Each week, find a commentary on something connected to verses of Torah or another source of wisdom
Each week, find a commentary on something connected to verses of Torah or another source of wisdom
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
The story makes the pain more tolerable. Dr. Valerie Larkin
Human beings love stories. When all is said and done, it is not the opposable thumb or language or the proclivity to believe conspiracy theories that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. It is stories.
I used to think it was the ability to transmit knowledge without direct experience, but that is just pretentious way to say “stories.” Everyone loves stories, and the most beloved members of our societies are the storytellers. We are most honest when we acknowledge them for telling us tales – authors, filmmakers, musicians, painters, sculpturers, dancers – that they create to co-opt our imaginations and plunge us into the delight that comes from being led to a corner of our minds we had not yet explored. But sometimes we give them different names like politician, researcher, advocate, clergy. They indulge our desire to be told stories that we can imagine are far from fiction and, therefore, describe our reality.
And human beings suffer pain. Pain is a necessary part of life. Physical pain serves a dual function for us. It warns us of external danger. One of our kids used to love to crawl under the dining room table. We would always say, “Don’t stand up.” For a while, it would be followed by a bang and a wail. The pain eventually persuaded the little one of what the instructions could not. Pain also alerts us when something is wrong within our bodies. From a strained muscle to a kidney stone, there is no denying when our bodies are communicating something to us. What we do with that information is ours to decide.
And then there are stories we tell ourselves when we are feeling pain. Many of them are spurred by the faith or superstitions that are handed to us by others. A debate in the Talmud took place almost 2000 years ago about why people suffer. One rabbi claimed that all suffering is deserved, but it is meted out on a sort of sliding scale; the more righteous the person, the smaller the infraction that provokes pain. The other rabbi insisted that pain brings us closer to God who empathizes with human suffering. The debate is left unresolved.
But some of the stories we tell ourselves contextualize the pain. Why does my heart ache? Because she loves someone else, because he dumped me. Why do I lash out at my boss even when the criticism is legit? I am never appreciated for what I do right, which more than balances the negatives. Why have I failed to achieve my goal? Well, a long time ago…
Dr. Larkin is a therapist who listens patiently to the stories her clients bring to her. Then she asks questions, which can be uncomfortable. But in the end, it is all about identifying the pain. The goal, I imagine, is mitigating the pain rather than distracting from it with the story. Because, as she says, the story makes the pain more tolerable.
And here’s the point: stories are not bad. They are, however, stories. A narrative is not necessarily fiction, neither is it inherently fact. Each one blazes a path from beginning to (presumed) end that may be well-trod or the road less taken. The delight of a story is that it explores a possibility without exhausting others. As enlightenment, provocation, entertainment or a dozen other functions, a story serves well. As explanation…not always.
I am not accusing you of willful self-delusion. As a human family, and as subgroups of that family, we have used stories to make sense of our world and the pain we understand as inevitable. Backbreaking work and the trauma involved in bearing a child is a lot more tolerable if our story involves being created in the divine image and suffering for our disobedience. But alleviating the pain seems to me to be the wiser goal than justifying the story. Any story once told can be retold, with a story.
As I began, human beings love stories, and for very good reason. They are an affirmation of what makes us human. They allow us to explore the life we traverse, sometimes providing us with insight and sometimes serving as placebo. The inevitable pain of life, whether physical or emotional, is a fact. It may be managed by stories we are told or we tell ourselves, but it should never be masked. Stories are much more enjoyable without the pain.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
Leaders deliver loss. Marty Linsky
Wow, I love this quotation. It is the most economical yet comprehensive description of anything I have ever encountered. These three words make a demand on my brain every time I look at them.
I had the privilege of learning from Marty Linsky a few times and to read much of what he has written (which is considerably longer). His biography includes being the recipient of deliveries from leaders any number of times and learning from it. I am certain that the way I choose to understand this small sentence today – different from many other times – will not capture a single dimension of what he meant.
Perhaps it is too obvious to say that we do not live in a perfect world. But that lack of perfection does not prevent people from feeling satisfied with the world they inhabit. The perfect may be the enemy of the good, but relinquishing perfection as the goal almost guarantees things will never be significantly better than they are right now. That’s too sad to contemplate.
In order for anything to improve, it must change. (Change, let’s acknowledge, is not always for the better. However, it’s unusual for people to set out with the intention of making things worse!) Once something changes, it disrupts the complacency and satisfaction of people invested in the status quo. A leader must be able to push people out of their comfort zones at a pace that does not exceed their capacity to adjust. That’s more than seeing where the crowd is headed and running to the front. That’s much less than imposing unilateral modifications.
And I hope it goes without saying (but I will say it anyway) that popularity is not the same as leadership. In the United States, we have a tendency to confuse the two. The President is blithely labeled the “leader of the free world,” but what that means is that he won the most recent election. Some presidents have been leaders. Some have merely won elections among the voters who are counted.
I can’t believe that after more than a year’s time, countless investigations and fantastical-illogical conspiracy theories, there are still people who believe our last presidential election ended with a fraudulent decision. By any accepted measure – popular vote or electoral vote – the incumbent was turned out of office by the challenger. Let’s name names: Joe Biden was the winner, and Donald Trump was the loser. But popularity is not the same as leadership. As we learned in 2016, when the accepted measures were not so much in sync, earning a title and thus holding a position is not the same as effectively pursuing a more perfect union.
The leader is the person who delivers loss and thus opens the path to forward movement. We have seen examples of people who have delivered loss to their followers and paved the way to progress – Jimmy Carter and George HW Bush come to mind, as well as countless state and local officials who placed the welfare of the community above their personal aspirations when they had to deliver loss.
I know Linsky was not thinking of Donald Trump when he distilled his wisdom into this one pithy saying. When I heard him say it, no one imagined a Trump candidacy, let alone presidency.
On January 6, 2021, we saw the definitive evidence that President Trump was not our leader. He may have had deep personal convictions that he should remain in office for a second term, but he could not deliver loss. The boundaries he broke down were not to necessary progress, but to self-serving regression. As we now know, even people in his camp – media flacks, political allies, his own family – urged him to deliver loss to the rioters and insurrectionists, and he refused. The result was the most profound threat to our republic since the War of 1812.
And we should not be sanguine about the removal of barriers around the Capitol and the investigations being conducted within it. A huge percentage of Americans still harbor suspicions about the validity of the 2020 election and wish to put the former president back in the Oval Office, even without the reversal of the official, legal, investigated constitutional process that removed him. The only way for us to move forward into our collective future is through leadership. And leadership delivers loss.
As I said, Linsky did not speak about Trump, and when I collected his words, I was not thinking about Trump. I have considered this insight every time I have looked at leadership and every time I have looked for leadership. Loss is hard to accept, especially the loss of what is familiar and comfortable. But what awaits is not what used to be great, but what has yet to be great.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
No one says goodbye anymore like we used to. The only real goodbye is at death. Time and distance have different destinations. In many ways, they do not exist. Robert Barr
Of the many changes that have swept through the human family, I imagine the one that has had the most profound impact has been the redefinition of what it means to say “goodbye.” While it is true that many languages use an aspirational greeting for departure (the French say au revoir, “until we see again”, Hebrew’s l’hitra’ot means “to see each other again”), the fact is that for most of human history, saying a true goodbye was likely a final separation. I don’t mean the kind of goodbye you say when leaving a dinner party or going home from a day’s work. I mean I’m-moving-to-another-city goodbye, or I’m-off-to-college goodbye, or I’m-going-to-explore-a-route-to-India goodbye. When people took leave of loved ones and familiar faces, it was more often than not the last time they would see each other.
I learned this truth from Bob Barr (NOT the Member of Congress – though he tried!), who has thought a lot about the subject. He is a humanistic rabbi whose congregation was based in the internet long before the pandemic made that a usual thing. In today’s world, no goodbye is permanent except for death. My nephew moved from Chicago to Jerusalem and, but for covid restrictions, spends time with his parents every few months. He sees them every few days on his mobile phone. His kids bake with my sister-in-law on tablets in each of their kitchens. That level of contact was prohibitively expensive in my lifetime and next to impossible a century ago. And while Facetime is not a hug, the loss and longing would have been a fact of everyday life before that.
What does it mean to lose the meaning of goodbye? First of all, it makes us noncomprehending of the meaning of the word. I don’t mean its origins; I mean its permanence. When we say goodbye today, we put no more stock in it than in seeing Wile E. Coyote flattened by an Acme anvil. That’s not say we do not feel sad when we are separated, but we reassure ourselves and each other of the temporary nature of “goodbye.”
I also think it changes our understanding of death. We have no practice in loss. Its arrival comes as much more of a shock to the system than we understand. I don’t think people in earlier times were any less sad when a death occurred. Perhaps they were a little more philosophical about it. But they had practice with its permanence and responded to its familiarity.
Today we rush from death, almost with alacrity. I am, of course, most familiar with Jewish tradition, which has a lengthy and elaborate set of rituals to ease people into and out of consuming grief. The length of ritualized mourning – seven days of separation from everyday life, a full month (for a parent, a full year) of thrice-daily prayers of remembrance and affirmation, refraining from social pleasures, and marking annual remembrances – is viewed as a burden rather than a process of honoring the dead and healing the survivor. Death is being denied, not as a fact, but as a force.
The genuine blessings of global and instantaneous communications and rapid travel in affordable conveyances have enabled so much that is good and desirable in our world. In many ways, the technology of connection has preserved our lives during the restrictions of a viral virus. Our celebration of and dependence on transport has never been more apparent than in its slowdown. I would never advocate for turning back the clock, digital or analog, on these advancements.
Rather, I hope we can find a way to learn with intention what our not-so-distant ancestors learned by increment: the loss of people near and dear to us is inevitable. The ability to say goodbye and adjust to a minute hope of reunion is practice for the ultimate leave-taking. Some people hope to reconnect in a realm beyond the physical, but even the deepest believer in the afterlife knows that there is a qualitative difference between this world and any world-to-come.
Barr correctly observes that time and distance almost no longer exist for the human family. That means they are no longer the proving grounds for separation, and we are unprepared -- not intellectually, but viscerally – to let go. Until there is no choice in the matter, we never can say goodbye.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
The awareness of sin is the essence of humility. David Brooks
Sooner or later, David Brooks had to turn up in this rotation of wisdom. Perhaps it is surprising that I, a rabbi, would find a representative quotation from a Jew that sounds so Christian. Brooks has been often honest, sometimes coy about his personal religious identity, but his integrity continues to lead him to consider insight wherever he finds it.
We live in a culture of self-affirmation. My impression, after forty years of exploring spiritual concerns with people, is that most of us, myself included, talk the talk, but are still pretty insecure about our sense of personal worth. We substitute bravado for true certainty and spend time in the shower or under the covers being reluctantly honest with ourselves.
In fact, I once asked a psychiatrist what he had gleaned from his years of treating patients. He said he had been therapist to janitors, doctors, teachers, businesspeople, and those in every imaginable walk of life, and they all expressed one thing in common in the safety and privacy of his office. They all believed themselves to be frauds, and it was only a matter of time until they were found out.
That very human sentiment is, I believe, very much at the root of religion. And I will offer a very broad understanding of religion as any set of values that posits a code of behavior (and even belief) that is more than the immediate interests of the believer. You needn’t posit a deity or an external moral code to believe in altruism. But once you posit that we each have more responsibility in this world than to serve ourselves – and anyone who isn’t a sociopath believes that – you believe in sin by any other name.
Sin is what separates us from the ideal. I am not embarrassed to name my ideal – God – but I can forego the label in pursuit of my point. When we are less than our authentic and whole selves, we sin. And because we are aware of it, whether purposefully and consciously or by our innate and private sense of being a fraud, we are humbled. Humility is an acceptance that we have fallen short of the ideal.
The season during which I am writing these words is sacred to Christians because it leads to the very initiation of their faith. Christmas is celebrated as the birthday of Jesus who, as Christianity claims, came into this world as a gift from the ideal (God) to take away our shortcomings (sin). It is a powerful message, and it is therefore no wonder that this religion has gained so many adherents. A true Christian, I am told (by true Christians, of course) is humble constantly because of their awareness of the constant presence of sin as part of their nature.
(I am also told that anyone not possessed of a humble nature is not really a true Christian, but I will leave that to believers to debate.)
But Brooks’s wisdom, whether it emerges from insight or faith, applies to those of us, including me, who find its truth to be independent of the message of any faith or philosophy. The arrogant person, the one who proclaims, “I’m kind of a big deal,” is publicly unaware of falling short of their ideal because of their unawareness of sin. Privately, on the other hand, no person who pretends to goodness can be arrogant.
I probably used to believe you had to be a person of faith to be a good person. I might even plead guilty to once believing you had to be Jewish to be a good person. Evidence to the contrary is too strong for me to lay claim to either position any more. All I know with any degree of confidence is myself. I shudder to think what kind of person I might be without my religion to hold before me a path to the ideal. I am no longer discouraged to admit that at best I can hope to stand occasionally in the wake of the ideal. I fall short, that is, I sin. It keeps me humble to remember it, even in those moments in the wake.
Our culture of self-affirmation has rejected the dour image of humanity promoted by the formal sin-and-redemption stance of established religions. Mostly, that’s a good thing. We may not be perfect, but mostly we are not all that bad. But by discarding the notion of sin – of falling short of the ideal – we run the risk of closing the door to embracing the potential of being better than we are. All that humility really means is that I can do better, and the awareness of my need to do better is the essence of humility, and the roadmap that leads away from believing I am a fraud.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
It is our ordinariness that connects us. Salma Hasan Ali
Some might deny it, but every religion in the world starts from the presumption that it is the best. Otherwise, why believe? It is true of religions in the classical sense – those with divinely revealed scriptures or cosmically imparted values – and it is true of religions that claim not really to be religions – secular philosophies, pagan communities, even the Pastafarians (look it up).
The old joke about two litigants who make their case to a rabbi applies here. He listens privately to the first one and says, “You’re right.” The second one takes a turn and the rabbi says, “You’re right.” His wife, listening to the proceedings, admonishes her husband that they can’t both be right. The rabbi responds, “You’re also right.”
These deeply held convictions are usually kept at bay in polite company. They are also concealed with a veneer of collaboration in interfaith councils that seek the widest possible membership. In the end, no matter how compelling the argument, Christians won’t give up Jesus, Muslims won’t accept a different Prophet, Buddhists won’t affirm a deity, atheists won’t accept an external source of morality, and Jews won’t stop insisting that we are a people, not only a religion. We all may affirm the meaning of your belief system as profoundly meaningful to you, but still at least one tick short of what we ourselves believe.
No answer is universal.
But Ali is correct when she insists that it is our ordinariness that connects us. The elaborate and powerful teachings that make up our belief systems may keep us apart. But we make a mistake to focus on them when we are looking for connections. The questions are what bind us together.
Maybe it is a mistake to try to list some of them here because I will inevitably leave out the one most important to you and maybe everyone else who isn’t me. But if you think about the matters that trouble your heart – not in a debilitating way, but as a matter of existential curiosity – my guess is that the challenges we face every day in the midst of our ordinariness give us far more in common than the answers we pursue individually and collectively with such ferocity.
Mostly they are questions of meaning. Why am I alive? Do I have a purpose? Am I loved? Can I love? What is truly important? Are we alone? What should I fear?
The combination of collective wisdom, predisposition, and cultural immersion leads us to responses that divide us into groups that provide us with rituals and symbols designed to make us tentatively satisfied with responses. For a time, shorter or longer, we are satisfied. But that satisfaction is what so often leaves us suspicious of others who have reached different conclusions. They are probably wrong. But what if they are not?
At the core of our humanity are the common concerns that lead us to seek the answers. The questions are ordinary, and they rest on the heart of young and old, spiritual and secular, familiar and exotic, local and distant. Our everyday worries and our ultimate ones are a far greater indication of what we share with others than the answers we choose that deceive us into believing one size fits all.
Don’t be insulted by being ordinary in your concerns. As Salma Hasan Ali suggests, it is what connects us to each other. There is plenty of room to be extraordinary – even unique – in the ways you find to address your questions. But I hope you also find solace in knowing that for all the disagreements and conflicts we face in our fractious society today, taking a step back from the frantic efforts to proclaim an undisputed answer leaves us standing together with people of all persuasions who are connected by ordinary questions with which we all grapple.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
I don’t want your hand-me-down hatred. Starlette Thomas
I ought to know better than to try to expand on Starlette Thomas’s take on anything. She has one of those gifted minds that can find the nugget of insight in any situation and offer it up in an unforgettable way.
Take this notion of “hand-me-down hatred.” I have nothing against hand-me downs in general – we have dishes, pots and pans, furniture, artwork, and a few pieces of jewelry that are entirely serviceable or carry with them sweet and lasting memories. Every one of our kids drove hand-me-down cars. And there isn’t an article of kids’ clothing that doesn’t have a travel itinerary. Reuse and recycle are tactics to address rampant consumerism.
But hand-me-down hatred? This is not some riff on the Guess Who from 50 years ago. It is a recognition that without focused critiques of how we think – individually and as a society – the parts of our lives that lead to undesirable outcomes continue to come out undesirably.
I have written before of how hard it is to recognize the embedded prejudices that seem innocuous to those of us who hold them. A friend of mine once told me of driving along Georgia Avenue in Washington, DC, just past Howard University, one of the premier historically Black universities. He was a White liberal pastor, active in civil rights causes and purposeful about relationships with people of all kinds. A car filled with black teenagers pulled up next to him at a traffic light, and the kid in the front passenger seat motioned to him to roll down his window. He was terrified, he said, and began imagining the headlines in the newspaper the next day. Reluctantly, he cracked the window. “Pardon me,” said the kid, “would you have any Grey Poupon?” The carload dissolved into hysterics and drove away.
Where did that fear come from, he wanted to know. The attack he imagined in his moment of surprise and serendipity was outside of any experience he ever had. It was statistically beyond unlikely. And he was quite certain that if the car had been filled with White kids his reaction would have been very different.
The incident happened many years ago, long before the terms “systemic racism” and “White privilege” entered common usage. But just because they did not have names that were modern terms of art does not mean that he had not inherited a visceral reaction to young men of color, despite his conscious intentions.
It is certainly racism, but not only racism. Ethnic identity, religion, economic status, body type, sexual orientation and gender identity – all of these and more resonate in particular ways that defy the best opinions that good people have about themselves. It is easy to be critical of people who are overtly prejudiced against others unlike themselves. But once we have done that, we have to ask the question about how it is that such biases are allowed to continue.
I do not have the answer, but I do have an answer. We live in a society that has greased the chute that delivers the predispositions of one generation to the next. Is it intentional? I think no person of conscience wants to believe that the disdain of one human being for others is the life’s purpose of the prejudiced.
But my pastor friend was nonetheless filled with all the predisposition he needed to consider a group of goofy kids to be malicious rather than happy. How many news broadcasts and front-page stories had to highlight race (or any of the other aforementioned characteristics) before autonomic bias becomes resident? All his earnest and faithful hard work to rise above the undesirable inclinations of his own heart were not sufficient to resist the hand-me-down hatred that reinforced unspoken but unmistakable mechanisms that keep it alive.
You are looking to me for a suggestion about how to dismantle our hand-me-down hatred of other races, other identities, other people. Would that I had it. All I know is that it is not something that can be accomplished alone.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
Haven’t you ever longed for a witness? “Katrine Fonsmark”
I apologize for the explanation that must accompany this quotation. It was spoken by a character in the Danish series “Borgen,” a version of “West Wing” set in Denmark (on Netflix). The writer of the series, and therefore likely this remark, is Adam Price, who authored it in Danish and put it in the mouth of Birgitte Hjort Sørenson, the actress playing the role. The plotline is powerful, but too long to recount. The English words that begin this column are from a subtitle. If you got this far, thank you.
This much you should know: it is spoken to someone who has hidden a secret from the woman he purports to love. After he tries to win her back, she complains that he keeps secrets from her, clearly insecure that if she knew them, she would no longer love him back. But without that honesty, she insists, she does not have confidence in his love. He balks. She says, “Haven’t you ever longed for a witness?”
And so, we have art imitating life. From Biblical times to today, the desire we frantically pursue – to be loved – is challenged by our concern that if the object of our affections knew the truth about us, the love would disappear. Cain tries to hide his fratricide from the God whose favor he seeks. Jacob deceives his father to get a blessing. Kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers, ordinary couples, best of friends hide essential beliefs, experiences, and identities for fear of losing love.
I’m not talking about mere embarrassment, like the time I discovered that my zipper was down throughout my first interview as a rabbinical student. (I got the job.) I mean secrets that live inside a well-constructed artifice designed to present to the world the image of who I would like to be instead of who I am.
I cannot pretend to know what goes on in the heart of someone who holds such a secret. I barely know my own. I have managed to rise above most of my self-inflicted insecurities and to pick myself up and stand again on those occasions that I have flopped. But I would not have been able to do so if I had not taken a chance that the love directed my way was genuine and unshakeable.
That’s the nature of real love. It is not a favor bestowed on the recipient. It is not an affection that must be earned, bought, or justified on a continual basis. It is instead an affirmation that you are valued for the wholeness of who you are.
As you read this, if you are like every human being (and you are), you imagine that there is some part of you that could break the love on which you have come to rely. Perhaps it is some aspect of your identity that you imagine is anathema to friend, partner, or parent. Perhaps it is a bad behavior in your past, distant or recent, you are striving to put behind you (not always successfully). Perhaps it is something which befell you that presses on your heart though it is over and done.
The result is a place of loneliness to which you exile yourself when companionship is what you need the most. The isolation you feel is something you would not wish on anyone else. You hope, at the deepest level, that given the opportunity you would free anyone about whom you care from similar anguish.
And that’s why a failure of genuine love is a shortcoming of the person who withdraws it. Love is not always approval. Love is not always endorsement. Love is a witness to the wholeness of another. When we are blessed with it, the door to self-imposed solitary confinement is slammed shut before entry.
I think it is no wonder that every religion – that is, every imagining of the human relationship with the divine – insists on the primacy of love.
I am not a therapist and I have no training in the sciences of behavior and emotion. Please do not take these words as advice to suddenly bare your soul to someone who says they love you. And, even more so, if you have no such love in your life at this moment, please do not consider radical self-disclosure to be the way to inspire it.
Rather, be the witness. In doing so, you will fulfill the longing of the people whom you love to know they cannot break that connection.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
If you’re grateful for your life, then you are grateful for all of it. Stephen Colbert
Maybe you know his story and maybe you don’t. Long before Stephen Colbert became the Broadway and television star he is, he was the youngest of eleven children of committed Roman Catholics, loved and cared-for by his stay-at-home mother and his very successful physician/academician father. When he was ten years old, his father and two next older brothers were killed in a commercial airplane crash. The bottom fell out of his world.
Colbert remains a practicing Catholic with a deep faith in God. Asked in an interview how he can look back on the tragedy he suffered and the hard times that followed and still profess a faith, he responded, “If you’re grateful for your life, then you are grateful for all of it.”
So many of us, myself included, find it difficult to imagine the world around us as cause for unflagging gratitude. To be sure, as Americans we live with far more cause to appreciate the circumstances around us than so many others in the world who face daily challenges to mere subsistence for themselves and those they love. However, as I learned from Rabbi David Aronson, of blessed memory, on my very first day of seminary, a rich man with a stone in his shoe hurts just as much as a poor man with a stone in his shoe. You cannot comfort a ten-year-old by pointing out that he still has one parent and eight siblings left.
Being grateful for all of your life does not mean deflecting the bad by appreciating the good. It is an extraordinary feat of affirmation to be thankful for the sting of the bee in the same measure as its honey, and yet a person of such perspective understands the richness of being human that is present in every experience.
My own tradition affirms this approach as well. In the Mishnah, the collection of legal teachings derived from the Bible, there are instructions about acknowledging God’s beneficence in expected circumstances – upon seeing something majestic in nature, rediscovering a separated friend, enjoying a meal, acquiring new household goods. But a general principle also applies: One is obligated to recite a blessing for the bad that befalls him just as he recites a blessing for the good that befalls him. That instruction is derived from a teaching familiar to Jew and Catholic alike: Love God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might. That is, not only with the happy parts.
I don’t know that in the moment of bereavement, little Stephen gave thanks for his life and all it had just become. When I was much, much older – at a time when I might have simply glided to the end of a long career and retired – I made a decision write a new chapter instead. The year that followed was an unmitigated disaster. I was unsuccessful in my new endeavor. I found myself marginalized in my former community. Beloved relatives died. There was a roster of lesser and greater challenges that felt amplified by their sheer volume and context. I was one miserable human being.
I was dared by my wife to be happy. With her help, I looked around and understood I had a choice about how I reacted to the turmoil around me. I could be defined by it, or I could work my way through my troubles with an appreciation that I indeed had that choice. I am grateful to her as well.
I caution you (and myself) against considering this attitude first-world privilege. Of course, Stephen Colbert is on the other side of his tragedy, and I am on the other side of my significantly lesser challenges. Gratitude is not dependent on overcoming the obstacles put before you; it is a conscious decision to live in a state of appreciation for the very fact of life, no matter its trials and tribulations, even as you feel the pain. That’s why adherents of different faith traditions respond with some version of gratitude to any situation. I most appreciate the call-and-response in charismatic Christian circles where one person proclaims, “God is good” and the listener responds, “all the time.” But I equally appreciate the simple declaration in Hebrew to any moment – “Barukh Hashem,” Praise God – the truncated version of the instruction in the Mishnah.
With a table of bounty spread before us and a day set aside for giving thanks for it all, it is easy to consider them the fruits of being alive and sustained and arriving at this moment. The virus has not disappeared, the challenges of society have not evaporated, and troubles and tragedies, as always, lie ahead. But whether you take your cue from Stephen Colbert, the Mishnah or the teachings of your own tradition or philosophy, this much is true: If you’re grateful for your life, then you are grateful for all of it.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
Democracy is not an a la carte system. You must value the common good. Peggy Noonan
Liberal democratic politics is dependent on our other identities. Michael Walzer
I had a hard time choosing between these two pieces of wisdom to inspire this column, so I chose them both. It seems to me they express the same essential insights, though from different perspectives.
Peggy Noonan is a Roman Catholic, Michael Walzer is a Jew. Noonan is conservative, Walzer is liberal. She is a capitalist, and he leans toward socialism and communitarianism. She is mostly Republican, and he is more likely to support Democrats. Both are proud to be Americans.
They see eye to eye on an essential truth that is melting in the heat of our current rhetorical intensity.
One of the blessings of the American ethos is the lifting up of the worth of the individual. When the Declaration of Independence declares that “all men are created equal,” we understand (today, after processing this claim for hundreds of years) that it means “each person is created equal.” In legislative and judicial halls and in political contests, we have debated and refined the notion of equality. In fact, I might even claim we have come to appreciate what my colleague Rabbi Jeremy Winaker calls “radical equality.” I know that for some folks, the word “radical” is a red flag. But here, I mean it in its generic meaning – taking the concept of equality to its logical limits.
In recent years, equity has been added to the concept. Many claim (and I agree) that before people can claim to guarantee equality, the playing field must be level. An illustration I saw showed two kids standing behind the fence around a ballfield, watching the game. The ground was flat, but the kids were of different heights. In that sense, they were equal. But the short kid couldn’t see the field. So, a box was place for the short kid to stand on. That’s equity that leads to equality.
All of that is well and good in theory, and few among us would object to such simple measures to ensure equal opportunity. Yet the circumstances that Noonan and Walzer talk about are not so easily resolved. Those that feel entitled to their rights and privileges are sometimes unwilling to create equitable and equal circumstances for others if they fear losing the full measure of those rights and privileges. Before you get too judgey about others, consider that we all have those tendencies – the very few among us would elect to live in reduced circumstances as a way of making things more even. However, the idea that saves us from devolving into a dog-eat-dog society is the common good, the by-product of liberal democratic politics.
To their dismay – and mine – that commitment to promote the general welfare is what feels like it is slipping away. Everybody, I think, endorses the notion of the general welfare (as long as it’s not what some people call subsidized unemployment), but the hyper-individualism that afflicts us makes each person’s definition of it more a reflection of the life they want to live rather than the common good.
Peggy Noonan suggests that the democracy we seek to preserve is not divisible into component parts which any given person sorts into like-and-dislike piles. The ability to live your best life is dependent on equitable opportunities for others to do the same. You might get away with a me-first approach for a while, but it is the fool who doesn’t recognize the fragility life that ignores the totality for the sake of the particular.
Michael Walzer insists that our society, a liberal democracy (liberal, like radical, in its generic meaning) demands that each of us bring the whole self to the party, needs and gifts alike, commonalities and distinctiveness together. The individual has, in turn, the rightful expectation that such wholeness will be embraced. Denying or concealing the unique aspects of identity shortchanges the body politic and disables the interactions that allow our democracy to thrive.
I think Noonan and Walzer would laugh if I suggested they had the same message on any level other than general principle. But I will take the chance at causing them a little entertainment. Equality, leavened with a commitment to equity, can be achieved in different ways (which may be their point of mutual departure). However we get there, the destination for each of us is a place of commonality that values the essence of who we are.
Wisdom Wherever You Find it
The moral utility of history lies in its capacity to remind us of our duty to stand vigilant against and to take action against perennial and pernicious forces that lead to discrimination, to genocide, to hunger, oppression, and injustice. Jon Meacham
My little black book of quotations has multiple entries from multiple people. Often it is because a speech or essay contains more than one observation that demanded residence in my memory. Sometimes it is because a person has an astonishingly consistent talent for sharing insight. Jon Meacham is one of those people, and even though it has been a mere four months since he provoked one of these columns, he becomes the first repeat contributor because this quotation gobsmacked me.
I have written before about how history is a human construct that chooses among a myriad of events to create a narrative from the past to inform the present. (I will pause while you reread that.) That notion does not make history illegitimate as a concept or a discipline. It only makes it less objective.
If you need evidence of how history and its lessons can be manipulated to change fiction to fact, I will point you to the belated awakening to the fabrications of the “Lost Cause” explanation of the Civil War. Until very recently, the capital of my home commonwealth, Richmond, Virginia, boasted of the prestigious Monument Avenue over which enormous statues of Confederate war heroes presided. They were promoted, erected, maintained, and protected by descendants of the Old South who rejected the legal definition of someone who conducts armed insurrection against the United States government: traitor. The sore losers of the Confederacy, in addition to including in textbooks from which Virginia schoolchildren learned the redefinition “the war of Northern aggression,” sought to make noble cause out of the attempt to keep human beings enslaved for both economic and racial purposes.
In that context, I am inspired by the observation of Mr. Meacham that history has a moral utility. “Utility” is ultimately practical. But “moral” is all about values. The narrative we construct out of the loose pieces of the past is used to justify the present and guide our path to tomorrow and the next day. Right now in our country we are witnessing a scramble to use the tiles and stones of yesterday to create a mosaic that represents today. For someone who considers themselves at least modestly informed, the picture that emerges is enlightening not only for what is included but also for what was left in the scrap heap.
That is the case with the folks who are digging their heels into the contemporary manifestations of “Lost Cause” thinking, imagining a great America past that can be great again. It is also the case with folks who have bet the farm on various theories about how the flaws of the past have become systemic and must therefore be plucked out of today’s narrative and ground to dust. In both cases – and many others – the utility of history is to create a today of their choosing. If I had hope of a constructive conversation (and let me admit that the lack of such a hope is my problem, not theirs), I’d love to ask about the values being served by that utility and what it means for people who do not subscribe.
It is worth noting that Meacham’s formulation came almost incidentally (in an unbelievably well-crafted presentation) as he introduced a panel to pay tribute to Elie Wiesel on the occasion of the dedication of a tribute to him in the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. The cathedral has quite literally constructed a mosaic out of selected tiles and stones to create a narrative. It has also been reevaluating some of those pieces and removing or replacing ones that tell a story that does not represent their values.
I take a small amount of pride that I was able to move past being impressed by the phrase “the moral utility of history” to what followed it in Meacham’s formulation. It was a statement in the midst of his acknowledgment of the failings of the church (not just Episcopal) regarding outsiders (not only but especially Jews), and of the United States government in acting on behalf of the victims of the Holocaust (not just but including Elie Wiesel). The moral utility of history, please notice, is to caution us to stance and action consistent with our values: preventing discrimination, genocide, hunger, oppression, and injustice. I don’t think he meant it as an exhaustive list, but I’d be pretty happy to start with those successes.
As I think of history in the context of this insight, I hope I can remember to give up the fruitless arguments about what is relevant or not, what is accurate or manipulated, what is important or negligible. Everything is both. At least as important is that moral utility. What are the values any telling of history promotes, and what does that telling do to get them realized.