Monday, November 15, 2010

Introversion and You?

Last week, standing in a packed crowd at a general admission Ben Folds' concert, my daughter had an epiphany.

"You look uncomfortable, Abba," Avigayil said, "maybe we should move to a less crowded spot. Boy, now I see why you say you're introverted. I'm so charged up by being in this massive crowd, and you just look miserable."


It's one of those classic catch-22s in life. It is difficult to explain what its like feeling safer in your own space, when by definition you are talking to someone outside it. As Tom Lehrer said about alienated people writing literature, "If you have trouble communicating with others, the very least you can do is to shut up."

So it is always a relief to find someone who expresses it well. I recently heard that Emily Dickenson once took herniece into her bedroom, locked the door with an imaginary key, and said, "Ah, Mattie, here's freedom!"

Gut gezukt.

She found the freedom she sought in her own mind, in her own thoughts, in her own creativity. This was expressed by her poetry and in her poetry.

          A fairer House than Prose-- 
          More numerous of Windows-- 
          Of Chambers as the Cedars-- 
          And for an Everlasting Roof The Gambrels of the Sky-- 
          Of Visitors--the fairest-- 
          For Occupation--This-- 
          To gather Paradise--

Rav Kook described a very similar existence. As in most things, I find his words to be beyond comfort. Rav Soloveitchik teaches me new ways of looking at things, that deepen and change forever my religious inner life. Rav Kook speaks out of my own soul, telling me things I feel and neve knew that I felt. I don't know how I could be me without him. 

I've been having a few crazy, busy weeks. It is hard to recharge without the time for quiet inner-space.  Reading the quote below gives me strength. 

Orot Hakodesh III – The Ascent to Inner Greatness

There are great righteous persons who are imbued with higher dispositions, who feel oppressed in their inner soul, because they do not penetrate into the inner greatness of their spirit. They do not believe with full faith in the holiness of their aspirations, and therefore they do not recognize sufficiently the enlightenment represented by the wide embrace of their thoughts. They go about bowed because of the secular burden of the world’s folly, the anger of fools, which presses on them. 

For this reason they find themselves in a sea of spiritual afflictions. The narrow thoughts of the masses oppress their spirits, and they lack the strength to raise themselves to think their own thoughts, to affirm the firmness of their own will. 

But they must finally awaken from their slumber. With all their attitude of peace and respect for the behavior of the masses, they will return to God, who always reveals Himself to them through their special windows and lattices. 

If you aspire for the Torah, raise yourself and gird yourself to meet that higher sensibility which stirs inside your spirit. With all your movements, with all your speech, with all your burdens physical and spiritual, that are placed on you, be brave and look straight toward the light that is revealed to you through the lattice.

Emily Dickenson

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Soft Atheism III

Frans de Waal keeps it up: 

In reading the nearly 700 reader responses to my Oct. 17 essay for The Stone, (“Morals Without God?“) I notice how many readers are relieved to see that there are shades of gray when it comes to the question whether morality requires God. I believe that such a discussion needs to revolve around both the distant past, in which religion likely played little or no role if we go back far enough, and modern times, in which it is hard to disentangle morality and religion. The latter point seemed obvious to me, yet proved controversial. Even though 90 percent of my text questions the religious origins of human morality, and wonders if we need a God to be good, it is the other 10 percent — in which I tentatively assign a role to religion — that drew most ire. Atheists, it seems (at least those who responded here) don’t like any less than 100 percent agreement with their position...

...Those who wish to remove religion and define morality as the pursuit of scientifically defined well-being (à la Sam Harris) should read up on earlier attempts in this regard, such as the Utopian novel “Walden Two” by B. F. Skinner, who thought that humans could achieve greater happiness and productivity if they just paid better attention to the science of reward and punishment. Skinner’s colleague John Watson even envisioned “baby factories” that would dispense with the “mawkish” emotions humans are prone to, an idea applied with disastrous consequences in Romanian orphanages. And talking of Romania, was not the entire Communist experiment an attempt at a society without God? Apart from the question of how moral these societies turned out to be, I find it intriguing that over time Communism began to look more and more like a religion itself. The singing, marching, reciting of poems and pledges and waving in the air of Little Red Books smacked of holy fervor, hence my remark that any movement that tries to promote a certain moral agenda — even while denying God — will soon look like any old religion. Since people look up to those perceived as more knowledgeable, anyone who wants to promote a certain social agenda, even one based on science, will inevitably come face to face with the human tendency to follow leaders and let them do the thinking.
What I would love to see is a debate among moderates. Perhaps it is an illusion that this can be achieved on the Internet, given how it magnifies disagreements, but I do think that most people will be open to a debate that respects both the beliefs held by many and the triumphs of science. There is no obligation for non-religious people to hate religion, and many believers are open to interrogating their own convictions. If the radicals on both ends are unable to talk with each other, this should not keep the rest of us from doing so.