Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Limits of Empathy

When tragedy hits another, someone you’ve never met and never will meet, what is your response?

Very few people will brush off the news without even a second thought. Even fewer (probably none) will feel the pain like someone who was directly affected. But between these two extremes, what is your reaction, and what do you believe the proper reaction should be? Is it correct to feel pain, and if so, to what extent? Should one encourage feelings of pain and sadness, or try to dispel them?

There are, as I see it, pros and cons to each side. One might argue that you should encourage and experience sensations of grief: this is empathy, feeling for someone else, a compassionate human quality. When you suffer, I suffer, because we are all intrinsically connected.

However, on the other side, if I allow myself to grieve, if I dwell on the tragedy, cry, and feel pain, where do I draw the line? At what point do I distract myself from these thoughts, or allow myself to be distracted? At what point does my grief for people unknown become excessive, detracting from my ability to do other things, to be productive, to live my own life? Is it really right for me to be sad and depressed, even for just a number of hours, because of something that didn’t happen to me, and that only hurts me because I allow it to?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

"Which Way Is Up?" Revisited

About a year and a half ago I began this blog. Before logging on to create an account, I knew I needed a name—but I drew a complete blank. I had a hard time coming up with a title that I felt would somehow epitomize me and what I intended to do with my little piece of cyberspace. Eventually, after much deliberation, I settled on “Which Way Is Up?” with the subhead “Perpetually searching for the answer.”

I’ve always been a thoughtful person, someone who thinks about what she does and why she does it. I’ve come to where I am in life through much reflection and by drawing my own conclusions. And I acknowledge that, young as I am, my process of development is nowhere near its end. In fact, I hope and expect to be thinking and growing for as long as I am allowed the privilege of living in this world.

I am also a strong believer in the multiplicity of perspectives that exist within Torah Judaism. As one of my Rebbeim in seminary put it: “Gray is my hashkafa.” The right choice is not always clear; every decision comes with sacrifices, every chumra with a kulah. Because of the existence of endless nuance, every choice must be evaluated on its own; the answer perpetually sought, rarely crystal clear.

For all of these reasons, I chose “Which Way” to represent myself and my blog—symbolic of my constant search for the truest path, a search I know will never be concluded.

However, for most of my blog’s lifespan, its title has not necessarily reflected the content of its posts. Though it was an accurate depiction of a crucial aspect of its author’s philosophy, the blog itself was not (primarily) utilized as a medium to further that mission. Though I’ve touched on philosophical topics, most of those posts did not generate much further discussion—and I’ve also spent lots of blogspace regaling readers with tales of procrastination and adventures (in NYC, London, Israel, and elsewhere), as well as musings on writing, chagim, and lots of other randomness.

Over the past number of months, I’ve found myself thinking even more than usual. I’ve come back to philosophical questions I might have considered “settled” before, and have pondered many more that had never occurred to me. More than ever, I feel myself seeking discussion and debate. Not just about the ‘big’ questions of life and religion, but also about more specific topics that occur to me at random.

At the beginning of The Lonely Man of Faith, the Rav writes, “Knowledge in general and self-knowledge in particular are gained not only from discovering logical answers but also from formulating logical, even though unanswerable, questions.” Asking questions is a crucial exercise, even when no one conclusive answer is reached.

So when questions occur to me, I want discussion, above all. I thank God that I am blessed with several circles of wonderful and intelligent friends, but often I want more than a single perspective can offer. I want a discussion that extends beyond one, two, three, people, into a larger circle of diverging viewpoints.

And so I’ve found myself turning to my blog as a place to ask questions, and hopefully generate discussion. Within the past months, the comments on these posts are the closest my blog has come to providing what I’m looking for, but I have about six or seven posts—philosophical issues or questions—running through my head that I’d like to write up and discuss. I cannot promise that I will do so, and I’m not planning to start writing every day (far from it!), but I would love to create a place for meaningful thought and discussion—and none of that can happen without you, the readers and commenters.

So welcome all—I encourage you to add your unique perspectives to every post, to make this blog a place for questions, for Truth-seeking, and for knowledge in general and self-knowledge in particular.

Monday, April 07, 2008

God's Plan and Free Will

We like to say Hashem has a plan, He doesn’t give us more than we can handle, it’s in His hands and it’s all for the best. But how often are these sentiments repeated merely to make ourselves feel better? How much hashgacha does God really have over each event in our individual lives? At best, it is a major philosophical debate. Is He really choosing each occurrence, leading up to a final culmination of the fate He has in store for each of us? Rambam would say no. And we have no way to know for sure.

And even assuming that He is guiding each step of our lives, how much room is there for us to mess it up? We have free will, don’t we? Doesn’t that mean that despite Hashem’s best laid plans, we have the ability to make mistakes and ruin it all? What if, presented with that golden opportunity, we turn it down? We are human, we are flawed, we cannot always see what the correct choice is, so we stumble along, doing out best. But what if we are wrong? What if that chance is lost?