Cultured Humility

I am sitting in a Starbucks near my home. I’m glad of the break to get out of my house, though I’ve been sick so getting dressed was a bit of an ordeal this morning. Across from me are two women in full hijabs and neck to toe dresses, one has her left breast just peeking out and is feeding her small daughter. I smile at them, because despite their religious strictures, the mother is modestly but proudly being a mom.

I smiled because I’m reminded of the way I used to dress, the way I navigated tznius with my infants’ needs. I suppose it was an ordeal then too, though I didn’t purchase clothes that weren’t tzniusdig, so my choices were predictable and void of decision making. It was easier – that life – in a lot of ways. The status quo, which governed sleeping and waking and sleeping again, was comfortable and predictable even if it was stiflingly uncomfortable at the same time.

Last week, I had the privilege of hearing Dan Ariely speak. I had never heard of him, and have to confess that in the travel and work I hadn’t glanced at the conference agenda to see who he was. As he got on stage to speak, I noticed two things immediately. The first was that he’d been burned, and badly. Not “too much California sun” burns, but the kind you get when you’ve been exposed to a fire so hot it melts your skin. The second thing I noticed was his accent. I wasn’t unfamiliar with the hand gestures and rhythm of his speech, but the man whose name I didn’t know in an Indian-style shirt threw me off from recognizing that I was around a (secular Israeli) member of the tribe. Perhaps it was my predictable irrationality about twigging onto fellow yidden – however dissimilar they are from me – that made me sit up a bit higher and listen a bit more closely. And I’m glad I did.

Here was a girl from a chassidish background listening to a man who had let his painful experiences shape his life and research in a positive way. I listened intently as he described how humans repeatedly and predictably made the wrong decisions based on instinct shaped by previous experiences. How his experiences being treated in a burn unit had driven him to ask uncomfortable decisions about intuition.

Frumkeit is predictably irrational. We make excuses and stories for the reasoning behind our decisions, but they are simply justifying someone else having control. By doing nothing, we let the person who designs the religion decide for us and have control of us.

That spark – of doubting rules for the hijab-clad breastfeeding mother in Starbucks –  reminded me of Dan Ariely’s challenge from last week. Have more humility. Develop yourself to doubt your intuition and try other paths even though that same intuition says you shouldn’t. How could I turn my experiences, my background, into something positive like he had?

If you don’t accept going against intuition, you lose the opportunity to learn.

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