One of my favorite monthly responsibilities is teaching the 5th graders at The Davis Academy. During our first meeting we typically play a “4 corners” activity. I present a series of prompts and they place themselves in whichever corner best describes their response. Invariably, one the prompts I ask them to respond to is: “Sometimes other people know us better than we know ourselves.”
Having done this activity for several years now I feel like I can say with something approaching certainty, that most 5th graders haven’t really thought about what it means to “know thyself.” My goal in presenting them with the prompt is to destabilize them a bit– to open them to the possibility that there are aspects of the “self” that they haven’t explored. I want them to be able to encounter and experience themselves and one another in new ways, to disrupt some of the patterns that have formed even at this early age. I want them to arrive at a deeper knowing of themselves, one another, and the world around them.
What I want for them in terms of “knowing” I want for myself and others as well.
“The danger, in short, is that instead of providing a basis for what already exists, instead of going over with bold strokes lines that have already been sketched, instead of finding reassurance in this return and final confirmation, instead of completing the blessed circle that announces, after innumerable stratagems and as many nights, that all is saved, one is forced to advance beyond familiar territory, far from the certainties to which one is accustomed, towards an as yet uncharted land and unforeseeable conclusion.”
How much of life is spent “going over with bold strokes lines that have already been sketched”?
How strongly do we yearn to complete “the blessed circle that announces… that all is saved”?
How averse are we to the idea of being forced, or forcing ourselves, “beyond familiar territory, far from the certainties to which one is accustomed”?
When we arrive to the place of “uncharted land and unforeseeable conclusion” what version of our self do we encounter?
Foucault tried to prove that all unities were illusory. That underneath the perceived unities of life, thought, and ideas, lurked a much more interesting, complicated, and vibrant world of discontinuities, ruptures, fragments, and fissures.
Elul challenges us to hold two competing ideas in our minds– the unity and the rupture of life. When we tip the balance in favor of rupture we open ourselves up to the possibility of radical change.
Part of Judaism’s daily morning liturgy includes a blessing that thanks God for “opening the eyes of the blind.” It’s recited by everyone regardless of whether you’re actually, technically, literally blind, or have 20/20 vision. It’s a reminder that we can walk through life with eyes wide open and still not really “see.”
Today I taught a class for 5th graders. It’s a class I teach on a monthly basis. The yearlong course has 1 simple goal: to deepen our understanding. To deepen our understanding of one another, of Jewish tradition, of life in general, and, perhaps most importantly, our self-understanding.
The idea that we don’t automatically arrive at a place of deep self-understanding is fairly obvious for adults, but it can be a bit counterintuitive for kids.
We started class with a “get to know you” game to which one student responded, “But we already know each other.”
As we debriefed together at the end of class I asked the student if she still held to her claim that they already know each other. She and others started to realize that just because they’ve been in school together for six years, just because they know some things about one another, there’s much that they actually don’t know about one another. Just because our eyes are open doesn’t mean we actually “see.”
In that same debrief another student made the point that sometimes she feels that other people know her better than she knows herself. It was a really “insightful” comment and something I know resonates with most, if not all, of us. Just as having open eyes doesn’t equate with truly “seeing,” sometimes our own eyes aren’t the best vehicle for showing us what’s going on inside of ourselves. Together we can help one another see.
God came up during class today as well. One student expressed his belief that, according to the Torah, God sees everything. His comment reminded me of one of my favorite films, Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (see the clip below, NB: it’s kind of a heavy moment in the film and not necessarily suitable for kids). Part of God’s godliness is that God isn’t limited to a single, finite, human perspective.
Insofar as I have a clearly formulated idea of God I think that the idea that God has infinite perspective is a key for me. The beautiful flip side is that our human perspective is inherently single, finite, and (duh) human. For the most part we see with our eyes and our eyes alone. The eye is undeniably a miraculous organ, but it is definitely limited in terms of what it can take in. When we let others help us to see ourselves and our world more clearly we actually transcend our naturally limited human-ness. Bringing this line of thought to it’s conclusion, our collective seeing and sighting is a way that human beings can, together, draw nearer to God.
Society today places a very high premium on “getting things done.” We like to “see results” and tend to be very happy with “quick turnarounds.” We like our leaders to “deliver” and try to fill our teams and departments with “can do” people. Empowered by our various devices that are all about “immediacy” it’s hard not to get swept up in the rush. We run the risk of appearing “wishy washy,” “indecisive,” “lackadaisical,” or “aloof.” Fortunately there’s a competing narrative out there that, while countercultural, is supported by a growing body of research.
If educational leaders really want to guide schools through meaningful change and growth we need to slow down.
Before we can intervene and alter the status quo we have to really understand it. Before we can get to answers we need to dwell a bit with our questions. We need to remain curious. Before we jump to solutions we need to make sure we understand the nature of the challenge or problem at hand. We need to remain curious so that we can correctly diagnose what’s going on. The first step in our diagnosis is determining whether the presenting problem can be solved with existing knowledge and resources or whether new learning is required. In order to make a correct diagnosis we need not only to dwell with our curiosity, but we need to leave the “dance floor” and get up on the “balcony” to get a different view of what’s going on.
For those who are familiar with the concept of “Adaptive Leadership” developed by Ron Heifetz and others, this should sound familiar. Familiar or not, here’s Heifetz providing an overview of adaptive leadership. If, as an educational leader, you find yourself dissatisfied with the narrative that says that leading is about immediacy, radical intervention, and proving worth through a list of accomplishments, adaptive leadership is a solid counter narrative.
In an adaptive leadership mindset we don’t abandon interventions and results, instead we ground them in the kind of analytical thinking that, when we dig a little deeper, we all want from our leaders.
One of the core menschlichkeit values at my school, The Davis Academy, is tzedek (“righteousness”). Tzedek means living a morally upright life. Ideally we’d all embody tzedek but this is obviously not the case. The disconnect between what we know is right(eous) and what we often find, in our own lives and certainly in the world around us, is often very stark. It turns out that living morally and ethically is much harder than it seems. It turns out that human beings might intellectually grasp the importance of moral and ethical excellence but we generally don’t yearn to do the good. If we are passionately committed to living righteously the world arounds us presents many stumbling blocks to thwart us. It’s not enough to be intellectually committed to tzedek. Both as educators and as individuals we need to feel emotionally and spiritually stirred to pursue tzedek in our daily lives. That’s why I think non-acceptance is vitally important.
Non-acceptance, outrage, and spiritual indignation are powerful motivators. Abraham felt these emotions when he argued with God against destroying Sodom and Gemorrah. Moses felt these emotions when saw an Egyptian slavedriver beating a helpless Israelite.
Non-acceptance arises when we are able to see the abyss between the world as it is and the world as it should be. Outrage arises when we realize that the status quo, so deeply entrenched and ingrained, reinforces iniquity and injustice. Spiritual indignation bubbles up when we taste the disconnect between our principles, our potential, and our personal power, and the hypocrisy, inertia, and excuses that come too easily.
The cognitive and emotional dissonance captured by non-acceptance, outrage, and spiritual indignation can propel us towards tzedek. It can help us push through the malaise and complacency that keep tzedek just beyond the brink of consciousness. When we come home to tzedek we can confront the dizzying notion that each of us has the power to make a difference.
If you’ve read this far you might enjoy the song Rise Up from my CD: Be a Blessing. It features the Mt. Zion Second Baptist Church Gospel Choir. Click here to download the song or the entire album for free from CD Baby.
“The adornment of knowledge is wisdom. The adornment of wisdom is humility.”
Someone shared this quote with me many years ago. They attributed it to Jewish tradition but I’ve never been able to find the source. It’s been a guiding concept in my life. Here’s what it means to me.
Knowledge is morally neutral. There are a lot of minds full of lots of knowledge that aren’t exactly making the world a better place. Some of these knowledge-full minds are actually making the world worse. We all know this. It’s a shame.
Wisdom is inherently good. It’s the application of knowledge toward the betterment of our world.
The relationship between knowledge and wisdom is fairly straightforward. It’s reasonable to suppose that knowledge is the precursor to wisdom. It’s also reasonable to suppose that wisdom not based on knowledge risks being called out as fraudulent. Of course there are many types of knowledge– intellectual, emotional, spiritual, physical, and so on. Wisdom can adorn any of these types of knowledge.
Humility is the outlier. What does humility have to do with wisdom or knowledge? I’ve wondered about this over the years even as my answer hasn’t changed much.
Humility is the recognition that each of us is simultaneously vast and infinitesimal. Each of us is simultaneously powerful and frail. Humility adorns wisdom by reminding us that we exist in relation to something far greater and more expansive than our own mind. Humility adorns wisdom by reminding us that our theories and hypotheses are theories and hypotheses, not Absolute Truths.
If we had a bit more humility in our interactions with one another (and in our public squares) we’d likely see those interactions and squares adorned with greater wisdom. But that’s just a theory. Who really knows?
In parshat Lech L’cha God commanded Abraham to leave his home, his father’s house, and the land of his birth. He also commanded Abraham: v’heyeh bracha (“Be a Blessing). Here’s a song and a poem. The song is from my album, “Be a Blessing” and the poem was just easier to write than prose.
Merriam Webster offers 8 definitions for the word “act.” I’m going to focus on the 1st and the 8th.
#1. Act: the doing of a thing; something done voluntarily.
#8. Act: a display of affected behavior.
I’d like to suggest that these two definitions are in tension with one another. Their tension raises an important question: What does it mean to act?
#1 suggests that acting is essentially doing something. Acting is the catch-all category for how human beings “be” in the world. At every moment, with every breath, through every utterance and every gesture we act. Our act-ing conveys important information about who we are and what we stand for. Indeed we are all likely to be judged by others on the basis of our act-ions. Ideally we act in a way that expresses our commitments, beliefs, and values. Perpetually in motion, perpetually act-ing and being act-ed upon is basically the human condition. We can’t help but be authentic, for better or worse, because it’s impossible to mediate every act through a filter– we simply act too much and too often. As the sum total of our deeds, we do well to consider the authentic self that is expressed in each act. To act is to reveal ourselves to anyone that might be paying attention.
#8 suggests that acting is performative. Acting is about putting on a show and being an actor. Sometimes we know we’re doing it, sometimes others know we’re doing it, and sometimes we’re completely unaware (willfully or out of ignorance). Rather than being a vehicle for conveying our authenticity, acting is a way of concealing and hiding our true self.
When we act do we reveal or conceal? When we act do we give voice to an authentic or essential self or do we put on a show? The likely answer is both (and often at the same time).
The Hebrew month of Elul asks us to look at our deeds. When we do we can attempt to categorize them. As we categorize we can assess whether our actions reveal or conceal our truest selves. Through the act of reflection we can begin to understand more deeply how navigate our days. We can look for tensions, ruptures, impediments, themes, metaphors, and motifs. As we inevitably fluctuate between #1 and #8 we can become more mindful of the true impact of our act.