There are certain ideas and attitudes that we all share. The idea that, “I am on this world to serve Hashem to the best of my ability” is pretty much common ground for any committed Jew. On the individual level, however, the ideas and attitudes that drive us are as varied and various as can be.
One person may live by the virtuous tenet of “a penny saved is a penny earned.” Everything in life is seen through the prism of economic necessity. In any calculation, the bottom line will be paramount. Money talk—particularly about bargain-hunting triumphs—will feature largely in his speech. A well-endowed savings account is his trophy, the visual sign of his victory, the symbol of his success.
“You’ve gotta look out for Number One” is a philosophy adopted by those whose foremost agenda is protecting their own interests and coming out on top. Impelled by either deep-felt insecurity or self-centered arrogance, such an attitude relegates the rest of the world to the role of competitor, at best, or enemy, at worst. If my primary agenda calls for allocating all available compassion for myself, sensitivity toward others must take a back seat. When you’re all about looking out for Number One, “one” becomes the only number there is.
Some individuals are driven by need: for love, or approval, or admiration. There are those who regularly dive into the sea of emotion, leaving the rocky shore of logic and objectivity far behind. Others, in contrast, pride themselves on their hard-boiled approach to life, an approach which tends to leach any interaction of its human element until all that’s left is a clear, hard residue of practicality.
There exist any number of other attitudes, and they are not always conscious. Often, they drive our behavior unseen, the way an underwater propeller moves a boat across a lake or down a river. But the engine is no less potent for being out of sight. In fact, it’s our underlying personal philosophies that inform most, if not all, of our day-to-day decisions and actions.
We are what we think—which is why it’s imperative to get in touch with the way we think. With the personal philosophies which, over the course of time, we’ve learned to embrace and with which we’ve come to identify.
When it comes to our own psyches, to understanding the hidden engine that powers our thoughts and actions, it behooves each of us to become an expert mechanic.
Why does my neighbor have one way of looking at things, while my best friend has another? What, for that matter, underlies my own attitudes?
Nature, some people will claim. It’s all in the genes, that blueprint of inherited traits and characteristics that comes along with each human being born on this earth. A personal philosophy built into the very essence of who we are.
Nurture, others will vociferously argue. It’s not so much what you were born with as how you’ve learned to react to the things you had to cope with in your early life.
If poverty was an issue, is it any wonder that holding onto money becomes paramount in adulthood? If you felt overlooked and unpopular as a child, it would seem to make sense to center your grown-up life on the acquisition of the love and admiration you missed out on back then. If you felt stepped on as a kid, why not develop a personal philosophy that ensures you’ll never be subject to that kind of thing again? A tendency to always be “looking out for Number One” may be a reaction to a time when you not only failed to feel like anyone’s Number One, but basically believed you had no number at all…
Nature or nurture, it seems clear that the engines that animate our attitudes are powerful ones. Most likely it’s a combination of both: an inborn trait enhanced or reshaped in light of life’s circumstances. Either way, the propellants are there. Over the years, they carve out an approach to life that becomes second nature. They become the prism through which we view everything. The button that always gets pushed.
After a while, the attitudes are so engrained that there’s no longer a need to push any buttons at all. Our reactions have become instinctive.
In other words, we’re moving on automatic.
Have you ever driven a car on the highway using “cruise control?” All you have to do is set the speed at which you’d like to travel, and the car carries you along at that constant rate without any need to put your foot on the gas pedal. Many of us live large chunks of our lives this way. It’s as if we set an attitude in place years ago—a form of cognitive or emotional “cruise control”—and are content to spend the rest of our years moving along at that same, pre-set speed.
It’s only when road conditions make slowing or braking necessary that a driver has to override the automatic controls and regain possession of the gas pedal. Similarly, life’s changing conditions sometimes force us to re-evaluate our entrenched positions. If we’re lucky, this will lead to a thorough attitude review and overhaul. It will force us to take a second look at the personal philosophies that have become second nature to us, to the point where we don’t even think about them anymore.
If we’re less fortunate, we will navigate carefully around the bump in the road and then go right back to thinking and feeling exactly the way we did before.
As we know, Avraham Avinu personified a personal philosophy known as “chesed.” He viewed the world with a benevolent eye and bent over backward to shower those around him with kindness.
Yitzchak Avinu, while following his father’s tenets, embraced a different personal philosophy. He chose the stricter, more disciplined course of din or gevurah. Each of them served Hashem to the best of his ability; it was their focus that was different.
Yaakov Avinu represented the apex or crown of this incredible trilogy. He achieved this distinction because he took the differing approaches of his illustrious father and grandfather and found a way to synthesize them into a more complete whole. Yaakov’s special talent was for discovering the appropriate reaction to each new situation in life. He greeted each new circumstance that arose with the correct and carefully-crafted response that they warranted.
This may sound easy. But if you consider how deeply-entrenched our attitudes are, how firmly nature stamps our personalities and how decidedly nurture plays its role, it’s actually quite a feat! To look at a situation impartially, and make a reasoned decision as to the precise response it demands, calls for wisdom, clear thinking and enormous strength of character. Strangely enough, Hashem seems to believe that we possess all three.
A proper, thought-out response is exactly what He expects from us. He doesn’t want us to sail down the highway locked on “cruise control,” but rather to assess, decide and act according to the needs of each arising situation. That’s the whole point of free will! If Hashem had wanted a bunch of robots, He would have created them.
Instead, He created us: flawed, frail and fallible… but endowed with a miraculous ability to rise above our ingrained personal philosophies when we have to. Our shared goal of serving Hashem to the best of our ability means stretching and even contorting ourselves at times, to become the most effective vessels of His will that we can possibly be.