Where Are You Is a Very Good Question

where-are-youQuestions are powerful tools. They can ignite hope and lead to new insights. They can also destroy hope and keep us stuck in bad assumptions.”

– Michael Hyatt

In the face of questionable or annoying behavior, we often make the mistake of asking “why?” For the most part, asking someone “why” questions, such as, “Why are you so disorganized? Why did you leave your wet towel on the floor? Why did you forget to take your lunch to school? Why did you leave on all the lights? Why did you blah blah blah…” are bad questions. How so?

“Why” questions are often less of a genuine inquiry into the truth of the matter and more of a veiled accusation and criticism. When your spouse comes into the kitchen in the middle of the night craving that last bit of beef with broccoli, for example, and finds the empty Chinese food container surreptitiously buried in the trash, there are no really “good” answers to the interrogation that is sure to follow.

Killer Communication

Relationship expert, John Gottman, famously uses the phrase “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” to refer to the four communication styles that kill relationships and Horseman #3 is “Defensiveness.” When we feel unjustly accused of something, we defend ourselves by denying, fishing for excuses, blaming, and turning the tables on the accuser to make it his or her fault.

Sometimes, however, because of past experiences, we can get triggered, and “hear” an innocent or good question as being a verbal attack – when it wasn’t. We’re all familiar with the story of Adam eating the forbidden fruit and then hiding from God.
God never asked Adam “why” he ate of the forbidden fruit, however. God simply asked, “Where are you?”

The Existential Inquiry

Obviously, this wasn’t a literal question, with God playing Hide & Go Seek, peering at the bushes saying, “Come out, come out wherever you are.” But neither was it a verbal attack. It was an existential inquiry. In asking, “Where are you?” God was probing the internal mechanism whereby Adam made it OK to disobey God. No matter how destructive the behavior, there is always an inner voice that convinces us that it’s OK, justifiable, or even a moral imperative. No one, I dare say, eats chocolate frosted donuts or is unfaithful to a partner by accident; the mind can distort any reality and excuse any behavior.

In asking Adam, “Where are you?” God wanted Adam to contemplate the grave consequences of his behavior, because if Adam was hiding from God, and thus, disconnected from his very Creator, where, then, could he possibly be?

Response – Ability

The antidote for defensiveness is simple – own your stuff. Take responsibility for your part, however big or small, in creating the issue. God was hoping that the first man would “man up,” learn from his mistake and reconnect with God.

Adam’s disobedience, however, had created in him such a deep sense of shame, that he processed God’s inquiry as a “why” question, as a verbal attack, and thus Adam engaged in typical defensive behaviors. Adam blamed his wife for giving him the fruit of which he ate, he upped the ante by blaming God for giving him a wife to begin with, and even worse, Adam failed to show remorse.

The Sages point out that in the text, the verb “ate” is in the future tense. Incredibly, Adam was in effect admitting that even if he had the chance for a do-over, he would commit the same sin again, that for all time, Adam will always eat that apple, because he is not capable of or interested in changing. He’s just that guy. Having rejected God’s overture and bid to repair the relationship is it any wonder that at that point, God responded, “You’re outta here!”

The True Nature of Sin

The Hebrew word for “sin” is “chet.” It means, “to miss the mark,” and so we are to understand that it is the very nature of transgressions to take us off course. As anyone who uses GPS knows, we often miss a turn, but the first thing that happens when the system re-routes is to pinpoint our locations. Fundamentally, however, we also have to have a destination. “Where are you?” exists in a context. And so, implicit in the spoken question is the unspoken assumption of a location: “Where are you going?” In Judaism, it’s both the journey and the destination.

As we go through the trials and tribulations of life, as well as its joys and delights, we can imagine that embedded in each situation is God’s question: “Where are you now… and now… and here… and here… with this ordeal and that triumph?” Are you in relationship with God? Are you connected? Are you likely to hit the mark? And if not, then how can you course correct? Are you willing to ask for Divine direction? Are you willing to recalibrate your assumptions? Can you take responsibility for your actions and respond appropriately? Let’s not ever be “that guy,” unable to come out from behind the bush, bitter at life and who doesn’t know where he’s going?

What Your Future Self Wants You to Know

Do one thing today your future self will thank you for.

– Anonymous

Hey, everyone. It’s my birthday today. I’m 120 years old! And today is the last day of my life. Thus begins the Torah portion, “Vayeilech,” which chronicles Moses’ farewell to the Jewish people, in which he gives his final words of instruction and comfort, and passes on the baton of leadership to Joshua.

Unlike Moses, however, most of us don’t know the actual day of our death. Proponents of mindfulness exhort us, however, to imagine that it was, with positive clichés and variations of “Carpe Deum” – as if urging us to live each day as if it were our last would somehow cure our existential procrastination. But that doesn’t work for me. Last day, huh? OK, I think I’ll have the nachos grande (with sour cream, of course), an order of mozzarella sticks and a pineapple mojito. Veggie burger on a lettuce wrap? Don’t think so. In other words, “Seize the day!” doesn’t necessarily lead me to a good place.

Instead of pretending – (hopefully so) – that today were the last day of your life, what if you were to realize, instead, that it’s the first day of the rest of your life? What if you could make use of a preferred future to inspire and focus your present behavior? What if you could hold a vision of a realized potential, and chart a path towards that goal? How great would it be to age with vitality and quality of life and still show up for Flamenco classes at age 75? Hmm, that veggie burger sounds pretty good after all.

I had a client who was struggling with “doing the right thing.” Knowing how important this man’s relationship was with his son, and how he wanted to be a good role model as a dad, I asked him a classic coaching question: “What would you want your son to say about you at your 80th birthday party?” As a technique for shaping present behavior, I think fast –forwarding twenty, thirty or more years… even to an imagined deathbed, is a powerful exercise. When an upset intrudes into my life, for example, I ask myself whether this state of affairs will exist or matter at the end of my life. Knowing that I probably won’t even remember something that’s bothering me now, gives me the healthy perspective I need to make better choices about how to cope.

 On the other hand, when I am struggling with a decision, I can also ask my future self whether I will someday regret that I didn’t make a certain choice. I visualize looking back on my life as having gone down either path, and I imagine how I will feel having lived with the consequences of each choice. Will I feel remorse or peace, sorrow or fulfillment?

Researchers have looked to science for the keys to “doing the right thing” and have come up with a fascinating experiment testing whether projecting oneself into the future could shape better decisions for today. Groups of college students were asked what they would do if they were strapped financially, needed a new computer, and were told by a friend that he happened to know where they could get one cheap – wink-wink, nod-nod.

Before answering that question, however, all of the students were directed to write a letter to their future selves – describing themselves as if the future were now. One group was told to write to a future self three months hence, and the other group was told to write a letter to a future self twenty years out. And then they answered the question whether or not they would buy a stolen computer.

The students who wrote letters to themselves in the near future were much more likely to take the offer while those who wrote to a distant future were much more apt to decline it. The reason is simple. Imagining yourself three months from now doesn’t give you a different perspective. You’re still in your same skin, identified with the “now” of your life. So if your present self was tempted by the offer, projecting three months into the future was irrelevant.

When students described their imagined self in 20 years, however, they were able to step out of their narrative and craft a preferred vision of themselves. And as if this wiser and future doppelganger were reaching back in time, these students tended to make better choices that aligned with that wiser and better self.

Take the Moses Challenge

Try writing your obituary. Who will you be at the end of your days? What will have mattered matter and what won’t? What do you want your loved ones to say about you – and have learned from you? What do you want to leave as your legacy?   And then work your way backward – to today – and make choices that are designed to get you there. Says one who is wise beyond his years, the famous Puss ‘n Boots, “It’s never too late to do the right thing.” You’re always one decision away from a totally different life. And it’s easier than you think.