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Yesterday’s supermoon, the closest and brightest in seven decades, is dramatic precisely because it fails to push back the darkness of night. King Solomon warns us of the pitfalls of living “under the sun,” reminding us that too much light can blind us to the dangers posed by our own misperception — a theme that figures prominently in my book Proverbial Beauty. I’m taking the opportunity to revisit this article from 2009.
Imagine if, in the late 1990s, a freshman congressman in the House of Representatives had submitted, as his first piece of legislation, a bill requiring airlines to install high-security doors on all passenger planes between the cockpit and the cabin. Imagine that the bill narrowly passed, was signed into law, and resulted — at great inconvenience and expense — with enhanced security for every commercial flight crew by the summer of 2001.
What would such an initiative have produced? Most notably (or really, just the opposite), September 11 would be a date of no greater significance than August 3. No terrorists would have seized those airliners and flown them into the Twin Towers that day. Perhaps American troops would never have gone into Afghanistan or Iraq. Perhaps the economy would not (yet) have collapsed. Quite possibly, Barack Obama would never have been elected president in an anti-George W. Bush backlash.
In his book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable , economist Nassim Nicholas Taleb proposes just such a scenario. But Mr. Taleb focuses less on the global consequences than on the fate of our fictional congressman — let’s call him Joe Smith. Congressman Smith will not be remembered as the hero who prevented the worst terrorist attack in history, precisely because he successfully prevented it. In all likelihood, he will be loudly denounced as the architect of an expensive and irrelevant measure and hounded out of office. He may live out his life regret his own lack of political saavy, which ended his career before it had even begun.
A complicated and often elusive treatise, The Black Swan proposes a correlation between history’s most significant events and the degree to which they were unanticipated. The stock crashes of 1929 and 1987; the outbreak of both world wars; the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Each of these came as a profound shock to the world; only with the benefit of hindsight have historians explained all of them as political and economical inevitabilities.
Moreover, the lessons learned from history’s most earth-shattering events tend consistently to be exercises in locking the barn door after the horse has run away. Both individually and collectively, we implement strategies that would have changed the course of history had we applied them earlier, failing to realize that our measures to correct address the specific circumstances that shaped the past rather than the broader principles that will determine the future. The more closely we focus on what we expect to happen, the more we increase the probability that the future will arrive from an entirely unimagined direction.
DON’T LOOK NOW
The human eye is a truly remarkable organ. It is self-focusing, adjusts instantly from close-range to distance, discerns color and texture, judges distance, and adapts to bright sunlight, inky darkness, and everything in between. It allows us to focus on a single point of interest while, through our faculty of peripheral vision, we continue to process information coming in from all sides to provide context and enable us to respond to changing conditions.
Instinctively and intuitively, we place the object of immediate interest at the center of our optic and cognitive attention. But this is not always the most effective means of perception. We have all experienced instances of looking directly at an object and failing to see it, either because it is so familiar or unremarkable that our minds filter it out as irrelevant, or because it is so incongruous that our subconscious refuses to accept its presence. In such cases, we may notice an object only when we are looking elsewhere and our peripheral vision, unencumbered by the censorship of our expectations, draws our attention back to that which had previously hidden in plain sight.
This phenomenon — called averted vision — was first alluded to by Aristotle and has become particularly important among astronomers, who have found that observing an object peripherally may increase its resolution by up to three or four magnitudes. Because the center of the eye contains only cones, which perceive brightness and color, fainter objects are more easily detected by the rods, which perceive dim, monochromatic light and occupy the outer regions of the eye.
LOOK AWAY AND ALL WILL BE REVEALED
We live in a world that, on its surface, seems well-ordered and readily understood. The cycle of seasons follows its natural course with relative predictability. The habits of animals remain virtually unchanged. The waters of the earth flow downward from the mountains to the seas, evaporate and rise up to the firmament, then return to the earth as rain.
On closer inspection, however, the world is a place of profound mystery. Solid objects are composed of increasingly tiny particles, many of which are spinning wildly in microscopic orbits at nearly the speed of light. Hundreds of other sub-atomic particles waft about our universe, many without any clear direction or purpose. The beginnings of physical existence and life itself cannot be substantiated through any empirical evidence or rational theory. The force of gravity, which is so fundamental that we scarcely give it any thought, has no satisfactory explanation.
Atoms, the building blocks of our universe, had never been directly observed until last year, when an electronic microscope powerful enough to view them was finally engineered. The protons, neutrons, and electrons, as well as those myriad other sub-atomic particles, are still yet to be seen. So how do we know they exist? Indirect evidence — the averted vision of science. By analyzing observable evidence, scientists have determined that these particles must exist to explain otherwise unexplainable phenomena.
But why should our universe be so impenetrably shrouded in mystery? The sages of the Talmud explain that ours is a world of hester ponim — a world in which the Almighty “hides His face.” The familiarity of the material world draws all our attention, distracts us from the true spiritual nature that reveals itself only at the periphery of our vision. The unanswered questions of science, the anomalies of nature, the enigmas of philosophy, the improbability of the cosmic and individual “coincidences” that surround us daily — all these testify to the order and the One who imposed order upon the universe. They whisper to us from the corners of our consciousness and beckon us from the edges of our awareness, vanishing to insignificance amidst the cacophony of physical existence the moment we try to focus on them, then reappearing as soon as we turn our attention elsewhere.
Search for G-d and all His might, says King David, seek His presence always.The harder we try to find order in our lives, the more chaotic our world seems to become. By allowing the subtle evidence that flutters at the fringes of Creation to hold out attention, however indirectly, the more we make our hearts and minds sensitive to the spiritual reality that is the foundation of the physical universe and the human condition.
“I can only show you the door. You have to walk through it.”
~ Morpheus, The Matrix
Life is a series of doorways, each leading into the future. Fear and complacency try to convince us not to go through one; complacency and arrogance try to convince us that there’s no need to go through another.
Either way, once we go through, there’s no going back. All we can do is be careful which doors we choose to open, and learn from our mistakes so that we don’t repeat them.
Here’s a deeper look, excerpted from my book Proverbial Beauty:
Fortunate is the man who listens for me, attentively waiting at my doors day by day, keeping watch by the doorposts of my entryways (Proverbs 8:34).
In the language of Solomon, a doorway symbolizes a point of transition, a threshold of spiritual growth, and an opportunity not only to realize but to increase one’s personal potential. And so wisdom says, as it were: “None is more fortunate than those who listen to me, who learn my ways and commit themselves to my principles, who wait eagerly and attentively for every opportunity to rise to the challenges demanded by moral discipline, who do not rest on their laurels but follow every moral victory by hastening to the next ‘entranceway’ and waiting for the next ‘door’ of opportunity to open up for them.”
It sounds a simple formula, but although “change” may make an effective campaign slogan, human nature deplores change and yearns for the status quo. For many, nothing is more frightening than the unknown that lies on the other side of the next “door.” And human creativity knows no bounds in its efforts to avoid knocking at the doors life places in our path.
In the mythical town of Khelm, the synagogue beadle would rise at dawn each morning to go around the town, knocking on doors to rouse the parishioners for the morning prayer service.
Years went by, and as the beadle grew older it became increasingly difficult for him to make the rounds. One winter, after a particularly heavy snowfall, he told the synagogue elders that he would be unable to make it out the next morning to knock on doors.
The wise men of Khelm convened an emergency meeting. Without the beadle to knock on the doors of the townspeople, there was no way to ensure that they would have the requisite quorum of ten men for the morning service. But appointing a replacement also posed a problem. For one thing, the beadle had served the community loyally for decades, and it seemed unappreciative to unceremoniously remove him from his post. For another, it was difficult to think of a replacement as reliable and trustworthy as the beadle had been.
After lengthy consideration, the wise men finally devised a solution. No replacement would be necessary after all. Instead, they hired workers to remove the doors from all the homes in the town and line them up in the beadle’s house. The next morning, the beadle rose at his usual time, knocked on every door without having to leave the comfort of his home, and then went back to bed.
Even if we make it through one doorway, our problems are still not over. For just as fear and self-interest are eager to turn us back before we pass through any given door, arrogance and complacency are waiting to pounce upon us after we make it to the other side, urging us to be satisfied with what we have achieved and warning us not to risk what we have by trying to accomplish something more.
Of course, the most successful deceptions are the ones closest to the truth. There is always risk in aspiring to greatness, and reaching for the unattainable is as certain a recipe for failure as not attempting to reach at all.
This is why we find some doors closed to us. It is for our own benefit that fate may bar us from pursuing the most appealing pathways: those ways could lead to crippling failures if we tried to follow them, or else leave us giddy with pride and quash further opportunities for success.
No one ever said life was simple. Only through self-reflection, sincere introspection, and seeking counsel from the wise can we hope to choose rightly and wisely. If we make every effort to push ourselves to the limits of our potential without giving in to impulse or ego, more often than not we can expect to succeed in our endeavors. And if we find that some doors remain closed to us, with perseverance we will discover that other doors open to lead us toward the same, or better, destinations.
Listen to my recent interview with John B. Wells on Caravan to Midnight:
Ancient wisdom for modern times (interview starts at about 1:40:00).
Great minds think alike, and Jason Hartman has a website and podcast exclusively devoted to the practical lessons of King Solomon’s wisdom.
Listen to my interview with him here.
With congress increasing paralyzed by gridlock and our president usurping monarchic power by executive fiat, it seems appropriate to revisit this essay from 2008, originally published by Jewish World Review and adapted in my book Proverbial Beauty.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to end traffic congestion in Manhattan. However, as sympathetic as New Yorkers may be to Mr. Bloomberg’s vision, his proposed method is most likely to produce madness.
To curb the number of vehicles entering downtown (which has grown annually by an average of 8000 per day since the 1920s, according to U. S. News and World Report), the proposed law would encourage (or coerce) commuters to rely on public transportation by imposing a daytime tax of $8 per car and $21 per truck traveling onto the island. City officials believe that this “congestion pricing” would reduce traffic by as much as 12 ½ percent.
Whether or not commuters can be persuaded to practice even occasional abstinence in their love affairs with their cars makes for interesting speculation. However, the concept itself is sound. In fact, it has been used for some time on a much larger scale, implemented throughout every borough of the world by the Mayor of the Universe.
EXPRESS LANES TO FREEDOM
The most the dramatic experiment in mass transit came over 3300 years ago when the Almighty split the Sea of Reeds, allowing the Jews to pass through and escape their Egyptian pursuers. In contrast to Cecil B. DeMille’s famous recreation, the sages teach that the sea opened up into twelve distinct passageways, one for each of the Tribes of Israel. As they passed through, the water separating the passages turned clear like glass, so that each tribe could see its fellow tribesmen traveling alongside them.
The design of this miracle teaches three lessons. First, the division of the sea into separate passageways demonstrates that there is more than one way to have a relationship with G-d. The Almighty does not want us to be automatons or clones, sheepishly following whoever is in front of us. Each individual is unique, and his divine service should be tailored to the nature of his singular soul.
Second, the water turning clear like glass reveals the lengths to which we must go to master the human ego. Had the walls of each passageway remained opaque, each tribe would have thought that it alone had discovered the correct avenue to reach the other side, and that it alone was traveling in the right direction to serve G-d. When they saw the other tribes traveling along side them, the Jews of each tribe recognized that they were not the only ones who had discerned the proper path.
The final lesson can be learned from recognizing that there were a limited number of paths. Anyone who did not follow one of the twelve passageways was, literally and figuratively, under water. Every spiritual movement does not become legitimate simply because it declares itself so, no matter how sincere its leaders or followers may be. Every self-proclaimed “holy man” is not genuine simply because he hangs out his shingle or attracts parishioners. Natural laws govern the operation of the spiritual universe just as they govern the workings of the physical world. One cannot render those rules null and void simply by wishing them out of existence or declaring them defunct, any more than congress can annul the force of gravity.
THE PRICE OF PRIDE
There is yet one more insight to be gained from the illustration of the Jews’ passage through the sea, one that is echoed by the New York mayor’s effort to cure his city’s traffic woes.
Consider the car as an allegory for personal autonomy. In a very real sense, we are all control freaks. We want to control our destiny, to chart our own heading, to have our hands on the wheel. Often the greatest demonstration of inner strength comes through humbling ourselves, giving up control and placing our fate in the hands of another. Often this is a concession we are either unwilling or unable to make.
But do we consider the cost? For car owners, the cost is rolled up in the price of the vehicle itself, of gas, insurance, repairs, parking fees, tolls and, perhaps, congestion tax. Public transportation is far cheaper and often more efficient. But still we refuse to relinquish control.
In business, the most efficient workers are those who work as part of a team, who coordinate their efforts with the efforts of others and trust their coworkers to get their own jobs done. Those who try to do everything themselves, or to micromanage others at their work, create confusion, inefficiency, and frustration.
Our relationships, marriages, and families function best when the individuals within them tend to their own responsibilities and allow others to look after theirs. Hovering, ordering, or criticizing before a spouse or child has even had a chance to complete an assigned task breeds resentment and destroys trust.
Spirituality is much the same. We like to think that we are in control of defining our own relationship with the Almighty. We strike out in whatever direction seems right to us, often without any roadmap or compass to guide us in distinguishing good from bad, right from wrong, moral from immoral. We believe that intuition alone will get us to our goal, when we have only the faintest notion of where we are trying to get.
Worst of all, there is available transportation ready to take us to our final destination in the most efficient way. By keeping G-d’s laws and following in His ways, we guarantee ourselves the smoothest possible journey through this world until we arrive at the World to Come.
THE FAST TRACK
But still many of us won’t give up control. So the Almighty levies His “taxes,” creating obstacles that make the paths of personal autonomy increasingly difficult. We feel stifled in our jobs, unhappy with our families, and discontented with the direction of our lives. So we seek out “detours,” looking for fulfillment in the least likely places: alcohol, drugs, gambling, or extramarital affairs. We think change will make us feel better, but we usually find ourselves worse off than before.
Rabbi Elyahu Dessler explains that we find ourselves in emotional or spiritual darkness at those times when we have cut ourselves off from the source of spirituality in the world. But when we “look into the darkness,” when we recognize that we have created the darkness for ourselves by distancing ourselves from the ways of the Creator, then and only then will we begin to find our way back to the light. By giving up control over our destiny, we regain mastery over our soul.
Whether taxing drivers will solve New York’s traffic problems remains a mystery. But it is in our hands to solve the mysteries of the spirit by following the well-trodden path of the generations that have gone before us. By retracing their steps, we can have confidence that we are not solely dependent upon our own devices to chart our way out of the darkness of confusion, but that we have a clearly marked path to follow toward the light of true meaning.
This week, the world observed the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein publishing his General Theory of Relativity. The effects of his revelation extend far beyond what most of us imagine, as I outline in this excerpt from my book Proverbial Beauty: Secrets for Success and Happiness from the Wisdom of the Ages.
Do not remove the boundaries of eternity, which were set in place by your forefathers (Proverbs 22:28).
Writing for Environmental Health Perspectives, Ron Chepesiuk cites research that exposure to artificial light can prevent trees from adjusting to seasonal variation, affecting the behaviors, foraging areas, and breeding cycles of insects, bats, turtles, birds, fish, rodents, and reptiles even in rural settings. Urban light has caused disorientation in migrating birds, accounting for avian deaths estimated between 98 million and one billion each year.
The 24-hour day/night cycle, known as the circadian clock, affects physiologic processes in almost all organisms. These processes include brain wave patterns, hormone production, cell regulation, and other biologic activities. Disruption of the circadian clock is linked to several medical disorders in humans, including depression, insomnia, cardiovascular disease, and cancer, says Paolo Sassone-Corsi, chairman of the Pharmacology Department at the University of California, Irvine, who has done extensive research on the circadian clock. “Studies show that the circadian cycle controls from ten to fifteen percent of our genes,” he explains. “So the disruption of the circadian cycle can cause a lot of health problems.”
A meeting sponsored by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) concluded that, although there is still no conclusive evidence, the correlation between altered patterns of light and dark in the modern world and dramatic increases in the risk of breast and prostate cancers, obesity, and early-onset diabetes appears more than coincidental.
And, of course, we can no longer see the stars.
Breaches in natural boundaries have taken many other forms as well:
- In 1884, a farmer visiting the Cotton States Exposition in Louisiana brought back a few Venezuelan water hyacinths to decorate the fountain outside his home in Florida. Today, the aggressive purple flowers choke 126,000 acres of waterways.
- Kudzu, a Japanese vine imported in 1876 to prevent erosion, is currently spreading through the southern United States and expanding at a rate of 150,000 acres a year.
- The European rabbit, introduced to Australia in 1859, has reached a population of over 200 million, necessitating the construction of a 2000 mile long rabbit-proof-fence to prevent the wholesale destruction of farmlands.
- In 1956, African bees brought over by Brazilian scientists to breed for honey production escaped their quarantine and gave rise to the noted “killer bee” scare.
The list goes on and on. In the United States alone, containment costs of invasive species are estimated at $138 billion annually.
But the violation of natural boundaries has even more broad-reaching consequences, affecting not only the stability of our physical world but the integrity of the moral universe as well. In his book Modern Times: the world from the twenties to the nineties, historian Paul Johnson analyzes the impact of Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity upon the way Western society began to look at the established values of the ages:
All at once, nothing seemed certain in the movements of the spheres… It was as though the spinning globe had been taken off its axis and cast adrift in a universe which no longer conformed to accustomed standards and measurement. At the beginning of the 1920s the belief began to circulate, for the first time at a popular level, that there were no longer any absolutes: of time and space, of good and evil, of knowledge, above all of value. Mistakenly but perhaps inevitably, relativity became confused with relativism.
No one was more distressed than Einstein by this public misapprehension. He was bewildered by the relentless publicity and error which his work seemed to promote…
Einstein was not a practicing Jew, but he acknowledged a God. He believed passionately in absolute standards of right and wrong… He wrote to [colleague Max] Born: “You believe in a God who plays dice, and I in complete law and order in a world which objectively exists and which I, in a wildly speculative way, am trying to capture. I firmly believe, but I hope that someone will discover a more realistic way or rather a more tangible basis than it has been my lot to find.”
But Einstein failed to produce a unified theory, either in the 1920s or thereafter. He lived to see moral relativism, to him a disease, become a social pandemic, just as he lived to see his fatal equation bring into existence nuclear warfare. There were times, he said at the end of his life, when he wished he had been a simple watchmaker…
[T]he public response to relativity was one of the principal formative influences on the course of twentieth-century history. It formed a knife, inadvertently wielded by its author, to help cut society adrift from its traditional moorings in the faith and morals of Judeo-Christian culture.
It’s hard not to be impressed by the prescience of King Solomon. When civilization depended upon candlelight to hold back the darkness, the inexorable cycle of day and night forced us to conform to the natural order. True, our lives have become more convenient and more comfortable, but once electric lighting pushes away the darkness of night, once central air conditioning and heating insulate us from the changing of the seasons, once cars and planes shrink the distance between faraway places, once electronic communication eliminates all delay in correspondence and information and, indeed, once science itself seems to provide justification that all boundaries are negotiable, is it not inevitable that society will begin to challenge moral boundaries as well?
There are no absolutes when every established norm is threatened by the inertia of change for the sake of change and an idealized vision of unrestricted freedom. Once change becomes the new normal, human society has little hope of curbing the headlong rush into chaos and social disintegration into moral anarchy.
In the same way that we have to defend the integrity of natural and moral boundaries as a society, we have to guard the boundaries between ourselves and those around us when the order of society begins to crumble. But no matter how much we try, we can never completely seal ourselves off from the influences of the culture in which we live.
I discovered this frightening truth on a trip to southern Asia, where a popular joke is repeated only half-jokingly:
In America people drive on the right side of the road.
In England, people drive on the left side of the road.
In India, it’s optional.
Only when society as a whole preserves its respect for the traditions that have been handed down through the ages will the structure of that society endure. But if each generation believes that it can reject the standards of its forbears from a position of moral superiority, the next age of darkness can be found lurking right around the corner.
Thanks to all those who participated in my launch event this week at Subterranean Books. The crowd was standing room only and the responses were enthusiastic and encouraging.
Thanks also to Kelly, Alex, and Jenna at Subterranean Books for hosting the event.
If you’d like a signed copy, please send $20 and your inscription request to me at this address:
St. Louis, MO 63105