There has been what feels like a rash – an epidemic even- certainly a disease, of recent news about women whose treatment has been so horrific it defies imagination. Not only just has it been this year, but really only over the past month, that these stories have come out.
In some ways, these cases seem to have little in common. The rescue of three women kidnapped a decade ago, held captive and repeatedly raped by three lunatics, who were, we like to think, not like “us.” Three teenage girls who were raped and publicly humiliated for the serious crime of going to parties where they thought wrongly that they could trust their friends, or who were simply acting like teenagers, or for no reason at all. Three girls who were violated, two of whom were so humiliated by the public support of their violators that they committed suicide. Those boys must have been psychopaths, the girls who tormented them mean girls, spoiled. Or maybe we should mourn for the future of these boys, ruined by a single act. Hard to know, opinion seems to be split.
But these are aberrations, are they not? Committed by bad people, people not like us. Continue reading
A couple weeks ago news stations around the country featured the story of an 87-year old woman, a resident of a nursing home in Bakersfield, California, who was denied CPR by a nurse even while the 9-1-1 operator pleaded with her to administer the life saving intervention. The audio recording of that 9-1-1 conversation sends chills down our spine as we listen knowing that her refusal to offer treatment results in that elderly woman’s death. The nurse claimed to the 9-1-1 operator that it was against the policy of the nursing home to attempt life saving intervention by any of the employees and her sole job was to only call for help and wait with the patient. The facility later confirmed that this is indeed their policy.
The response to this incident was an overwhelming display of horror and disgust. How could anyone sit idly by while a person quite literally dies in front of them? This is even more pronounced when the person who refuses to help is a nurse, a member of the medical profession. This case and the wrong committed is so clear and unequivocal that it requires little commentary, if any.
The situations that are obvious are not where the struggle lies. We are defined not by doing the right thing when it was obvious but by the times we navigated uncertainty and chose to act properly and justly. Life is made up more of the gray than the black and white. How do we navigate the uncharted? How do we find direction when there is no immediate and visceral reaction of what we should or should not do?
This is what placing oneself into the fabric of a religious tradition is all about. It is embracing the limits of the “I” and finding strength in shared wisdom and collective insight. Perhaps counter-intuitively, the sooner one can accept the boundaries of what they, alone, can decide or figure out — that not all situations are as obvious in what one should do as the case of the nursing home in California — the sooner one discovers real strength and moral bravery.
Oftentimes, our society’s stark individualism is traced back to the experience of the rugged Western frontier of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Yet, nothing could be farther from the truth. A man or woman who decided to venture out and settle the front range of the Colorado Rockies or attempt to make a go of it in Southwestern Utah by themselves was not only doomed to failure but risked their very lives. The Western frontier would not have been transformed and struggling farms and communities in their infancy would not have overcome all obstacles and survived if not for the total embrace of the power of the “we” and the inter-dependence of one person to the other.
There are times where the decision to make is obvious. Those times we can act alone, confident in our course. The majority of our lives are not composed of such moments. A community of ideas and a faith tradition connect us to wisdom that has been forged through the test of time and hammered in the fires of experience that transcends the lifetime of any one person. Let us not abandon the the power of community and the teachings it offers in the absolute pursuit of the “I”.
Earlier this week, Rabbi Shira Stutman wrote a short essay in Slate about her realization that when she was in middle school, she had been a “mean girl.” After seeing it posted several times in my Facebook feed, I went and read it. I don’t know Rabbi Stutman personally (although we move in the same circles, and people I know and respect like and respect her, and I’m pretty sure we’ve met once or twice), and frankly, my initial reaction to the post was …subdued, compared to – well, certainly compared to a great many of the comments posted.
It was the level of vituperation in the comments that led me to spend some time thinking about whether I had missed something. Certainly, her point that we all struggle to be our best selves and don’t always succeed is not novel. Her opportunity to reflect on whether or not there are still parts of her which bully others, is reasonably laudable. So, what was it that so incensed so many of her readers?
Then this paragraph caught my eye:
The Lavender Ladies, by the way, remain my lifelong friends. They are the ones who I would trust with anyone or anything, the ones who danced at my wedding, who flew cross-country when my father died, who hold my deepest secrets. They now are mothers of daughters, too, deeply involved in the work of justice and of building community. They are Good People. We want our bullies to be Bad People, but, like Whitman says, we contain multitudes.
Certainly all the Lavender Ladies were children, and they grew up. But it is enough to say that they are good people because she trusts them, because she has remained friends with them, because they are deeply involved in work she respects?
They were children who -together- were on the cusp of adulthood, and they acted as a group. She asks herself about whether she is still, somewhere within, a mean girl (an appellation I hate, by the way, for its genderedness – my experience is that boys engage in just the same kind of behavior)? But what now bothers me is that there was no examination of the group dynamic – are they good people, if they act well towards one another? Is that enough? I would say no, it’s not. We know that people act differently in groups, that we are susceptible the actions and attitudes of those around us. The rabbis recognized this – it is why we have Jewish law – halacha is intended to build a community where the group dynamic is influenced from the start. That’s why there is such picayune attentiveness to the minutia of daily life as well as broad sweeping principles in halacha. It’s not sufficient of course, but it may well be necessary.
We know from studies that people are inclined to act well towards people who are in their group. We know that groups can be easily led to be not just competitive, but downright ugly towards those “outside.” We also know how those “in” and “out” groups get formed – often by picking an out group and defining ourselves in relation to it. Groups made this way form easily, and are difficult to break down.
It’s actually pretty likely that all the Lavender Ladies did grow up to be decent people. In fact, they were probably all decent people even in middle school – except when they were together, and happened to come upon the wrong person.
What I would like to see is us questioning ourselves not about whether any of them – by which I mean “us” – are good or bad people, but whether we are good or bad groups. Americans have very little sense of ourselves as being defined by group identities – especially those of us who are or can pass as white. And yet in many ways it is our groups which define us most deeply. There is even a social theory that posits that our personalities are actually only a collection of social ties. It is how we act in our social networks that most shows who we are – and perhaps is most truly who we are. It is easy to be a lion when you’re the only cat in the room.
As adults, we engage in this same kind of behavior more subtly – and more powerfully. How does this kind of group think inform the way we talk about what’s going on in Israel? Between different aspects of the Jewish community? The way we talk about poverty? As children, we can hurt one another badly enough, but as adults, the very same dynamic can play into politics on even a global scale. Rabbi Stutman opened a very important conversation, but if we leave it at one individual examining her actions as an individual, it is simply not enough. Because even if we are not each guilty, we are certainly all, together, responsible.
The other day, I noticed, to my amusement, that Facebook had changed the status update a bit. In place of whatever used to be there (I have to admit, I can’t quite remember, it was so innocuous) there is now a revolving collection of queries, most of which seem to be something along the lines of, “How do you feel today, Alana?”
Now, I am perfectly sure this was done with the intention of making Facebook a warmer, more personal place. But most of the folks I know seem to have had the same reaction as I did: why does Facebook all of a sudden want to be my therapist?
Part of the reason that Facebook is so popular is that it allows us to maintain relationships with people who have gone far from us physically, or sometimes even with people who are near, but we simply don’t have time to actually go to see. But when Facebook starts acting as if it, itself, is the thing we’re interacting with, a lot of us suddenly become uncomfortable. Yet, in truth, Facebook does influence how our relationships exist through its medium. Our interactions are short; on our own terms; they don’t require us to face our friends – or those with whom we tangle in argument. We post pithy idioms, and funny pictures, and those who agree with us “like” them, and those who don’t …slip away, or “unfriend” us.
It’s very different than the kind of relationships a community is made from. I worry that fewer and fewer people join synagogues (and churches, too, have this problem). In “online communities,” we feel as though we are connected, but to whom are we connected, really? Instead of looking into the faces of people who are older than us, younger than us, politically of a different stripe than us, we are peering mostly into a mirror.
I’m as guilty of this as anyone – I recently ran an app that measured my Facebook posts – it told me that over the past year, I’d written enough words for a book. While I am grateful that social media allows me to stay in touch with people who might otherwise have drifted away, in some ways, I rather wish I’d written the book, instead. Granted, I use social media as part of how I make my living. Also granted, I rather like confrontation and argument. I enjoy disagreement and the sharpening of teeth over different opinions, so that when I go to shul, and someone has a very different idea than mine over what the government ought to be doing, well, I relish the discussion – even if neither of us walks away convinced. So, I don’t find Facebook all that comforting.
One of the great gifts of a synagogue, or a church or a mosque is that we come into contact with people who are there at different stages of their life, who have different opinions about everything – and yet we are brought together for a common purpose, and in the task of glorifying God, we are required to set ourselves aside.
I’m not advocating dumping Facebook, or ignoring Twitter. Heck, I’ll even give the new MySpace a try if it offers anything interesting. But it is a relief to be obligated for set times every day, to disconnect from them, and instead of looking at a screen, look at living faces. Even when they’re scowling at me. I think if I decide I need a therapist, I’ll go find one with an actual couch.
Many of us love a good delicious piece of pie. It does not matter whether that pie is cherry, blueberry, chocolate chip or strawberry because there are very few taste sensations like a scrumptious piece of pie. Yet, our love of pie should not carry over to our community building and organizational framework. Because the thing with pie is that for every piece you consume there is one less piece left. This way of looking at community – if you have a piece then that is one less piece for me – is not only wrong but damaging.
All too often community leaders can see their city demographics as slices of a pie. The slice could be called “senior citizens” or the slice could be called “left-handed dark-haired Democrats with three children and two pets,” regardless of the term, that grouping is seen as a limited quantity item that one either gets or does not get. The reality of the matter is that community members are more like human beings than they are like slices of a pie.
A person appreciates engagement. People respond when organizations and the individuals who run them are attentive to their needs and their desires. A community member desires to feel that they matter and what they bring to the table is critical. If one organization can provide that or if two organizations can provide that, the result is the same: engagement with the community and strengthening the bonds of affiliation and cohesion. There are times where a shopper will exclusively only rely on one company or one product to meet their needs. There are people out there who will only drink one type of soda and no other. However, for every one person that will never deviate from their brand loyalty, there are many more who will go where they find meaning, connection and where they are appreciated regardless if that means shopping at one store, two stores or even three.
When the various community organizations come to realize that they ought not to be expending so much energy, time and resources on aggressively competing but rather on making sure they are offering the best service they can possibly offer and that the needs of each person that comes through their door is being met to the fullest extent then we will have moved in a very positive direction away from seeing every individual as another slice of pie to be fought over. The added dimension to moving away from the pie model is that, from the perspective of the community member, a Jewish community that is collaborative, that is cooperative and that is friendly with each other, is one that makes all the various organizations more attractive and more desirable.
Let us leave pie to the dining room and out of the board room.
Do Not Separate Yourself from the Community
When a standing-room-only crowd shows up for a township meeting in a quiet, relatively affluent suburban community, you know something important is happening. Not only did neighbors fill the township hall seats and spaces along the walls and doorways, but they also filled the room next door that had been equipped with closed-circuit TV for the overflow crowd to be able to be full participants. It was quite a lesson in democracy and politics.
My town is embroiled in a zoning battle, prompted by a request of a major international corporation whose headquarters are locally based. The company has a large open-space campus with offices and research facilities in the center. It claims that the changing business environment has rendered its usage of the facility increasingly obsolete and rather than rebuilding or redesigning the corporate space, it wants to commercially develop the open space. The plan would give developers a chance to build townhouses and a sprawling continuing care senior facility.
It wouldn’t be a bad idea if it weren’t for the fact that the local roads have already become maddeningly congested at peak hours, with no solution in sight. And there are potentially serious environmental issues with the property that have not yet been resolved. And the property is the one last tract of open space in the area. And the proposed new master plan would be locked in for 20 years – without legal means to change course if the community so desired. Most significantly, the dense population of this area would dramatically change our neighborhoods.
So our community organized and hired a lawyer and a planner and rallied to attend meetings. It was important to be there.
The town planner presented a theoretical framework that justified a new plan. But from the citizens’ perspective, many real-life concerns were not taken into account. The public listened respectfully, awaiting our turn. It was such a polite expression of democracy in action.
The lawyer and planner for the citizen’s group took up the floor. The stark distinctions between the citizens’ concerns and the theories of the town planner were laid bare.
The democratic process is a blessing even though it isn’t always pretty. The property owner has a right to ask for these changes. And we have a right to voice our opposition. And I’m proud of the unifying community spirit that this cause has engendered in our town.
The great rabbi Hillel said, “Do not separate yourself from the community, and do not trust in yourself until the day of your death.” (Pirke Avot 2:5) This wisdom is remarkably powerful for moments such as this. To the corporation, who has made this town its home for 70 years, I would say, “Do not separate yourself from the community!” Your responsibility to your community should guide your hearts. We ask you to honor a basic value of neighborliness: Do No Harm.
And to our community, we must then say, “Do not trust in yourself until the day of your death,” meaning: have humility. The greatest breakdown a community can have is in its inability to recognize the “right” in each other. I was exasperated when we got home very late from the planning board meeting and I exclaimed to my husband, “This is our community and they can’t be allowed to ruin it!” He was more level-headed than I was at that hour, and he simply said, “they have rights too.”
Do not separate yourself from the community. Both Hillel and American democracy got it right.