The key to being fully human, then, is to be able to concentrate on that decision-making ability, to focus on what we’re doing to the world rather than what the world is doing to us.
Charitzus: To make decisions rapidly enough to be of use yet not simply respond without thought — and then to stick to the decision to see it through to the end. The art of utilizing one’s Image of G-d to be a creative being.
In a lunchtime va’ad that I participate in (in Midtown Manhattan; contact me for more details), we identified four key areas that interfere with our ability to be decisive.
1- Not Having Clear Priorities
Most decisions are difficult because they involve conflicting goals. Different choices would implement differing things, each of which are desirable. We’re forced to rank our outcomes to know which we actually prefer. But that’s only possible if we have a clear sense of our priorities.
This in turn has two parts:
A- Internalizing the right values: We can learn what are priorities are supposed to be by learning Torah. But to really internalize them, one needs to learn mussar behispa’alus, passionately.
B- Knowing one’s own role: As we saw in “Different Parts of the Same Body“, the Jewish people have one set of values, but each person brings different skills and personality to those values and therefore has a unique role to play that he alone can fill.
Mussar and self-help overlap in addressing this issue. In “Psyschology and Mussar” I suggest the following distinction. “One presumes that the person is his own best moral guidepost, and therefore the unwanted in one’s life is certainly appropriate to eliminate. The other is based on the idea that the Torah describes for us an absolute objective morality. It’s our job to study that terrain and live by ever-improving maps of it as we learn more over time.” I therefore think it’s appropriate to suggest an exercise offered by Stephen Covey in “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.”
Covey (pp 97-97) points out that we choose actions based on their goals. Therefore we should “Begin with the End in Mind”.
In your mind’s eye, see yourself going to the funeral of a loved one. Picture yourself driving to the funeral parlor or chapel, parking the car, and getting out. As you walk inside the building, you notice the flowers, the soft organ music. You see the faces of friends and family you pass along the way. You feel the shared sorrow of losing, the joy of having known, that radiates from the hearts of the people there.
As you walk down to the front of the room and look inside the casket, you suddenly come face to face with yourself. This is your funeral, three years from today. All these people have come to honor you, to express feelings of love and appreciation for your life.
As you take a seat and wait for the services to begin, you look at the program in your hand. There are to be four speakers. The first is from your family, immediate and also extended – children, brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents who have come from all over the country to attend. The second speaker is one of your friends, someone who can give a sense of what you were as a person. The third speaker is from your work or profession. And the fourth is from your church or some community organization where you’ve been involved in service.
Now think deeply. What would you like each of these speakers to say about you and your life? What kind of husband, wife, father, or mother would you like their words to reflect? What kind of son or daughter or cousin? What kind of friend? What kind of working associate?
What character would you like them to have seen in you? What contributions, what achievements would you want them to remember? Look carefully at the people around you. What difference would you like to have made in their lives?
This exercise in what you want to accomplish will clarify your priorities. Everything you do should be measured in terms of what role in plays in at least one of those goals.
But again, in order to be mussar, one needs to work within that greater structure of Torah. Knowing what you want to accomplish, what role you see yourself filling, within the Torah’s more general mission.
2- Uncertainty of One’s Motivations
Everything we do, we do for a mixture of motives. So, we never really know if we’re really acting for proper motives, or because our assessment of what it right is colored by ulterior ones (negi’os). This why keeping a cheshbon hanefesh is critical. With it, we get practice in watching ourselves and learn to see patterns in our behavior.
3- Doubt About Proper Tactic
This is a real problem. We can know what we want and ought to happen, but not know which choice is most likely to make it come about. The only productive response is to rely on bitachon, trusting G-d.
Life is like a game of backgammon more than a game of Chess. Even with perfect knowledge and strategy, we can only maximize our odds of success, not guarantee it. Sometimes “mentch tracht und G-tt lacht — man tries, and G-d laughs.” (Or: Man proposes, G-d disposes. Or: “The best laid plans of mice and men….”) Whatever we do, even with no real decisions to be made, we can only try our best and rely on Hashem for success. Fortunately, we are only judged on how hard we try.
4- “Getting Distracted by Shiny Objects”
The Cheshbon haNefesh offers an interesting insight about our habit to change our minds. Here we have a constructive use for stubbornness! By doggedly sticking with a plan, we can raise the threshhold necessary to cause us to abandon it. We need to be stubborn enough to bring the process of second-guessing a decision close the bekhirah point, the point Rav Dessler describes as the battlefront where conscious decisions are made. Then we know we changed our minds for solid rational reasons, rather than as a response to a new stimulus.
So, how does one fulfill their potential, to fully be free-willed, creative beings? In short: Know your priorities, know yourself, have the confidence in the Creator and oneself to proceed with whatever is the most likely to work, and do not be distracted.
Perhaps this is the meaning of the famous quote:
Rav Yehudah ben Teima said, “Be as bold as a tiger, and light as an eagle, run like a dear and mighty like a lion, to do the Will of your Father in heaven.” (Avos 5:4)
This mishnah is so central to our service that it’s quoted as the first halakhah in the Shulchan Arukh!
The boldness of the tiger is necessary to overcome our doubts about outcome.
The eagle sees its destination well in advance. It knows its goal, and rapidly proceeds to them.
“As a hart longs for streams of water, so does my soul longs for You, G-d.” (Tehillim 42:2) Unlike the swiftness of the eagle, which can see where it’s going and passes through empty skies, the dear stays the course because nothing it passes can distract it from its longing.
Last, the lion is mighty, a gibor. But “Who is a gibor? One who conquers his inclination.” (Ben Zoma, Avos 4:1) From the lion one learns to master misdirection from their ulterior motives.
Where then is the humanity? In the need for us to choose and learn these natures. In the animal kingdom, the animal is simply the way G-d made them. We can learn from their example and make ourselves.