In an earlier post, I wrote about my belief that stories can be powerful tools in our lives—to inspire us, encourage us, and motivate us. Sometimes those stories are from the experiences of ordinary and extraordinary people—past and present. Many powerful and useful stories are found in mythology and fiction.
Other important stories can be found in writings from the world’s faith traditions. I ran across one of these a few weeks ago in philosopher-poet Mark Nepo’s book of daily meditations, The Book of Awakening. The epigraph of his entry for January 10 was the following story from the Talmud, a central text of the Jewish tradition:
When Akiba was on his deathbed, he bemoaned to his rabbi that he felt he was a failure. His rabbi moved closer and asked why, and Akiba confessed that he had not lived a life like Moses. The poor man began to cry, admitting that he feared God’s judgement. At this, his rabbi leaned into his ear and whispered gently, “God will not judge Akiba for not being Moses. God will judge Akiba for not being Akiba.*
I was struck by the fact that at the end of his life, Akiba Ben Joseph, a revered second century C.E. teacher of the Torah, a devout man whose writings and teachings laid the foundations for rabbinic Judaism, was measuring himself against the accomplishment s of another man. And yet his thoughtful rabbi reminded him, “God will not judge Akiba for not being Moses. God will judge Akiba for not being Akiba.”
Often I feel like Akiba. I think the word authentic is overused, and yet it fits. I’ve tied myself in knots and contorted my life into unrecognizable shapes trying to embody a model that didn’t feel authentic to me. Or a life that was once authentic but ceased to feel that way. I’ve tried to force myself into the old roles that no longer fit. I know I’m not alone. Like Akiba, we need to be reminded that we are not failures when we don’t live up to the standards set by people we see around us—no matter how admirable--but only when we fail to live our fullest, truest lives.
*As told in Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening, Gale, 2000, 29.