Wisdom Wherever You Find It
Introspection is also interpersonal. Benjy Forester
Any system of personal belief worth its salt includes a demand of true self-awareness. In religious language, the believer with integrity wants to be conscious of sin and, awakened to personal shortcoming or transgression, moved to contrition and repentance. That vocabulary of faith is merely a fancier way of what your parents said when you did something wrong: You know what you did, so say you are sorry.
In Jewish tradition, the process of introspection is called “accounting of the soul” or perhaps “inventory of life.” It is meant to lead to repentance, called “teshuvah” in Hebrew, from the word that means “to turn.” In other words, having done an inventory of your conduct, you turn away from bad conduct. You know what you did, so say you are sorry. (And, don’t do it again.)
The medieval philosopher Moses Maimonides wrote a comprehensive guide to Jewish life a thousand years ago in which he discussed (among many other things) this process of teshuvah. He identified the twenty-four hardest things facing a person intending to live a better life, and it was one of those things that prompted Benjy Forester to make his remarkable observation.
Some of the twenty-four are predictable – intentional and habitual misbehavior, public disparagement of others, gaming the system by saying it’s easier to apologize than to ask permission, and more. But the one that caught Forester’s attention was this: the person who refuses to listen to reproof. As Maimonides says, a person who discovers that his faults are known to another should rightfully be ashamed, which opens the path to regret and repentance. But if the person has closed his ears and his heart to the criticism of others, he has also closed a way to being made whole again.
The Bible actually expects each of us to act as a lifeguard to others by offering compassionate criticism when we notice them taking a self-destructive path. While you may have just conjured an image of a harangue being offered from pulpit or street corner, I prefer to think of it as an intervention, large or small. There ought to be no self-righteous posturing in saying to someone you love that you are concerned about their habits or behavior. Indeed, it is far more loving to offer concern than to ignore or enable conduct that endangers the well-being of a friend or family member.
Maybe all of this resonates with you and maybe it doesn’t, but the point of these four words of wisdom is not to endorse or critique the Bible or a thousand-year-old application of it. Instead, it is a remarkable insight about the importance of being in community. The notion that introspection is exclusively a solitary act is as frightening as it is inaccurate. Who wants to be left alone with their conscience? Who wants to wonder if anybody actually cares about what kind of person they are? Who wants to serve as an unforgiving judge of their own soul, likely more harsh than necessary, just to feel goodness again?
The voice of criticism is the voice of love. No, of course not gratuitous or angry criticism which serves no purpose but to compound feelings of smallness. Rather, the voice of someone who cares enough to travel the path of repentance with you, ready to toss a lifeline before you drown in self-pity and remorse.
In the public realm, criticism has become cruel and usual. Umbrage, rather than compassion and sadness, has accompanied reproof. It has made people fearful for all the wrong reasons, worried about being marginalized or excluded without hope of redemption. The same might be said about entertainment, where bickering and verbal combat have always been the source of comedy and drama alike. Eyes and ears on more screens for more time reinforce the conflict over the embrace.
An instruction like Benjy Forester’s, channeling Maimonides’ teaching, is a reminder of why loving admonition is the source of rescue from the despair of self-isolation. Criticism alone serves only to further isolate. But when someone cares enough to accompany you to the place of personal growth and improvement, you are halfway to forgiveness. You know what you did, so say you are sorry. I’ll be right here with you.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
I can’t know your pain, but you have a God who knows what it is like to lose a child. Sen. Tim Kaine
I first met Tim Kaine when he was the mayor of Richmond, Virginia. He showed up at the City of Alexandria’s annual observance of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. He was standing alone, eating a cookie, so I introduced myself, and he told me who he was. “What are you doing here in Alexandria?” I asked. He replied, “I hope to be Lieutenant Governor, so I am getting out to meet folks all over the Commonwealth.”
Kaine has lost only one election in his life (it was a big one), and he has done an admirable job in every office he has held. Here is something he told me: It was when he was mayor that he faced what he thinks is one of the biggest challenges of his life in public service. Gun violence was claiming lots of lives in the city. Trying to address the mechanics of gun ownership and use was frustrating, but it hard as it was, it was a far second to what he described as the thing he was least prepared for.
He visited the families of the victims.
In Jewish tradition, we would colloquially describe that as a “shivah call.” During the seven (shivah) days following the funeral, community members, whether friends or not, go to the home of the bereaved family and offer comfort by their presence. The guidelines for conduct include not speaking until the mourner greets you – one should not presume that a grieving loved one wants to chat. The first words after that should be those of comfort. There is a sort of mantra of solace, but sometimes just, “I am so sorry” suffices.
After that, the tension is broken, and respectful conversation is the norm.
Tim Kaine is not Jewish, and he did not walk into homes where the conventions of mourning were at play. Though personally religious – he was raised a Christian and became a Roman Catholic – his job before elected office was as a civil rights attorney. The victims of gunplay were mostly Black, mostly men, mostly young. What could he possibly say to a mother who had lost the son that was the repository of her future?
If you gave me a million years, I could not imagine something as appropriate as he intuited. “I can’t know your pain,” he said once (and then too many more times), “but you have a God who knows what it is like to lose a child.” From within the ethos of Christianity, there may be no better way to open the possibility of God’s comfort than those words.
I remain a rabbi, a faithful Jew and a deliberate non-believer in Jesus. But when Sen. Kaine told me that story, I began to cry. I knew in the moment that such was the God I would want in my time of loss, of pain, of grief. I would want a God who understood what I was going through.
The Scriptures of most of the theist religions contain narratives of a deity who stands with the believers in an hour of need, arguing their case, enacting their judgments, avenging their grievances. When the believers feel small, their deity nonetheless delivers the mighty to the weak, the many to the few, the scoffers to the loyalists. When critiques are leveled at religions, they are often based on these promises, doubters snarling “Where’s your God now?” when the righteous are unredeemed.
I can’t argue with those people who find their path to faith blocked by evidence to the contrary, nor with those who point out that conflicts between adherents of different religions are to blame for so much that seems the antithesis of the religious vision. But just as they refuse to consider belief, I refuse to consider disbelief. And the deep sensitivity of Tim Kaine is part of the reason.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel identified the notion of an empathic God. He read the mission of the prophets to act as spokespeople for the divine pathos – God’s intimate concerns for humanity, part angry frustration at the one who shoots the gun, part broken heart for the mother who weeps.
A GAME OF CHICKEN
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
It’s like trying to make a chicken by grabbing feathers from here and there. Cynthia Hudson
Any number of TV game shows had a feature called various versions of the money booth. Some lucky contestant had the chance to be closed into a tall glass tube with a fan under the floor, into which was dumped a bucket of dollar bills. The greenbacks flew around the hapless schmo for sixty seconds (on the clock!) who got to keep anything he or she could hang onto. For all the excitement, rarely did anyone come away with enough to justify making a fool of yourself on national television.
Many years later, I was co-chair of a commission for the Commonwealth of Virginia to promote diversity, equity and inclusiveness after the horrific events in Charlottesville in August of 2017. I had the great good fortune to serve with Cynthia Hudson, Deputy Attorney General. She is smart, organized and principled, and she made me feel a lot better about being confounded by the problems by sharing my sense of inadequacy about where even to begin.
The members of the commission were a cross-section of Virginia, though even the unwieldy number who were selected could not be comprehensive representatives of faith, geography, ethnicity, race, gender identity, economic strata, etc. As she and I struggled just to put together an agenda, she suddenly exclaimed in exasperation, “It’s like trying to make a chicken by grabbing feathers from here and there.”
I won’t pretend that we made a chicken. But her lament helped me understand (not in the moment – I was laughing too hard) that if we came in with the result in our heads instead of establshing the process, we could work as frantically as humanly possible and still be unable to grab enough feathers. I should have learned it from the money booth.
Our commissioners had remarkable insights into the mandate of the group. No one imagined they had the singular solution to the challenges of diversity, equity or inclusion, but they each had an idea about how to take a run at one or another of them. We were funded for a year and told by two governors that we could measure success by action, not merely words. When the term of the commission was about to end, we talked with the staff and came to the realization that there were still feathers all over the place and no clucking.
But it does not mean that we failed. In looking at the initiatives – legislative and otherwise – that emerged as recommendations and encouragements from religious and tribal leaders, social activists, legislators, businesspeople, non-profit professionals, educators, government officials, and a remarkable Deputy Attorney General, we were able to reassure our crew that we had made an honest start. And I have watched, in the intervening years, as initiatives in the public and private sectors have made progress toward the goal of a Virginia better able to provide opportunities for everyone from the children of natives and “first families” to those who arrived here voluntarily and not.
There is still plenty to do – more than plenty. But it will not be accomplished by frenetic activity that imagines the destination without considering the sometimes long and winding road to get there. You can’t make a fortune by snatching at the wind. You can’t make a chicken by grabbing feathers from here and there.
At the same time, the difficulty of the task ahead cannot be the excuse for inaction. Communities awaiting justice, and the individuals within those communities, rightly expect that the call for “patience” is not a euphemism for “no.” If there is any lesson of the events that provoked Gov. Terry McAuliffe to establish the commission, it is the danger of delay in addressing society’s most difficult dilemmas. When the absence of diversity, equity and inclusion is presumed to be the norm, the people privileged by that presumption will resist change mightily. And sometimes violently.
The winds of change power the flurry of feathers. Thanks to Cynthia, I have an answer to an age-old question. It’s the nurture of the egg that comes first.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
American history is a series of provisional victories. Jon Meacham
The horrifying specter of a twelve-story building collapsing in the middle of the night on the Florida shoreline feels too much like a metaphor. Let’s always keep in mind the lives lost when we think of that tragedy, first and foremost. But let’s not be paralyzed by our grief to the point that we can’t appreciate why the catastrophe resonates so comprehensively.
An inspection of the infrastructure of our country, underway for many years, but lately with intensity, has revealed the cracks and spalling. I am not talking about bridges and interstate highways. I am talking about this less-than-perfect nation that has been in state of greater and greater flux since the waning days of the last century. That is when a small group of legislators, one of them named for a lizard, changed the functioning of Congress from charting the course of the country to a zero-sum game of achieving and retaining power. Accidentally, they were helped by a terrorist attack in September 2001, and then, in the following twenty years (has it been that long?), by the politics of fear of each other.
It does not matter if the ground has become soft underneath us, or if a heavy object has struck us from above, to those of us used to a reliable structure we call home, it is frightening to think that parts of that structure in which we live have been shaken and fallen away.
It is helpful to remember the wisdom of Jon Meacham, one of the great contemporary champions of the American experiment. There was always a time when America was great, but never a time it couldn’t be greater. Every step forward was, as he put it, a provisional victory. At any moment, the grand gesture could be undone by the small aggressions by citizens unhappy with the change in the status quo they had come to rely upon. The elimination of systemic enslavement did not eliminate the mentality that there was yet some hierarchy of skin color to preserve. The removal of barriers to women voting did not open the ballots along with the ballot boxes. The requirement to make buildings accessible to people of all abilities did not take away the barriers to the jobs within. And so with sexual assault, and harassment, and gun violence, and hateful speech, and crimes both physical and philosophical against people of differing identities.
Even our first freedom – to believe and practice as our hearts inspire – seems to have been weaponized as people in the presumed majority misunderstand the truth that rights are universal protections rather than beneficent tolerations.
When I teach about Judaism, I always start with a conversation about the role of myth – that is, organizing world view – in any society. I begin with the Declaration of Independence, asking my students to identify the first statement of myth in it. Some talk about the self-evident truths, some suggest political bonds, some identify the term “it becomes necessary.” However, I insist that the first statement of myth is “the course of human events.” The notion that there is even such a thing as history is a human construct designed to make sense of what are mostly random events. By establishing causal relationships, we build a structure that is ever more complex and comprehensive.
Our founders looked back in time and geography to Europe, and they imagined a better version transplanted to someone else’s continent. In the process, they imagined something grander than they imagined – a place in which the notion that all were created equal could take root and flourish. Even as they said it, as they committed it to parchment, as they declared a country to rest on it, they violated it. Since then, the people who have felt excluded from that self-evident truth have insisted on victories in a continuing campaign to create a course of human events that make this place better than it ever was. By creating these provisional victories, we quite literally make history, while realizing the vision of our founders that exceeded their original imaginations.
Meacham managed to sum all of that up in eight words that need a little unpacking. But it is an important piece of wisdom to remember. We live in complicated times, dealing with legal and cultural skirmishes that shake our infrastructure, all the more needed in these times of enforced isolation that are coming to an end. But as long as we are willing to engage in the cause of genuine equality, provisional victories will lead to longer-term successes.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
It’s part of the cycle. You don’t want to tell anybody else, because if you tell anybody else, then you have to tell yourself, and that’s the last thing you want to do. Josh Bearman’s mother
I love listening to “This American Life,” just like a lot of America. It may not be the original podcast, but when the term “podcast” was invented, the radio show was already one. I have my favorites – the telephone booth on a cliff in Japan where people call their dead relatives, the two firefighters who almost burned down a house chasing a squirrel, the discussion of how racial and economic integration are the best ways to improve public schools. But the wisest insight I ever heard on the show was in a conversation between Joshuah Bearman and his alcoholic mother. And it was from her.
You can find the episode on the website (Episode 334, Duty Calls) and learn a lot about Bearman on Google (he is pretty famous). You won’t find his mother’s name, though. Most of her adult life right up to her death was a train wreck, and in a stunning act of respect, he has not identified her publicly, near as I can tell.
In the process of documenting his attempts to prevent her ultimate decline, he challenges his mother about why she did not call him in a moment of serious hardship. The back-and-forth concludes with her insight: admitting to someone else that you are in a state of need means admitting it to yourself. And sometimes the only survival mechanism a person has is denial…until that doesn’t work anymore. (Listen to the episode.)
This tactic is not just a strategy of an addict or someone with a compulsive behavior. Maybe it is an overstatement to say everyone has at least one thing in their life that fits this pattern, but if you know the one human being for whom this is not true, please introduce me. I would like to know how they do it.
Sometimes the denial is about a genuine physical problem, like substance abuse. Sometimes it is about a challenge to a person’s internal landscape, like depression. Sometimes it is about a fact of life that could provoke disapproval from a loved one, like sexual orientation. And sometimes it is about a sense of self that is likely false, one that a person believes about themselves, but hopes against hope that they can conceal it from others who might affirm it.
Most usual is what is popularly called “imposter syndrome.” Some successful people live into the arrogance of extreme self-confidence. More of them believe that they are frauds and that it is only a matter of time until other people find out. No matter what it is – profession, parenthood, personal conduct – late at night, when sleep won’t come, some version of “I am the great and powerful Oz” begins playing in the brain.
Of course, it is not true. But what an irony that the people most likely to help the person who cannot admit the obstacle to a better life through skill and caring will not allow themselves to be rescued from their own obstacle.
I know someone who is a bundle of insecurity, but unless you were up close you would never guess. The testimonials to this person are universal. They always seem to care, to know the right thing to say, to brighten a day. A social butterfly, this person has a remarkable memory for a detail or two about everyone they met and makes a point of recalling it at each subsequent meeting.
By pigeon-holing everyone else into a particular role, this individual can control every interaction and deflect conversation and concern away from themselves. The very thought of genuine self-disclosure is enough to throw this person into a panic and cause a redirection of the topic at hand. What a lonely way to live, without understanding how much caring can come your way.
Bearman’s mother’s observation was an answer to his persistent question, “Why didn’t you call me?” But it is an answer not only from her to him. In a lot of ways, it is the answer we each give to whomever proposes to help – family, friend, professional caregiver, clergy, even God. With few exceptions, really few, the offer of support is genuine. Perhaps it is not a solution, but it is a remedy for the loneliness of denial.
And I think that going through life lonely is the last thing you want to do.
Wisdom Wherever You Find it
First love teaches two things: 1) I can choose to love and 2) I can be chosen for love. Sen. Chris Coons
Most of us, I hope, grew up with parents who loved us. And if any of you doubted it, I hope you were fortunate enough to have a grandparent, aunt or uncle, or family friend who was uncompromising in their love for you. The kind of love you find in a family is called, in Christian circles, storge (rhymes with “chore day”).
There are other kinds of love that are described in Christian thought, including philia (“brotherly love,” hence Philadelphia), agape (God’s love, which is selfless) and eros (romantic love).
Those descriptions of love come from Greek culture, and whether you accept the distinctions or not, this much is true: the love you experience as a recipient (in this case, storge, philia and agape) is a different kind of love than one you experience as a partner (eros). And it is eros that is the subject of this wise observation by Sen. Coons.
“Eros” has an association with “erotic,” which has tainted the meaning and, to some minds, cheapened the experience. But giving your heart to another, the more innocent meaning, is not necessarily sexual in nature. It is, however, a gift that comes with frightening vulnerability most especially the first time. Almost everyone survives first love. Almost everyone has it reciprocated. Almost everyone loses it.
If you are in a relationship that is not your first love (as I am for more than forty-four years as of this writing), you know that unique as it may be, it is not as uncomplicated as it felt in that original rush. Lasting love has elements of all four types and, just to make things more complicated, is not always pleasant. But you never forget the first time you fell in eros, and in many ways it becomes the template for all subsequent relationships. It is worth not maintaining a romantic relationship with that first romance unless, of course, you are still in that partnership.
With all those disclaimers and explanations behind me, it is worth considering this remarkable understanding of what first love opens in its blossoming.
The first is liberation. There is, of course, no physical location of love, but when it is offered it nonetheless is taken from a place deep inside. You can give someone a gift that you buy, but it comes from a store. You can give someone a toy, a book, or a keepsake, but you received it from someone else. You can give someone a pie, a photo album, or a bunch of flowers, but the ingredients came from somewhere else. The lesson of first love is that you can make a free choice to surrender a part of yourself to another. It is nothing you can take from elsewhere, and it is something that cannot be returned or, I would argue, replaced. The gift may be considered or impulsive, but it is only yours to give.
“I can choose to love” makes you the agent of your own life.
The second is affirmation. No one is obligated to reciprocate a profession of love, of course, if they don’t share it. (That’s not to say some people don’t do so, but I don’t recommend just being polite in these circumstances!) But there is no denying that nothing nurtures a sense of self-worth more than knowing someone holds you in the highest level of esteem and affection. To love is to put the needs and desires of the other person ahead of your own. That someone would offer to set you ahead of themselves? Amazing.
And it’s true, I think, that when you are the recipient of a parent’s love or even God’s love, there is an inclination at certain moments to think, “Yeah, well, they sort of have to love me. But if they had an actual choice…” Not so with that first person to offer you their heart. Mutual or not, it takes your breath away. Suddenly, you are aware of your own worth in someone else’s eyes.
“I can be chosen for love” makes you appreciate your ultimate value.
I know not everyone has the great good fortune to be swept away by first love. Sometimes it comes at the wrong moment, or not at all. But mostly, we learn to love better and more deeply by paying attention to the remarkable moment we discover love’s possibilities. We learn about ourselves and our agency, our identity and our desires, our value and our values.
“First” only comes once. I hope it is (or was) wonderful.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
I only killed one human being in Vietnam, and that was the first man I ever killed. I was sick with guilt about killing that guy and thinking, “I’m gonna do this for the next 13 months, I’m gonna go crazy.” Then I saw a Marine step on a “bouncing betty” mine. And that’s when I made my deal with the devil, in that I said, “I will never kill another human being as long as I am in Vietnam. However, I will waste as many gooks as I can find. I will waste as many dinks as I can find. I will smoke as many zips as I can find. But I ain’t gonna kill anybody.” Turn a subject into an object. It’s Racism 101. And it turns out to be a very necessary tool when you have children fighting your wars for them to stay sane doing their work.
I spend some time each week tending to people in public service. It’s the least I can do. I am a devoted patriot, and I subscribe to the notion that the blessings and freedoms we enjoy as Americans are secure only as long as they are defended. So I pay my taxes without complaint. I vote in every election, no matter how seemingly inconsequential. I join with others to seek redress of grievances. I defend the rights that are ours as citizens.
But I would not serve in the military, and I recognize that, all my life, that meant sending someone else to do my job.
I have known a lot of people who served honorably – my dad, an uncle, many friends and colleagues, and now, even some of my friends’ kids. But I am a coward, and cowards have no place in a circumstance that makes people dependent on each other to survive.
I am not bragging, by the way. I am just being honest. I have enough courage to speak truth to power, to say aloud uncomfortable facts and to hold to unpopular opinions even when surrounded by those who disagree. I have handled firearms. I have been in fights, though few and far between. But I would be no good in combat.
Part of it, most certainly, is self-preservation. I do not wish to be shot or blown up. I do not think that people in the military disagree with me, but I know that I actively imagine myself in harm’s way whenever I think about service, and it is paralyzing.
But part of it, too, is a conscious decision not to become the person John Musgrave describes in discussing his Vietnam experience in the Ken Burns documentary about that war. More than a fear of injury, I think I was afraid to lose my moral compass.
When I was a kid, my father would not discuss his service in World War II. He acknowledged that he shot and killed enemy soldiers, but only in a brief answer to a direct question. When I was a college student, I asked him if he ever thought he was shooting some other mother’s son during the war. He replied, without irony, “I wasn’t shooting anybody’s son. I was shooting Nazis.”
Turn a subject into an object. It is a necessary tool when you have children fighting your wars.
As I said, I have known a lot of people who served honorably. One was a high-ranking officer in Vietnam. He was one of the kindest people I ever met. Another was a combat-proven officer who eventually served as Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He holds every casualty in his heart. It is not necessarily the case that you lose your moral compass in battle. On the contrary – sometimes, it is the only place you can be sure you have it.
And I am not a pacifist. War may be obscene, but there are times it is a necessary obscenity.
Call it my moral shortcoming or my self-indulgent privilege or my character flaw, but I know myself well enough that I could not carry heavy arms and do my duty. My fear – rational or not – was that I would lose myself on the back end of a weapon. And that makes me a coward.
It makes me more grateful for those who serve. And more concerned.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
When you label something as “evil,” you create an inevitability of violence. Rev. Steven Paulikis
I sat down at a table while attending a conference with a lot of people I did not know. This guy in a clerical collar sat down next to me. We introduced ourselves and, before too long, were talking about evil. Occupational hazard.
I won’t do justice in these few words to the insights of Steven Paulikis, who has done a lot of thinking on the subject, but in one sentence – his – he sums up what he has concluded after much study and introspection. In a world that values Good (note the capital “G”), the enemy is Evil. And in a world that is posited to have begun with the forbidden fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, baked into our perceptions is the notion that if we could just eliminate evil, all we would have left is good.
I have thought about that conversation a lot since then. The transition from Biblically-based theology to social behavior is as simple as the transition from a capital letter to a lower case letter. It is as simple as the difference between Good versus Evil and good versus evil.
It is important to make a distinction between other obstacles to goodness – injustice, falsehoods, ignorance, wrong behavior, lack of integrity, etc. – and evil. Evil is existential, organic. It cannot be corrected. It must be eradicated. Evil is a pollutant that poisons good. People of good will can correct an injustice, educate themselves out of ignorance, correct bad conduct. But evil is inherent. Like the bloody murder scene cleaned up with bleach on a TV show, the residual is always present and incriminating.
And therefore, evil must be eradicated. In some theologies, evil has an incarnation. It is depicted as a fallen angel, a collector of souls or the ruler of some netherworld. This demonic creature – sometimes called Satan or the devil or Beelzebub (literally, “lord of the flies,” feeding on offal) – cannot be converted, only defeated. And that defeat, in this world outside of the Garden of Eden, is always temporary. The struggle against evil is perpetual and unrelenting.
A human being who is in league with evil is therefore beyond redemption. Such a person must be eradicated.
I know, it sounds like the premise of “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer,” or any of a number of comic books or horror movie franchises. But those things didn’t come from nowhere. They are merely pop culture iterations of what some faith traditions and the cultures that emerge from them keep simmering in the background. Though the few adherents who carry on about the real presence of Mephistopheles in our world are viewed by most everyone else as fanatics or kooks, the powerful aversion to evil in our culture is not far below the surface for everyone.
Please bear with me as I embrace that notion for a moment. I was raised to believe in the dignity of every human being, created as we were in the image of God. That is, the imprint of the divine is on every person. In that sense (and only in that sense, to my way of thinking), each of us is an incarnation of the Holy One.
I like to think I strive to love God with heart, soul and might, as we are instructed to do. And that love demands at the very least respect for the image of God that has become animated in my neighbors near and far.
What, then, do I do with the paradox of a person I label as evil? Not the obnoxious neighbor, not the bigot, not the criminal, but the irredeemably evil person? Inevitably, unless I am indifferent to evil, I want to wipe it out. If it is a book, I would burn it. If it is a flag, I would destroy it. If it is a person…
What an irony – in my zeal to destroy an evil person, I become an opponent to the image of God imprinted on their soul. And what is the nature of opposing God? Of course, it is evil.
You won’t catch me arguing for moral relativism. Some behaviors, some ideas, some people are wrong, period. But they are not irredeemable. Thanks to my conversation with my accidental lunch partner, I have abandoned describing people as evil, and most things that people believe as well. Evil is contagious. You catch it from yourself.
EVERYWHERE I GO
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
Everywhere I go, I will be Black. Glory Aganze Barongozi
It was a small story in the “Washington Post” in May 2015. The author spoke of his time in Baltimore, a refugee from Uganda, and how ready he was to leave as his high school graduation neared. He felt small in Africa. He felt smaller in Baltimore.
Contained in his seven-word existential truth are two very different pieces of wisdom. One of them is an affirmation, the other a lament. Both of them proclaim an essential aspect of life: the importance of embracing who you are.
Even a narrow reading of Barongozi’s words is profound. For a poor person of color, disadvantaged in societies that privilege lighter skin, higher caste or economic affluence, there is no escaping the biases that pursue darker skin and emptier wallets. It has taken me a long time – much of a lifetime – to understand the immutable truth of his observation in a world in which the content of character is secondary to the color of skin. The truth of it is evidenced by the fury with which it is challenged. There is even now an organization that calls itself “liberal” that rejects the notion that race matters beyond overt racism. (Ironically, the potential to compromise hard-won Jewish privilege is their Exhibit A.)
Many years ago, I was responsible for inviting Rev. Jesse Jackson to speak at the convention of my rabbinical association. I was his “body man” at the convention, and therefore sat in on an interview with a talented Jewish reporter with a very identifiably Jewish surname. She pressed him on his emphasis on race in his politics. Seemingly as a non-sequitur, he asked her, “How do I know you are Jewish?” Flustered, she said, “Well, I told you.” “And how do you know I am Black?” he asked. While she stammered for a second, he placed his forefinger on his cheek.
So many communities, my own included, invest an exhausting amount of energy to persuade ambivalent members to be more open, more “out” about their immutable identities. For more than forty years, I have worn a kippah (yarmulke, skullcap) in public as a message that I choose for you to encounter me as a Jew. But all I have to do to recede into anonymity is reach up and swipe a piece of cloth into my pocket. It does not change how others perceive Jews – good, bad, or indifferent. It indeed changes how others perceive me.
Inherent in Barongozi’s words is the understanding that what is organic for him is a disadvantage. Even in the celebratory reading of his words – which, I reiterate, he did not intend – is the notion that his skin color makes him different. He will always be noticed first for how he looks, especially here in the United States, and will have to contend with another person’s biases before he opens his mouth, extends his hand or reaches into his pocket. Does a White person contend with perceptions as well? Yes, full stop. But no matter who you are, if you consider that an equivalency, you are playing a game of sophistry.
So it may come as a surprise to you that I want to conclude with a defense of the positive meaning of this statement in two different senses. First of all, I endorse the value of always being your whole self. I know how popular it is with some people to emphasize that the amount of difference from each other in our DNA is statistically insignificant. Look at nature, they say – one honeybee is essentially unrecognizable from the next, two blue jays are indistinguishable, a trout is a trout. Never mind that we don’t look at a penguin with a penguin’s eyes; it is precisely those tiny differences that allow us a sense of uniqueness. Mr. Barongozi deserves, no less than any human being, to encounter the world and be encountered by it with the fullness of who he is. As a person of faith, I will add “as God intended him to be.” Everywhere he goes, he should be Black.
And secondly, I endorse the practice of making others uncomfortable with their biases. I will admit that part of my advertising my Jewishness is something of a dare. Even if I run the risk of provoking a bigot into antagonism, I still want to make it clear that their prejudice will not define me. Indeed, if by confronting their own inclinations they are forced to reconsider them, then the world around me is a safer place for me and Barongozi both. And you.
It is fair to ask, then, why is it that I sometimes hide the symbol of my Jewishness in my hip pocket. I think that anyone who presents in a non-conforming way will understand: sometimes, I am just tired. (My wife can often spot someone who notices my headgear and starts heading toward me. She leans into my ear and says, quietly, “Incoming.”) It is an opportunity not everyone has. But it doesn’t change the fact for me or for anyone else. Everywhere you go, you will be who you are.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
That’s the trick of parenting – you can’t always lead by example. Reya El-Salahi
Recently, I became the oldest person in my immediate family, which is to say my mother died. My father is gone more than thirty years, cheated out most of the rewards of being a grandparent. My mother was more fortunate. She saw her three children and seven grandchildren in happy families of their own, and she met all (so far) eight of her great-grandchildren. She lived to inches short of 93.
Because of the circumstances forced on us by the covid pandemic, I spent a lot more time alone during the week of mourning prescribed by Jewish tradition than I might have in less complicated circumstances. And one of the things I spent time doing was thinking about parenting.
I thought some about the parenting I received. It is inevitable, of course. Aside from my own direct experience, conversations with my younger brother and much-younger sister were exercises in understanding how differently children in the same family are raised. It shouldn’t be such a surprise. Circumstances change. I was an only child for close to three years while my sister was the only one at home when our parents could see the light at the end of the childcare tunnel.
But mostly I thought about the parenting I gave. And I mean “I,” not “we.” I have nothing but admiration for my wife’s career as a mother. My self-evaluation as a father is a little less consistent. I think that I am like most parents when I admit that I hoped my kids would turn out better than I did and have an easier time getting there. Some of that is ego, I know, even if it is disguised as altruism. But some of it, too, is an honest appraisal of my internal landscape to know what mistakes I made.
For me, the hardest part of being a father was knowing how important it was to allow my kids to make their own mistakes while at the same time meeting my responsibility to keep them from unnecessary suffering. I know the consequences of wrongheaded behavior, and I also know the tactics to divert attention from it. I used to say to my kids, “You can’t lie to me, because I’ve done whatever it is you are lying about, and I will see right through it.” Even when I said it, I knew it wasn’t true (they could indeed lie to me, as all children do to their parents, and I was nowhere near as delinquent as I pretended to be).
But there were times that my experiences as a little kid, a pre-teen, a teenager, and a young man were indeed relevant to my offspring’s behavior. Sharing my personal history, that is, leading by example, was often not the right choice. In fact, it was often the very wrong choice. When I offered advice or discipline, implicit or explicit was always the question, “How do you know that?” And if you are a parent, I don’t have to tell you twice that you don’t always want to answer that question. In fact, you almost never want to answer that question.
Why that is I can only surmise. It is some combination of shame, embarrassment, insecurity and, again, ego, I am sure. But whatever it is, as El-Salahi says, that’s the trick of parenting – you can’t always lead by example.
Eventually, you discover how effective you have been as a parent. In the large sense, you see your kids living out the values that they have internalized. They may not live the life you would have chosen for them (okay, they NEVER live the life you would have chosen for them), but the way they live their life is their distillation of what you have communicated. That fact sometimes makes you feel good, and other times not so much.
I learned this lesson all over again when I made a wrong decision for what I convinced myself were the right reasons. My children were not having any of it. And, as I might have done to them when they lived under our roof, they confronted me about it. Dealing with some combination of shame, embarrassment, insecurity, and ego, I was pretty defensive. Eventually (and it was not a very long eventually), I came to recognize that just because you can’t always lead by example, it doesn’t mean you can never lead by example.
There’s a very famous story in the Talmud about the rabbis in the study hall ganging up on God and using God’s own instruction to reject God’s argument in a debate. As the legend goes, an eyewitness in the heavenly realm was asked what God’s reaction was to losing. “My children defeated me,” was the proud response.
I’m not God, but I had some small sense of the lesson God learned, if you can say such a thing. You can’t always lead by example. But, as it turns out, mostly you do.