That Cunning Serpent

This post is the third of a series that began December 12th.

In my previous post, I explored some of issues around “greatness” which, as we saw, came up in the slogans of our recent elections.

Let’s be clear:  greatness isn’t evil.  Indeed, seeking greatness is natural.  In the Bible, it is embedded in the original instruction to Adam and Eve (and the fish) to be fruitful and multiply.  The word for “multiply” comes from the same Hebrew root that we often translate as “great.”  In ancient times when humans were few, becoming many, becoming “great” in number, was a key to survival.

Yet, the Bible tells us that corruption began to fill the world “when humanity began multiplying on the face of the earth” (Gen 6.1).  “Sons of gods,” probably meaning kings and nobles, began impregnating “daughters of men.”  This sounds like harems or exercising the ancient “right of the first night.” “Strong men,” “men of renown,” took over and imposed their will on others.  The “imagination of man’s heart” became “evil continually” (6:4-5).  What had happened?

The old story of the serpent gives us a clue.  Recall that the cunning serpent enticed Chava (Eve) to eat of the forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil by saying, “You won’t die… You will be like God, knowing good and evil.”  Then the text reports Chava’s experience. She saw “that the tree was good to eat, and that it was desirable to the eyes, and the tree was pleasant for gaining insight, and she took from its fruit and ate” (Gen 3: 4-6).

She couldn’t see anything except goodness, beauty, and clarity in that tree.  What had tempted her was the idea of greatness, of being more than she already was, “like God,” and specifically by the possibility of knowing something that, until then, was beyond her – namely evil.

The serpent was indeed cunning, because he was manipulating her ignorance. She had no idea what evil was.  To her it might as well have been called “the tree of the knowledge of good and zlwgoeinv.”  Evil, of course, was what the serpent had done – confused her by contradicting what she had been told, and claiming that God had actually hidden the truth from her.

(Today we would call it fake news.)

Adam followed her down that path, and they found themselves hiding from God, lying, and blaming others.  They discovered not greatness but shame.  God postponed the death penalty; but instead of the goodness, delight, and clarity that Chava had glimpsed in the tree, she and Adam faced lives of struggle and pain.

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In these texts, thousands of years ago, human beings already understood that lies and manipulations, the cunning of the serpent, were the source of humanity’s problems. The serpent said, “You will be like God.” Soon men would claim to be sons of gods.  Later, when Moses warned the people about claiming their wealth as “the work of my own hands,” or of kings “multiplying horses and wives for themselves,” he was referring to the same problem.

I would add one inner dimension, which we also saw in the last post:  The lies promote the idea that “I did it myself,” and pride arises instead of gratitude for all the help we have received. That is the place where we have to do the work. The awareness of our own limits, the feeling of gratitude, the knowledge that the source of success is beyond ourselves – those enable us to feel humility.  And humility is what humanizes greatness.

Greatness and Goodness

This post is the second of a series that began on December 12th

In my last post, I talked about getting beyond the trauma and distress of an unexpected and unpleasant surprise – a major disappointment – such as the election results. Specifically, rushing into action immediately may not be the best course.  After all, the fact that we were taken by surprise means that our assessment of reality wasn’t at its best; so we need to get a different perspective (see “The Forest and the Trees”).

The question that arises is not simply a strategic one (how to win the next election), but what kind of society do we want?  A lot of people weren’t happy with any candidate’s ideas for the future. There were 19 candidates altogether in the two major parties! Forty-one per cent of eligible voters didn’t vote for a president at all.  We can blame media and misinformation for some of this, but still…. What is going on?

I titled this blog “Inner Dimensions” because I think one can’t solve an outward problem without also attending to its inner dimensions.  Outer action matters, but it has to be connected to the inner, invisible qualities of whatever is happening. You can throw money at a problem, but if that’s all you do, you will only get a temporary solution. You can pave the crack in the road, but if you haven’t checked what’s happening underneath, the crack may come right back again.

In a society, the inner dimensions are the values of the people, the motives that habitually spur them to action, the characteristic attitudes that shape our interactions with one another.

In an election campaign, the managers try to capture the inner will of the people with their campaign slogans.  Interestingly, both major party candidates this year had similar slogans.  One was greatness, as in “Make America great again,” and the other was strength, as in “We’re stronger together.”  Think what message is implied here: If we need to be stronger, are we weak?  If we need to be great again, does that mean we are small? Hmm…

Of course, it’s also true that Hillary Clinton’s slogan emphasized another word:  together. Donald Trump’s campaign was clearly built around a “strongman” approach (including the gender).  But the slogans captured – or amplified – a concern about American strength.  I couldn’t find a previous presidential campaign that was built on such an idea except for one that used “proud” in the slogan. Sample themes have been freedom, prosperity, peace, normalcy, compassion, as well as ideas of change, progress or improvement – but not strength or greatness as such.

Greatness or strength certainly is an American value. In the past hundred and fifty years we moved from being a curiosity for European visitors to a major military power, an exemplar of democracy, freedom, and pluralism with stability, a home to innovation and expansion in industry, science, and technology.  We are rightly proud of many features of our society and, if we are losing status in the world, we definitely would value restoring the nation to greatness.

But we also know that greatness by itself does not guarantee a good life.  Greatness and goodness do not always go together.  In fact, great power or great wealth can lead to arrogance, and that’s dangerous.

The founders of the United States of America knew the Hebrew Bible well – what they called the Old Testament. They would have been familiar with this passage, from an address by Moses to his people shortly before his death:

When your herds and flocks become great, and great amounts of silver and gold are yours, and all that you have becomes great, then your heart feels elevated…. and you say in your heart, “My power and the might of my hand made for me this wealth.”… But you must remember the Lord Your God, for it is He that gives you strength to make wealth… (Deuteronomy 8:13-18).

Actually, the word translated “wealth” here, which makes sense in the context, usually means something more like valor, courage, or audacity.  (The same word is used in the famous passage from the end of Proverbs, “Woman of Valor,” which is recited in Jewish households on Friday night in honor of the woman of the house.)  In understanding this passage, we should remember that larger meaning:  When you have achieved outer “greatness” in wealth and possessions, you may feel inwardly strong – but if you have forgotten the Source of your wealth, the passage goes on to say, “you will certainly perish.”

The Sages say that even with God, “Wherever you find greatness, you find humility.” Though God has the power to create and destroy, nevertheless God consults with others – for example with the angels in creating man, with Abraham before destroying Sodom, with Moses when He is angry with the Israelites.

If this is true with God, how much more so among human beings.  So too with nations.  Our founders understood that greatness can lead to tyranny, and that goodness requires humility, respect for others, prudence, and in matters of state, due process and the consent of the governed.

We all know some of the key phrases of our famed revolutionary document, but it’s worth reading the entire Declaration, which you can do at this link.  How have we lived their vision till today?

We want a good society, not only a great one.  To be continued.

The Forest and the Trees

We don’t often face a stunning surprise in our collective political life.  The biggest surprises in our society are usually the latest whiz-bang gadgets. Occasionally there are unpleasant surprises, like a Katrina or an epidemic – but we accept that nature has its own dynamics, usually favorable to human life but not always.  Every once in a while there’s a terrifying shock from outside like a 9-11 or 12-7 (last week was the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor) or, sadly, a murderer on the loose.

We don’t like bad surprises, so we have a highly developed alert system. We prophesy doom much more quickly than we process goodness, because being ready for doom can be life-saving.  We communicate intensely and profusely when we suspect something dangerous might be lurking around the corner.  But sometimes we are still caught off guard.  That’s what happened this election season.

So what do we do with unhappy surprises?  Let’s not go to life-threatening.  Just think of times in your life when you were extremely disappointed.  The trip that got canceled because your little brother got sick at the last minute.  The promised birthday gift that didn’t arrive – never arrived, because your dad had lost his job. Your fiancé suddenly broke off the engagement.  We all have our own versions, some that don’t seem important later, and others that still hurt.  Some were even life-changing.

Emotionally, we go through the manifestations of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance (not necessarily in that order). With the election, it’s like this:

Denial:  There’s something wrong with the vote count. Let’s get recounts in key states.
Anger:  Spout off about the latest outrage to your friends and on Facebook.
Bargaining:  Can we convince electors in the Electoral College to change their vote?
Depression:  Sink into apathy, and shut down talking about it.
Acceptance:  This doesn’t mean “it’s all okay,” or “we’re normalizing”; it just means that you are ready to re-set, like a car alarm that has been buzzing incessantly, till you’re finally able to turn it off and address the problem.

Now the brain kicks in, from a calmer state.  We can’t change what happened, but perhaps we can deal with some the negative effects of the unpleasant surprise. We can call this strategizing.  How can we keep this from getting worse or happening again?  We begin banding together:  Creating campaigns to write to Senators concerning Cabinet appointments, channeling donations to your party or to other organizations that can help, maybe even volunteering your own time.

But here’s where the title of this essay comes in:  the problem of the Forest and the Trees.  Strategizing is necessary but sometimes kicks in too early. Your brain will work on any problem you give it to solve.  If you aren’t clear about the goal, it will do its habitual thing, which is rework the problem that seems most up front.  You missed this vacation? Plan the next one.  Didn’t get that promotion?  Figure out how to spruce up your resume.

Politically, the equivalent is figuring out how to win the next election.  (And our brain loves it when we give it a win-lose situation to solve).

But this is where we get lost in the Trees.  Winning an election is not the goal.  Elections are a means to a goal.  The goal is a good, healthy society.  Elections are the way we choose people we want to be our representatives in deciding on policies and laws that will give us the framework for a good society. Elections are the way to plant the next bunch of Trees.

But our society – that’s the Forest.  Seeing the Forest means stepping back, looking up and around, maybe getting into a helicopter so we can see the entire area before we decide what to do next.

That’s what we mean when we say we need people with vision. 

The frustration with “Washington” is that millions of our citizens think no one has been up in that helicopter for a long time. They’re following somebody’s old map. They’re just paid to circle around. Or, they just hop in and take it on a pleasure trip. There could be fires smoldering in the forest and no one paying attention.

We the People are being called by this election to take our own look at the forest that we call American society.  It’s not okay anymore to just drive down the old lumber roads or trek the familiar paths.

Once we see the big picture, we will be able to set goals and accomplish them.  But first, we have a little trip to take.  Pack a lunch, hop in, and fasten your seat belt. More to come soon.

 

To my followers:  Sorry, I’ve been away from Inner Dimensions for two weeks as I had a conference to attend and preparation for that… thanks for asking!