The Rabbi Writes: Renewal

The Jewish Humanist, March 1993, Vol. XXIX, Number 8

Renewal.  That is the theme of our March retreat.  It is the special theme of our thirtieth anniversary celebration. 

Renewal means a strengthening of our commitment to the importance of the Birmingham Temple and of Humanistic Judaism in our lives.  It means that neither can be taken for granted, and that their welfare and survival depend on our personal efforts and involvement. 

There are many ways that we can express our commitment. 

We may choose to develop a better understanding of our Jewish and humanist roots.  The Monday evening class on Jewish history and Jewish culture and the Shabbat morning discussion group on Jewish literature await our participation. We can even call the Temple and acquire a book list of important reading that we can do all on our own.  Study can intensify our humanistic awareness of the Jewish experience and Jewish identity. 

We may choose to join a Temple committee or Temple work group.  The congregation exists because hundred (sic) of volunteers over the past thirty years have contributed their time and energy to the programs and activities of our unique community.  The Temple provides all kinds of opportunities for interesting work-intellectual, artistic, literary, social, ethical.  Along the way you meet new people and make new friends.  The bonds of friendship are the lifeblood of the congregation. 

We may choose to participate in the celebration life of the congregation  Every Shabbat evening we come together to celebrate our Jewishness and to renew our commitment to each other, to the Jewishh people and to the ethical values we strive to realize.  Being in the Temple on Friday night-all together-heightens our awareness of the community to which we belong and of the philosophy of life by which we seek to live.  Singing songs and lighting candles are not trivial when they are part of community renewal. 

We may choose to bring our Judaism into our home.  There is more to Jewish expression than Hanukka and Passover.  We may introduce a holiday we have never celebrated before.  We may read out loud the literature of Humanistic Judaism, think about it and talk about it with our partners and children.  We may even display a symbol as simple as our very own “Humanorah” to remind us of our identity and beliefs.  Even sophisticated people-although they are reluctant to admit it-may find meaning in visible symbols. 

We may choose to give our energy to community service.  Ethics only become real when they are turned into personal behavior.  Poor Jews need our help.  Russian families need our help.  Homeless people need our help.  The battle for abortion and life style rights is a continuous struggle against powerful opponents.  Social action can be done in many places.  But doing it through the Birmingham Temple strengthens the moral outreach of our own community. 

We may choose to discuss the Temple and Humanistic Judaism with our friends and neighbors.  Sharing ideas and convictions with others does not turn us into aggressive and overzealous missionaries.  But there may be people we know who would really enjoy the Birmingham Temple if only they fully understood our philosophy and if only they could associate Humanistic Judaism with enthusiastic people they love and trust.  New members come to us-not because they are “converts”-but because they discover, for the first time, a community where they can be both honest and comfortable.  Finding new families and singles for the Temple strengthens the congregation.  But it may also strengthen the newcomers. 

We may choose to participate in the movement of Humanistic Judaism.  The Temple is part of a national and world outreach which we helped to create.  We do not stand alone.  There are brother and sister communities in North America, Europe, Israel, Australia and Latin America who share our commitment to a cultural Judaism.  There is also the International Institute which trains our leaders and rabbis and also provides weekend seminars of adult education to help us intensify our Jewish and Humanist awareness.  Participating in the movement means meeting and working with people from all over our country and the world.  There are national conferences to attend.  There are international; meetings to enjoy.  There are annual trips to Israel to join.  There are programs, like the rabbinic program, to support.  Sharing with others in the project of making Humanistic Judaism a viable and recognized alternative in Jewish life is an exciting way to build our future. 

We may choose to be optimistic.  Hope is not a guarantee promised by destiny.  It is a determination to create what needs to be created.  Without that determination the Birmingham Temple would never have survived the assaults of her opponents and the wariness of skeptics.  Choosing hope means that we are serious about the future.  We do not accept the past unquestioningly.  We do not revere our tradition.  We are open to making changes that need to be made.  What once worked may no longer work.  As long as we remain faithful to our fundamental principles and mission, the strategies of implementing them can comfortably adjust to reality.  Creativity has to balance our nostalgia. 

I hope that the thirtieth birthday anniversary will be a time of renewal for you. 

The Rabbi Writes: What We Can Learn From 1984

The Jewish Humanist, January 1985, Vol. XXIIk Number 6

It’s 1985. 

It’s nice to know that the free world is still here and that Orwell’s vision of 1984 has not yet come to pass. 

What can we learn from 1984 (the real one – not the one that Orwell imagined)? What new and interesting things happened during the past year – or what old and important things happened that were reconfirmed by experience? 

In 1984 we learned – or relearned – that people prefer optimism. Political candidates who convey hope have a better chance of winning elections than political candidates who predict doom. The Mondale ‘tell-the-truth-and-face-the-problem’ approach is electorally self-destructive. The masses prefer vague messianic vocabulary to depressing news. Democrats who will run for office in 1985 or 1986 ought to remember that simple reality. 

We learned that elections are won on television. Presidential hopefuls who look bad or awkward on the ‘tube’ have little chance of winning. A crippled Roosevelt or a humorousness Hoover would have had a hard time taking the presidential sweepstakes in 1984. 

We learned that liberals have become politically inept. They have successfully alienated the historic allies that, at one time, gave them the power to win. Blue collar workers, poor whites, eastern and southern Europeans ethnics – many of them no longer feel comfortable in the Democratic party and with the designation ‘liberal.’ 

We learned that not everything Reagan does is wrong. The controversial Grenada Invasion, which overthrew a tyrannical Marxist government, has now yielded a free election and a moderate regime which enjoys public approval. Also the new tax proposals out of the Treasury Department are a commendable series of recommendations. They propose to shift some of the burden of taxation from the individual to the corporation and to eliminate many of the immoral tax loopholes the rich have exploited. For the  so-called party of the rich, the Treasury proposals are refreshingly fair.  

We learned that religion produces the worst terrorists. The suicide bombings of embassies and military installations by Shiite fanatics is a telling refutation of the fundamentalist thesis that religion improves morality. The ‘voice of Allah’ has become the voice of murder. 

We learned that, contrary to the predictions of many skeptics, democracy is not on the decline in the world. In Latin America, where, only a few years ago, right wing dictators and military juntas prevailed, the emergence of new democratic regimes is a startling transformation. Argentina, Uruguay and Panama have already made the change. Brazil and Guatemala are on the way. Perhaps military tyrannies are not the wave of the future. Perhaps there is the possibility of a democratic revival in the third-world countries that have experienced the economic failure of soldier regimes.  

We learned that, contrary to what Jeanne Kirkpatrick of UN fame said, it is possible for left-wing totalitarian regimes to reverse themselves and to become more liberal. China, the largest Communist country in the world, is now engaging in a rapid dismantling of its Maoist structures and glorifying the acquisitive behaviors of the bourgeois world. Only this past month both Marx and Lenin were summarily dismissed as being irrelevant to the problems of modern China. Will political wonders never cease?  

We learned that singers, in this age of political disillusionment, have the best chance of becoming gods. If Michael Jackson had decided to run for the presidency, he might have given Ronald Reagan a good run for his money, especially if teenagers have been enfranchised. We can expect an increasing number of movie actors, disc jockeys, television news commentators and rock vocalists will enter politics and be successful. Lawyers, beware! 

We learned that Jews can be fascists too. The over publicized victory of Meir Kahane is an embarrassing revelation that the Jewish people is ethically (sic) normal . We have our share of racist and religious bigots too. The one positive result of Kahane’s success may be that it will silence, at least for a while, the insufferable propagandists who insist that Jews are morally superior to other groups. 

We have learned that Jews, also, can prefer public welfare to self reliance. The shameful request of the Israeli government for more American money to sustain the present Israeli standard of living is an ironic proposal for a nation that prides itself on its self-reliance. Now is the time for a painful austerity. But the present Israeli government is unwilling to impose the economic diet the country needs. Short-run political advantages outweigh long-run survival strategies. 

We have even learned that the so-called resurgence of traditional Judaism may not be the whole story of what’s happening in the Jewish religious world today. The Jewish Theological Seminary, the rabbinic school of Conservative Judaism, which for years prided itself on its adherence to the basics of traditional law, defied the halakha and, imitating Reform, opened its doors to women students. The vision of females with tefillin may seem half-traditional (sic). But it really isn’t. 

Well, we learned many more things too. But enough is enough.  

The New Egalitarianism and the Death of Deference

Humanistic Judaism, Autumn 1984, Vol. XII, Number III

The family isn’t what it used to be. Almost every social commentator has noticed that fact. 

The traditional family was a survival and reproduction unit. It provided food, shelter and protection to every individual member. It also demanded work, cooperation and loyalty. Virtually all important social activities were encompassed by it. Education, entertainment, friendship, and religion were usually conducted within its walls. 

The structure of the traditional family was authoritarian; the male chauvinist father was the ruler and demanded obedience. If wives and children exercised power, they did so deviously, never openly admitting to the privileges they enjoyed. 

As a social reality, the family was universal. From England to China, from Norway to Timbuktu, in a world of pastoral nomads in agricultural villages, the family dominated. Outside the family, the individual had no real opportunities for survival and safety. 

Urban industrial society has changed all that. And it continues to undermine the foundations on which the traditional family rests. 

The urban environment deprives the family of its major functions. Work, leisure, education and entertainment all take place outside the home. The most efficient unit of labor in the industrial world is no longer the cumbersome extended family. It is the mobile individual free of ties to spouse and children. 

The urban environment also provides alternatives to family protection. The emergence of the welfare state, with its myriad agencies and clinics offers another way to deal with poverty and disease. When the family cannot or will not help, the government will. 

In the urban world, children have a negative economic value. Unlike farm children, who provide free labor to their parents (as well as old age security), city children are parasitic and costly. When they grow up, they leave home and are not readily available to take care of their aging parents. Instead of being a workplace and social center, the urban home is a dormitory, and disappointed parents discover that they are merely caretakers. 

In the urban world, education is no longer short and pragmatic. It is long and theoretical. The consequence of the new schooling is an increasing self – awareness, which questions traditional authority and heightens individual identity. 

In an advanced industrial society, the emphasis on work shifts to an emphasis on consumption.  Affluence breeds at consumer culture. Increased leisure affords the individual the time to think about personal satisfaction and personal happiness. Duty and responsibility become less important than discovering the requirements for self – fulfillment. 

The New Egalitarian 

The post-agricultural world undermines the old authoritarian structures and sponsors an environment of greater social equality. 

Money and education replace land and pedigree as the vehicles to success. For the ambitious, social climbing is easier than under the old system. Earning and learning are easier to arrange than having the right ancestors. 

Mobility gives people more options than ever before. If one boss is no longer satisfactory, another can be found. Where bosses are transient, they tend to be treated with less respect. 

Affluence rescues the majority from the struggle for survival and allows them time to pursue the good life. Leisure skills which were, at one time, confined to the small minority of the rich and powerful now become universal. The middle class replaces the lower class as the dominant chunk of contemporary society. The upper class struggles to keep its lifestyle one step ahead of the masses 

Family behavior patterns have changed.  Husbands and fathers are less authoritative. Wives and children are more assertive. 

Work opportunities for women reduce their dependence on their husbands and make them less deferent. Female liberation reflects female economic power. Women who are free to provide for themselves find husbands less intimidating.  

Science discredits the wisdom and the knowledge of the old. What is more vulnerable is no longer necessarily truer. In fact, new discoveries and new evidence may make the young wiser than their parents. Under these circumstances the authority of elders vanishes. 

The decline of religion in a secular age produces a decline in worshipful behavior. As displays of reverence to the gods fade away, so does reverent behavior toward human authorities. 

The anonymity of the big city removes the surveillance of familiars. The disapproval of strangers is not as effective in restraining provocative behavior as the disapproval of long-time neighbors. 

The consequence of all these changes is a change in family behavior patterns. Husbands and fathers present themselves in a less authoritative way. Wives and children have become more assertive.  

Personal autonomy is… an earned privilege. Children need parents who prepare them for responsibility.  

Under the traditional system, husbands and fathers strove to be intimidating. Wives and children were deferential. This difference was expressed in three ways. The first way was use of a special language of courteous appeasement. Lavish praise and gestures of subordination defined its style. The second way was obedience. The master’s commands were seen as legitimate and irresistible. No public challenge was appropriate. The third way was service. Subordinates expressed concern about the needs of the master and sought to satisfy them. In many ways, the behavior of wives and children was indistinguishable that of servants. 

To say the least, that sort of behavior is now a dim memory in egalitarian America. 

Egalitarian Behavior 

The most startling sign of the revolution in family life is the death of deference. Children now talk to parents and teachers in a way that would have earned them public execution only a few centuries ago 

The following scenes have become commonplace:  

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All this new behavior arouses ambivalent feelings in liberal parents. They are dismayed and humiliated by their loss of authority. But they find themselves prisoners of the fashionable new realities (often labeled “humanistic”) which justify this behavior. 

The new egalitarianism is supported by new doctrines that inhibit parents from behaving like effective authorities. The most important of these doctrines is the affirmation of personal autonomy. 

In its absolute form, the principle of personal autonomy guarantees each person the right to be the master of his own life.. All people are equal in authority. No one can justly dominate or control another. Nor, if he wished to retain his dignity, can he allow himself to be dominated or controlled. The right to command is replaced by the right to suggest. 

With such a doctrine, the old hierarchy collapses. Not only do wives no longer have the obligation to submit to the authority of their husbands, but children no longer have the duty to heed the commands of their parents. Children resist conformity to the expectations of their elders. Rebellion becomes an expected part of growing up and turning into a successful human being. 

Liberal parents who embrace the value of personal autonomy move from a posture of command to the more egalitarian one of discussion. The language of deference disappears. Reverence for authority would only impede the give and take of negotiation. 

Children’s autonomy takes up a lot of parents’ time. To keep the child from feeling intimidated and to reassure the child that they have no intention of trying to run his life, parents are compelled to use the language of appeasement. “I have my life and you have your life” is a familiar refrain. 

Not only parents, but also children, have a moral responsibility to strengthen the family.  

Since children see themselves as masters, and not as servants, they behave accordingly. Their mouths express their self-image. They view autonomy as a birthright and not as a privilege to be earned. Although they are financially dependent and even parasitic for increasingly longer periods of time, they see themselves as independent. Quickly learning the language of mastery, they use it to intimidate their bewildered parents. Many parents reverse roles and become servants of their assertive children-especially if they feel guilty about not enjoying parenthood. 

The line between childhood and adulthood, becomes very vague, except for one simple distinction: parents are the ones who have to pay. Children are the ones who never have to pay. 

With such tantalizing rewards for having children, is it any wonder that the birth rate among the educated is plummeting?  

More and more people (as surveys indicate) are regretting parenthood. They are finding their children less and less satisfying. Despite the enormous amounts of money they spend on their children (for which they can now expect no economic return in their old age), they do not even receive the small gift of respect. 

The death of deference poses a serious threat to the survival of advanced industrial societies. Mouthy, aggressive, parasitic children reduce the motivation for having children. Only the influx of young people from less sophisticated, traditional societies will ultimately prevent the new “autonomous” society from turning into an old folks home. 

Humanist Response 

As humanists, we have a vested interest in encouraging the educated to have children. Since no adequate alternative to the family has yet been devised for the production and rearing the children, we also have a vested interest in strengthening the family. 

The awareness of four important realities may help us reverse some of the damage. 

The first is the fact that the traditional family cannot be restored. And, even if it were possible to restore it, it is not desirable to do so. The freedom and creativity of the new urban world have enormously enhanced the quality of personal life. These benefits far outweigh the reproductive advantages of the traditional society.  

The second reality is the fact that the liberation of women from male domination is a positive step forward, even though the sharing of power in the family creates greater  

instability – and even though female economic power encourages divorce. As achieving adults, women deserve the dignity of equality. And society cannot afford to waste their talents. 

The third reality is the simple truth that autonomy is not a birthright. It is an earned privilege. Children must train themselves for freedom. They need parents who prepare them for responsibility and who give them knowledge and structure. Without appropriate self-discipline, autonomy is harmful. There are times when parents need to see themselves as authorities, as caring experts in long-run planning. There are times when negotiation is silly and when parents need to command. 

The fourth reality is the reality that is resisted the most. Not only parents, but also children, have a moral responsibility to strengthen the family. Children also have a moral responsibility to acknowledge that, in this age of prolonged economic dependency, they usually receive much more than they give. The normal expression of this awareness is an age-old behavior of deference called gratitude. 

It is naive to assume that the deferent children of the past are restorable. Nor would we want children who never challenge old and possibly obsolete ideas and values. But respectful gratitude is a small price to pay for enormous investments of love and money. 

Humanistic families do not aim for total equality. There are times when parents are appropriately authoritarian. There are times when children are appropriately submissive and deferent.  

The Rabbi Writes – The New Year

Volume 14, No. 1, September 1976

The traditional Rosh Hashanah was a frightening day. It was the Day of Judgment when the insignificance of man confronted the power of God. Helplessness, dependence and reverent awe were the moods of the season.

Everyone felt unworthy to be saved and pleaded to his sins. Feeling worthy was, in itself in the act of arrogance, in inappropriate hutspa, which was ironically self-destructive. God punished those who lacked humility.

The Rosh Hashanah game was amusing Lee sick. You had to look like a loser in order to be a winner.

A humanist Rosh Hashanah is a rejection of this mood. It refuses the posture of weak people who are trying to appease the strong. It resists the theater of dependency where helpless beggars plead for divine crumbs.

A humanist Rosh Hashanah affirms human dignity. It affirms human power. It regards human arrogance and Promethean hutspa as less dangerous than pious resignation and humble confessions of inadequacy.

This distinction is not trivial.

The old theology is not offensive. Theological beliefs are usually only the intellectual frosting on an emotional cake.

The old emotion is offensive. A sense of powerlessness can be justified in many ways. If you do not like Jewish, Christian or Muslim theology, you can try Buddhist mysticism. If Buddhism bothers you, astrology may please you. If astrology seems intellectually thin, then Marxist destiny may give your mood a sense of respectability.

What is disturbing about our present world is not the presence of silly theologies and simplistic sociologues. Weariness is a mood that intellectuals are paid to justify.

All observation is selective. Pessimists are especially adept at noticing pollution, war crime and hatred. They have great difficulty in viewing things in the long run. They romanticize the past. They enjoy their melancholy nostalgia.

The truth is that human beings are not helpless, bumbling victims of their own fates. They are also the conscious creators of happiness and beauty.

The truth is that, for most of the people of the world, the last century, despite all its horrors, is a vast improvement over any the preceded.

Optimism maybe less fashionable than being disbanded. It may even sound maudlin in poetry. But it sure is more attractive than guilt-ridden timid admissions of boredom.

Jews, if anybody, have the skills for justifying pessimism.

But we ought to avoid it. It doesn’t look good. And it’s bad for our health.

The Rabbi Writes – Dignity and Self-Esteem

Volume 20, No. 2, September 1982

The Jewish New Year is it time for reflection on what we want out of life.

Present hard times make us aware of our need to choose among alternatives, since we cannot have everything we want. Economic restrictions often force us to consider all the other limitations on the satisfaction of our desires. They also enable us to focus on those areas of our lives where we still enjoy freedom and power.

What are the goals which a good humanist strives to achieve?

There are three general values which reflect our basic human needs. The first is security, a desire for safety and freedom from want and danger. The second is pleasure, the positive pursuit of sensual gratification. The third is dignity and self-esteem, the experience of inner mastery and control.

These three values are not always mutually compatible. If security is uppermost in our mind we may forego both pleasure and dignity. If pleasure is primary, we may sacrifice safety and self-esteem. and if dignity is first, we may risk our lives and endure pain.

Human philosophers, on the whole, preferred dignity as their first value. Much of modern existentialism is an explanation of this choice.

What is dignity?

Self-esteem is both an inner and an outer experience. As an inner experience, it is a sense of being in charge of one’s own life. As an outer behavior, it is the refusal to allow other people to treat ‘me’ as a child, A servant, or a defective. Or, to put it more positively, ‘I’ discover that others regard ‘me’ as perfectly capable of making my own choices and allow me to do so.

A person who has dignity is willing to do the following things.

He is willing to assume responsibility for all his actions, Even when he feels victimized or abused. He refuses all excuses.

He avoids complaining about situations that cannot be changed. People who engage in useless complaining or seeking appeasement rather than self-esteem. They want to arouse pity and to avert anger. Since we learn appeasement as children, it is more familiar to us than dignity.

He is willing to take risks. Self-esteem is incompatible with total security. Meeting new friends, training for new jobs, investing in new businesses – all of these ventures reinforce dignity. Insisting on guarantees of success is in bad taste, a sign of paralyzing fear. Adventure and mastery go together.

He is generous. Stingy people are obsessed with their weakness and vulnerability. They imagine that every gift diminishes them. Self-esteeming people feel stronger because they’re able to share. They feel more powerful because they’re able to give, without asking for something in return.

He enjoys privacy. He sees himself as a distinct individual with his own space. While he needs other people, he does not need them all the time. He is willing to confront uninvited intruders.

He is concerned about the consequences of his actions. He does not dump his ‘garbage’ and expect other people to pick it up.

He makes a distinction between pleasure and happiness. He knows that, even when there is long-run pain, A striving for independence is more satisfying than momentary gratification.

He chooses to be hopeful. Pessimism is the privilege of servants. Leaders – especially masters of their own lives – need to mobilize their energies. They recognize that optimism is a style, not a view of the future.

It’s not run away from reality. If death is real, he will except it and defy it. The quality of life will always be more important than its quantity.

In hard times, it may be difficult to guarantee security or to find pleasure. But it is always possible to strive for dignity and self-esteem.

Parents and Children: Communicating Without Guilt and Frustration

Recorded in November 1997 by the Center for New Thinking.

Our most difficult audience is our own family. We have a strong emotional investment in their approval and success. Talking to parents is sometimes forbidding because they intimidate us with their disapproval. Talking to children is sometimes frustrating because they do not always give us the respect we think we deserve. Familiarity does breed a certain amount of contempt. Sharing, teaching and persuading in this environment demands both self-awareness and self-control. Our frustration sometimes leads us off on tangents that keep us from focusing on the goals we want to achieve in our family. Oftentimes our love sounds like hostility and is misunderstood.

Click HERE to download and listen to this audio lecture.

The Many Faces of Love

Recorded by the Center for New Thinking.

Love is a universal value that comes in many forms.  There is romantic love, parental love, friendship love, patriotic love and even nature love.  All have found their celebrants in literature in poetry, literature and drama.

Click HERE to download and listen to this audio lecture.

Courage in the Face of Death

“Courage” memorial reading, Humanistic Judaism journal, Winter/Spring 1999

Death needs courage. It is so overwhelmingly final that it fills our lives with dread and anxious fear. When it arrives at the end of a long and happy life it is never welcome, yet not deeply resented. But when it comes too soon, invading young lives, disrupting hopes and dreams, it adds anger to our fear. We cry out at the injustice of destiny and wait for answers that never seem to come.

Courage is the power to confront a world that is not always fair. It is the refusal to beg for what will never be given. It is the willingness to accept what cannot be changed.

Courage is loving life even in the face of death. It is sharing our strength with others even when we feel weak. It is embracing our family and friends even when we fear to lose them. It is opening ourselves to love, even for the last time.

Courage is self-esteem. It prefers quiet determination to whining. It prefers doing to waiting. It affirms that exits, like entrances, have their own dignity.

Lifestyles in Transition

The Jewish Humanist, February 1977

People in transition. We are people in transition.

We are moving from one life style to another.

Our behavior is changing. As husbands or wives, as mothers or fathers, as employers or employees, as men or women, we are no longer behaving the way we used to.

The change is overwhelming. Divorce is ordinary. Pre-marital sex is conventional. Career women are legion. Artificial birth control is the norm for American Catholics. Even abortion has become Italian.

The change is so overwhelming that we often deny it. It makes us feel so insecure, so guilty. We try to imagine that our moral values have remained the same. We try to avoid confronting our behavior.

Moral schizophrenia is the psychic disease of many people in transition. It is the self-destructive defense against fear and guilt. Our conscious beliefs go one way, our behavior goes another. Our stated values are fantasies. They are unrelated to the substance of our actions. When we are challenged , some of us get very angry because we are resisting the painful truth. Some of us shrug our shoulders because we are embarrassed by our own ambivalence.

Moral schizophrenics are always the victims of change. Since they deny that it is happening, they can never control it.               They simply change and grumble. Unconscious needs and dumb social forces push them on relentlessly. Their resistance, when it comes, is both hysterical and ineffective. They are the victims of their own cowardice.

Healthy people are always fighting ethical dishonesty. They want their stated values to coincide with their behavior. They want to be aware of .what they are doing and why they are doing what they do. They want to be in control of their behavior and to consciously select the changes which are best suited to their needs. They want to resist irrational fear and non-productive guilt.

As people in transition – who can no longer live according to the dictates of old social scripts and who want to preserve their own moral integrity – we need a healthy style for coping with change. We need to admit ultimate responsibility for our own lives. Blaming others for bad decisions may be justified but is generally useless. Blaming destiny or irresistible social forces may be accurate but is usually a way of avoiding doing anything. Peevishness is fashionable. If we cannot be in total control, then we will not be in control at all!

Assuming responsibility is merely the good-humored awareness that conscious decision does make a difference.

We need to identify our most important desires. A healthy life style should serve our needs, not violate then. We have to be honest about our feelings. Anger and depression are signs that we are missing what we really went. Pro-longed anxiety Indicates that we haven’t come to terms with what we really fear. We have to know our needs before we can choose to satisfy them.

We have to be able to put our wants in some order of priority. Since we cannot satisfy all our desires simultaneously, we have to pick and choose. Human needs are complex. They cannot be reduced to single desires like sex, love, power or serenity. Simplicity is intellectually neat but pragmatically naive. On a practical level, we are messy jumbles of wants, each demanding center-stage and enormous amounts of energy. Knowing desire is never enough. We have to figure out the order of desire. If we don’t do it consciously and rationally, then we will do it unconsciously and irrationally. The former procedure is less spontaneous – but it is also less dangerous.

We need to know how to make rational choices. Irrational choices are decisions that serve the interests of dead people – that serve the needs of ancestors who cannot be served. Irrational people are always citing tradition and historical convention to justify their life style. Rational people always justify their behavior by pointing out how decisions serve the needs of the living. ‘I can’t help myself; that’s the way I feel’ is the standard reply of people who are traumatized by ancestral disapproval and who refuse to take the painful step of resisting the past for the sake of living needs and future good consequences.

We have to be able to resolve incurable ambivalence. Most of us want both independence and togetherness. The current psychotherapeutic fashion is for people to say that they want to run their own lives. But they generally want to run their own lives together with someone else. They want the ecstasy of intimacy and the pleasure of separateness at the same time. Total independence and total intimacy are not compatible. If we want one, we cannot have the other. Self-fulfilment is more than selfish independence or masochistic merging. It is a good-humored compromise called responsible intimacy.

We need to know the life style options. The traditional world allowed only one script for each sex and for each class. The contemporary world is a supermarket of life styles. Open marriage, communal child-rearing, living together, single swinging, nature simplicity, leisure careers – are still novel but increasingly legitimate choices. Even conventional long-run relationships, whether in marriage or work, require new stimulation to rescue them from boredom. Keeping ourselves aware of alternatives is necessary for both hope and sanity.

We need to resist stereotypes. As: children of our genes we are indeed programmed. But our programming allows for wide options. Men are not violating their nature when they are soft, gentle and dependent. Women are not resisting their essence, when they are strong, aggressive and publicly commanding. Our society requires greater flexibility than the tradition allowed. We need to be more open to variety. People do not exist to fit life styles. Life styles should be designed to fit people.

We need to be individually real. Before the present transition family, work and ethnic identities were primary. For a growing minority they have become secondary, although still very important. This minority are an avant garde, sensitive to the problems of investing self-awareness in groups. Groups no longer provide the stability and security they used to. Being able to see oneself as independently real of any group identity is becoming necessary for many people. In a world of serial careers, intermarriage and feeling young at fifty, it is dangerous to find one’s self-image in a group label.

We above all, have to be able to deal with the value of the temporary. Our conditioning so values the eternal that we often view marriages and careers that do not last forever as failures. We deny the importance of our pleasure and our joy because it does not last forever. In a world of rapid change this conditioning is conducive to neither happiness nor survival. Seeing change as painful but often desirable will, make us less possessive and more attractive.

We are people in continuous transition. We need the skills to make that transition worthwhile.

Happiness

The Jewish Humanist, March 1987

The pursuit of happiness will be the theme of our Temple retreat this year.

While the Declaration of Independence guarantees us the right to happiness, it does not tell us what it is. Nor does it tell us how to get it. We generally agree that happiness is something everybody wants. But we are not sure that everybody wants the same thing.

So what is happiness?

Before we can answer the question we have to confront certain realities about happiness.

  1. If we concentrate too hard on happiness it generally goes away. People who worry constantly about whether they are happy or not rarely are. Happy people do not spend a lot of time thinking about happiness. They are absorbed in compelling projects, work or leisure, that do not allow much time for introspection. When happiness becomes the goal of life, it is rarely achievable. Only when we pursue other more specific goals does happiness emerge as an unintended consequence. The most joyous people I know do not choose to talk about joy. Like the micro-particles of physics it changes, or even disappears, when you look at it too hard.
  2. Getting away from problems does not make us happy. It is an illusion to imagine that it is possible to achieve a problem-free life When one set of challenges goes away another replaces it. Even retirement from work or the departure of children is no guarantee that happiness is around the corner. Uselessness and boredom are often worse than conventional stress. They make us focus on all the minor negative things in our lives we never notice when we are busy. Many of the happiest people I know are overscheduled and overcommitted. They simply love what they are doing, even though what they are doing gives them stress and anxiety. Life in heaven, in the end, may be more taxing than life on earth.
  3. Pain is part of happiness. The hedonism of immediate gratification; is no path to lasting pleasure. If we need our “fix” now and are unwilling to wait for later, we are pursuing self-destruction. Almost all things worthwhile require the postponement of pleasure and sometimes even the endurance of pain. Education, sport skills and Successful parenting take time. They often also involve painful testing, wasting and failure. If we are afraid to risk pain, we shall never be happy. Our lives will consist of momentary pleasures that are tied together by depression.
  4. Small things in life can be important. There is a chemistry to life which reveals itself in the realities of human relations. Certain people attract us and we do not know why. Certain people annoy us and we can find no important reason to explain our response. Certain personalities make us feel good. Certain personalities, with no apparent defect, make us feel rotten. We look for the grand reasons why we should choose one person over another. But often the small things make the difference. A sense of humor, a willingness to listen, a disposition to be kind-each little characteristic embarrassingly trivial determines our choice. Out siders often wonder what we see in the people we like and love. But outsiders are looking for the big reasons and cannot see what makes us happy.
  5. Life needs variety. It is so easy to become obsessed with the things we need and do not have that we imagine that one and only one thing will give us happiness. If only we found a lover, if only we can have a child, if only we can secure interesting work, if only we can live in a warm place – then everything will be marvelous. But no lover alone can bring us happiness, nor can any child, job or climate. People who try to put their happiness eggs in only one basket find that the basket is too small. Long-run pleasure needs variety. It requires love – but not all the time. It asks for work – but not every hour. It revels in leisure – but not day after day.
  6. What other people think of us does make a difference. So many of us imagine that what counts in our life is what we think of ourselves that we rebel against pleasing others. We maintain that if we say to ourselves that we are worthwhile that we will be. But self-esteem does not come from self-congratulations. It starts with our ability to aim the approval of the people we love and respect. Since we are social beings, we are molded as much by others as by ourselves. The hostility of others is not incompatible with happiness, so long as the people we admire standby our side. To go through life, never willing to please, arrogantly indifferent to the demands of parents, friends and teachers is no sign of self-esteem. It is certainly no path to long-run fulfilment.
  7. Winning is preferable to losing. So much current advice focuses on the virtue of trying that the consequences of trying are largely ignored. Boldness and persistence are not enough for happiness. If we try for goals we cannot achieve, if we pursue people who always reject us, if we strive for work Our talents do not fit, then relentless failure and rejection will depress us. It is simply no fun to lose always, no matter how thrilling the effort. In the end, happy people choose goals their skills can realize. They may lose from time to time. But they do not arrange to lose always. They reach out to try things they have never tried before, but never so far as to be pretentious. There is a distinction between good-humored adventure and “suicide.”
  8. The world is a little bit crazy. Unhappy people always expect the world to be orderly and fair. They do not like surprise and resent imperfection. In the end, they stop playing the game of life and spend most of their time complaining about the rules of the game. Because they expect the world to be sane they go crazy. Happy people know that the world is disorderly and unfair. They expect surprise and do not insist on perfection. In the end they prefer to play an imperfect game to playing no game at all. Because they see the world as “nuts,” they stay sane.

So what is happiness?

Happiness is an enthusiasm for life, an eagerness to solve problems, a confidence in our strength to deal with reality, even when that reality is less than we want it to be.