Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
The people in our lives can sometimes surprise us. “Why did she say that?” “Who would do that?” “What was he thinking?” These are questions that come to mind when our expectations of what someone might do or say are challenged, or when someone says or does things that run contrary to what we ourselves might do or say.
To a certain extent, we hope that our relationships tread common, predictable, and therefore “safe” paths. We trap ourselves in an echo chamber of our own limited and biased opinions and perceptions by surrounding ourselves with people who say things we agree with, and act as we would. Even the strangers in my midst are comfortably predictable! I was at a small, local airport recently, and noticed that most passengers were similarly dressed in the same style of casual wear, holding the same brand of take-out coffee, carrying similar messenger-style tote bags containing strikingly similar laptops. Advertisers have done their job well, showing us how to mold ourselves into one boring entity.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel asked a rhetorical question during his last interview, 10 days before he passed away. “Should the Metropolitan Museum try to introduce [a rule] that all paintings should look alike?” He continued, “I should like to suggest that all human faces should look alike – how would you respond to my proposal?” Of course, we would be dissatisfied in such a homogenized world. William Cowper wrote in his poem, “The Task”, that “variety is the spice of life.” This sounds good on it’s surface, but to really put this into practice, we need to overcome our distaste for the different, the unknown, and the unpredictable. We need to learn to tolerate and even to seek out difference, in all aspects of our lives.
Sometimes we find opinions very different than our own as jarring; maybe even offensive. Imagine being a staunch vegetarian seated at an end-of-the-year corporate lunch at a steak house. Or, you are a kindergarten teacher who grew up as a child of the ’60s Peace Movement. How would you feel if a politician shares his view that all teachers should be armed with guns? It’s unlikely that you would be comfortable with this exposure to different views and practices than your own. Unless it were an assignment from your therapist or your Mindfulness Coach, you wouldn’t be likely to exclaim: “Wow; how curious and interesting that people hold such colorfully divergent views! What an exciting world!”
So, the issue of the unique is as much a challenge to us as it is a cause for celebration. We have a paradox. On the one hand, variety is vital to a meaningful life. On the other hand, let’s be honest. We hate it.
How do we navigate these moments when other people’s “different” views are less than ‘the spice of life”? An answer is offered: Social Intelligence.
Social Intelligence is defined in Positive Psychology as “being aware of the motives and feelings of other people and oneself; knowing what to do to fit into different social situations, and knowing what makes other people tick.” Social Intelligence can be described as understanding what it is like to walk in another’s shoes, i.e. a starting place of empathy, and then, knowing when and how to communicate your different perspective effectively and amicably.
When you find yourself puzzled or annoyed or possibly even outraged by something someone said or did, you can ask yourself this set of questions:
What was her motivation for saying this?
What was she hoping for?
What might she have been worried about, that made her say that or do that?
What are the other things going on her life?
What other things might be on her mind?
What about her situation, past and present, may be foreign to me?
What might make her happy/sad/ scared, and why?
Fortunately, we’ve begun the a new political season, so they’ll be plenty of opportunity to wonder about the outrageous positions of ‘others’. When we find ourselves reactive to other people, we’ll have to look inward as well.
What are my worries or concerns in this situation?
What am I hoping for?
Am I like that “other” person? How so?
Besides getting my way, would it really be better if ‘she’ and I were the same?
This line of questioning is a lot to ask of ourselves in the heat of the moment, so you might consider these questions away from the heat-of-the-moment, in your own reflection time leading up to a difficult encounter. Social Intelligence is a characteristic that we all have, and we all could use more of. Aside from broadening your horizons by entertaining the opinions of others, there is another added motivation for doing the hard work of exercising your Social Intelligence muscle. Has anyone ever transformed your life by saying just the right at just the right time? With your Social Intelligence powers, you could pay this forward, and say just the right thing at just the right time to a friend, family, or perhaps someone very different than you.