Stocking up on Humility

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, was last week. It is followed by the ten Days of Awe, a time for reflection and repentance leading up to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

I always thought it was a particularly Jewish approach to things, to have the biggest day of celebration followed almost immediately by the Day of Atonement, as if to say, “be happy, but not too happy….”

As I was sitting in temple during the Rosh Hashanah service, I found myself reflecting on conversations I’ve had with Jewish friends in the past few weeks about Judaism as an identity and culture versus Judaism as a religion. These friends spoke proudly of their Jewish identity, while also expressing skepticism of the role that Jewish religious practice plays, or should play, as a core part of that identity.

It turns out that these friends represent a broader trend: according to a 2015 Pew study, while the Jewish population as a whole is stable, it is also thinning out in the middle: there’s growth in highly observant Orthodox Jews and growth in people who consider themselves Jewish but who are non-religious.

This got me thinking about whether we can fully untangle Jewish (or other religions’) identity from the religious practice of Judaism. What role do the prayers themselves, and the act of going to temple, play in my own sense of identity, as a Jew and as a human being?

I don’t have any simple answers. What I know is that I personally have contradictory experiences when I go to temple: each individual moment, and each individual prayer, don’t make complete sense to me, but overall I get a feeling of warmth, of belonging, of reflection, of community, and of meaning-making that feel foundational to who I am and how I show up in the world.

What struck me in particular this year was that going to services is a great way to stock up on humility.

Whatever your belief in a specific divine presence, there is wonder and awe and beauty in the world that is much bigger than any one of us. The words of nearly every prayer are successive reminders that there are much bigger forces at work than me, a single small human being. Whether that “something bigger” is a divine presence, the laws of nature, or simply the millions of years of life on this planet that came before I showed up, the prayers are a heck of a reminder for all of us not to get too big for our britches, not to think too highly of our own lives, and not to give ourselves too much credit for our roles in the things we have accomplished. They are also a reminder of wisdom passed down through the generations: about right and wrong, about asking for forgiveness, about remembering to bow our heads to forces bigger than us.

Whether we need religious practice itself to remind us of these things is a separate question. But it cannot be a bad thing, for all of us who care about our ongoing development as leaders, to have ritualized, sacred practices through which we are reminded to be humble.

Bok choy, not chicken

One of the things that I’ve discovered about being a (mostly) vegetarian / (sorta) vegan* is that if I don’t plan accordingly I will nearly always be starving whenever I fly anywhere.  The vegetarian options on a plane are inevitably either very sad salads or cheese plates, hence the hunger.

Last week when getting off a plane in San Francisco I had an extra 10 minutes before being picked up at the airport, and I found a small place to get Chinese food, mostly stir-fry.  You’ve been to this place and its many cousins: pick the entrée (chicken, beef, etc.) to go with your noodles or rice for $10.  As usual there was no non-meat option, which to me means no lunch option, so I asked the woman behind the counter what I could do and she told me that they’d be happy to whip up a vegetable stir fry (for $16, but that’s another story).

This got me thinking about doing what I want versus following rules that I set for myself.

The omnivore I used to be would have happily and without a second thought ordered the chicken or beef entrée.  The vegetarian I aspire to be saw nothing to eat and asked a different question that led to a different outcome – one that I was just as happy with (and my omnivorous self would have liked just fine as well, but would never have dreamed of asking).  With the pre-existing rule in place I behaved differently and got a better outcome for me.

Reflecting on my ongoing exploration of the practice of generosity, it’s impossible to ignore that virtually every major religion has specific norms and expectations around generosity, giving, caring for others. When I think about what my generosity exploration is a reaction against, part of the answer is the modern, progressive, liberal, often not-so-religious worldview that is all too familiar to me as an American northeasterner who went to a liberal arts college.  In this worldview I’m supposed to be aware of and care about the world, supposed to believe in the role of government and believe in social safety nets, but in terms of how I individually am supposed to act, what’s considered right and wrong, sacred and profane, how I fit into a broader group (my community, my religion, my extended family) and how and when I subjugate what feels right to me to rules or expectations or group norms or tradition – it’s a conversation we rarely have and often don’t even know how to start.

What have we lost in this world free of constraints?  What do we give up when we shed rules, expectations, obligations, a sense of duty or service or respect for traditions?

The balancing act is that I am a huge believer in bucking tradition, in unshackling ourselves from a set of norms that keep us from contributing to our full potential, to recognizing all that we have to offer and all that the world needs from us.  At the same time I know from my own experience that creating a set of expectations – of rules – whether around food or a practice of generosity or, yes, religion causes me to take actions I wouldn’t otherwise take, actions that expose me to different experiences and different people and different behaviors….not each one exactly what I hope it will be, but more often than not I’m discovering wisdom and connection and a sense of place and belonging along the way.

How much do I really know what is best for me and how I carry myself in the world?  And how much are we all giving up when we give up our obligations?

 

 

* “(sorta) vegan” is what I’m able to pull off without embracing meat/cheese substitutes and/or avoiding nearly all foods and restaurants.  It essentially equates to low dairy.

Sacredness and motivated ignorance

I recently had the chance to hear Jonathan Haidt, author of the new best-selling book (#6 on the NYTimes Bestseller list) The Righteous Mind, speak about his work.  Jonathan is the author of The Happiness Hypothesis, he gave a great TED talk in 2008 on moral psychology and a few weeks ago he gave another great TED talk on transcendence.

It’s hard to imagine better timing for the publication of The Righteous Mind.  As chronicled in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review, a significant part of the book focuses on why the political left and the political right in the United States don’t understand each other.  Given the unprecedented divides in U.S. politics today and the run-up to the presidential elections, The Righteous Mind is a sort of Rosetta Stone for deciphering everything from the Tea Party to the environmental movement to Occupy Wall Street.

Two of the underpinnings of Jonathan’s work – also explored by other authors – have already changed the way I understand the world.  The first is that reason follows intuition.   This means that we make decisions and form opinions with our intuitive minds, and then use our power to reason to support our intuitive decisions.  In Jonathan’s words, the intuitive (or emotional) dog wags the rational tail.   This is why we find it so incomprehensible that people with different moral outlooks don’t “just respond to the facts.”  We think that people look at facts to make decisions, when in fact they make decisions and then look for facts that support those decisions.

(and “people” isn’t everyone else, it’s you too.  That’s the really important part.)

The second big insight for me is around the notion of sacredness.  Jonathan argues that to begin to really understand people, you have to understand what is sacred to them.  The left and the right in the U.S. (on social issues) hold very different things sacred, and if you, in Jonathan’s words, “follow the sacredness” you’ll have a whole new window into how people process information and form their opinions.  So, as Jonathan described it, the right in the U.S. holds moral order, marriage and faith sacred; the left currently consider the environment and issues around race and social justice sacred.   In both cases, Jonathan argued that sacredness creates “motivated ignorance.”  In Jonathan’s words, “when sacredness conflicts with truth, truth gets thrown under the bus.”

This helps explain to an exasperated liberal why conservatives “just don’t get it” about global warming just as it explains to an exasperated conservative why liberals “just don’t get” having religiously-affiliated hospitals institutions pay for contraceptives for their members is morally abhorrent.

Needless to say, I’m better at seeing one side of this exasperation than the other.  And that’s exactly the point.  A lot of my blogging and my work begins with a deep belief in and respect for others and the power of empathy.  I’d also like to think of myself as an open-minded person.  But Jonathan’s work forces me to ask myself whether I create the space to really understand and appreciate what is sacred to other people whose morality differs fundamentally from my own.

It helps me understand why people won’t look at the same convincing, powerful facts that I will and just change their opinions.

It helps us all understand why we all have so much trouble understanding one another, why this country is so divided and why it seems to be getting worse, not better.

Jonathan’s request of us all in this 2008 TED talk is that we embrace moral humility, that we step out of the “moral matrix” that limits us to seeing and respecting people who share our morality and our values.  It is a challenging notion, and an important one, one that turns my world upside-down…in a good way.