidates.
For a brief moment, I was disappointed. Then I realized that this rejection presented me with an opportunity to redefine myself professionally, and I became a film critic. I first wrote reviews in American newspapers and even had a cable TV show in the US produced and directed by my friend Steve Posen. The show, called “Kosher Movies,” copied the format of the venerated “Siskel and Ebert” show on public television.
I share these vignettes because they illustrate that rejection or failure in one area of life does not mean that rejection and failure will forever be your destiny from that point on. One door may close but another door may open. Rejection may simply mean that you will make a mark in some other area of life. This is what happens to Johnnie Gray in Buster Keaton’s silent film classic, The General.
Johnnie Gray loves trains and Annabelle Lee, the girl he wants to marry. During the Civil War, he is an engineer who drives a locomotive named The General. When the Union attacks Fort Sumter, Annabelle’s father and brother enlist and Johnnie wants to serve as well. He wants to be a soldier. However, the recruiters turn him down because they feel he is more valuable to the cause if he works as an engineer. Unfortunately, they do not tell him why they say no to him; and he leaves the recruitment office disappointed, rejected by the Army and by Annabelle who sees him as a coward.
A year later, we learn that the Union develops a plan to steal Johnnie’s engine and use it to burn supply bridges that are used to transport needed material to the battle front. They successfully hijack the train and kidnap Annabelle who is still on board.
Johnnie becomes aware of what has happened and attempts to thwart their plans. His goal is to rescue Annabelle and to prevent the Union attack on the Confederacy. His efforts entail a frantic race against time to save the Confederate soldiers. In the end, Johnnie saves the day.
In hindsight, we see that his initial rejection by the recruitment officer sets the stage for his being at the scene when the locomotive is being stolen; and so Johnnie becomes a hero, getting the train back and restoring his reputation in the eyes of his beloved Annabelle. Johnnie Gray has finally found his purpose.
Rabbi Dov Heller brings a unique Jewish twist to the notion of finding one’s purpose in life: “Each of us is here to make a unique contribution to better the world. In addition to our unique personal mission, we also have a universal mission of being a light unto the nations as being part of the Jewish people. Understanding our universal and unique personal mission engenders a sense of purpose and drive; it is one of the keys to living a meaningful, energized life.
There is only one you. When you’re gone, your mold will never be used again. Judaism maintains not only is it necessary for our wellbeing to know our unique purpose, but it is an obligation to find it and actualize it.”
Johnnie Gray in The General eventually understands that he has led a successful life, precisely because he did not regard rejection as terminal. Rather, he regarded it as a prelude to finding his true purpose.