Mystery and Uncertainty – The Power of Wow

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“In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar.

― Richard Feynman

At certain times, such as when negotiating a divorce settlement or custody agreement, even otherwise relatively reasonable people can start to circle the drain of minutiae in the quest of the impossible – the desire for certainty and guaranteed outcomes. They tend to forget that life doesn’t work that way. Perhaps, as their lives and families are unraveling, they look in desperation to regain a sense of control, hoping that the legal document that comprehensively anticipates every variation and situational hiccup will against all odds create a predictable and smooth future.    

I didn’t know (and I’m not trying to be funny here – OK, maybe I am a little) but apparently, the aversion to uncertainty and ambiguity, and the “need for closure,” is an actual psychological term that refers to a person’s strong desire and motivation to have definite answers and knowledge.  And so I must warn you – if you score high on the Need for Closure Scale (and there is such a thing), then you are probably not going to like this week’s Torah portion, Chukat, which is the term for those Torah laws for which there is no rational basis.

In Chukat, we read about the laws of the Red Heifer, the quintessential mind bender in that the same ritual that causes purification also causes spiritual contamination.   Even the wisest of them all, King Solomon, had to proclaim this law (and I paraphrase) “not figureoutable.” While some of you might maintain that the adherence to a religion that has a whole body of such laws makes for dimwitted blind followers, I would beg to differ. For it is the inability to live without mystery and uncertainty that makes Jack a very dull boy – and ironically, creates narrow-minded fixed judgments.  

The need for closure drives answers to ambiguous situations; that doesn’t mean, however, that the answers are correct, nuanced, or able to change with new information. For example, the existential uncertainty that juxtaposes a benevolent God with human suffering creates discomfort, and so someone with a high need for closure may decide that God doesn’t exist or lacks power or compassion. And then they leave it at that, for two things characterize this syndrome: “urgency” (the need to come to a quick conclusion) and “permanence” (the need to make it last).

Lets Talk About Love

In relationships, the need for closure and certainty is necessary to create intimacy (into-me-see). We want to ease tension, and in knowing our beloved, we close the distance between us, for it is the nature of love to create connection and togetherness. But too much certainty and familiarity will kill desire and vibrancy. In a fascinating TED talk, The Secret to Desire in a Long-Term Relationships, Esther Perel explains that we also have a need for separateness, autonomy, and mystery. And what keeps a relationship passionate and alive, is when our partners are at times, separate, momentarily elusive, a mysterious stranger we want to get to know, so that our reunification is a discovery.

If any of you have attended an Orthodox Jewish wedding, then you have witnessed the “bedecken,” the ritual which takes place right before the marriage ceremony, when the groom enters the room, looks at his bride and then covers her face with her veil. While many point to the story of Jacob having been “tricked” into marrying Leah instead of his beloved Rachel as the origin of this “checking” under the veil – that is not its purpose. Rather, the groom is acknowledging and committing to both aspects of his wife: when she is unveiled (known and revealed) and when she is veiled (unknown and covered).

As said by Charles Dickens, “A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.” Capitalizing on that fact, the family purity laws of Jewish marriage are based on cycles of the known and the mysterious, the permitted and the longed for. When separation is ultimately for the sake of unity, then mystery is not a case for alarm or discomfort, but rather, it generates curiosity, excitement, and vitality. In other words, such a relationship is dynamic and vibrant.  

The acceptance of Torah by the Jewish people at Mount Sinai is compared to a wedding ceremony. Thus, we became eternally betrothed and committed to the parts of God that are revealed, as well as to the parts of God that are covered. Therefore, the chukim, the laws for which we can find no rational basis, do not undermine our relationship with God; rather, we rejoice that our Beloved is at times ineffable, unknowable, and mysterious. Thus, it is not our job (nor is it possible) to investigate and analyze God like an object, but to unite with God as a whole Being.

Mark Batterson, author of, “In a Pit with a Lion on a Snowy Day: How to Survive and Thrive When Opportunity Roars,” sums it up nicely: “Embrace relational uncertainty. It’s called romance. Embrace spiritual uncertainty. It’s called mystery. Embrace occupational uncertainty. It’s called destiny. Embrace emotional uncertainty. It’s called joy. Embrace intellectual uncertainty. It’s called revelation.” In the end, ironically, the only certainty is uncertainty. Wow!

 

Help! I’m Dealing with a Narcissist!

images“When the healthy pursuit of self-interest and self-realization turns into self-absorption, other people can lose their intrinsic value in our eyes and become mere means to the fulfillment of our needs and desires.” – P.M. Forni, The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude

In my early days of being a divorce lawyer, I wanted to refer a troubled client to a therapist I knew, and I asked if she had experienced treating clients who were married to narcissists.  “Hah!” she exclaimed, “Everyone tells me that their spouse is a narcissist.”  The therapist was right, and since then, I realized it is a common accusation.  But these days, outside of the divorce arena, we seem to hurl that term at every and anyone with whom we have a disagreement of a difference of opinion.  And the narcissist is always the “other guy.” If I had titled this article, Help! I’m a Narcissist, no one would read it, or it would be forwarded to someone else to read, because the joke is on the narcissist – he or she is always the last to know.  So, how do you know if you – or someone you love/hate is a narcissist?  Here are some typical signs:[1]  

  1. Feels a grandiose sense of self-important.
  2. Has fantasies of being famous.
  3. Is convinced he or she is unique and special.
  4. Requires absolute devotion and admiration.
  5. Has a sense of entitlement.
  6. Cannot show empathy.

Korach – the Ultimate Narcissist

Korach, for whom this week’s Torah portion is named, was a cousin to Moses and Aaron.  Earlier, when God doled out the priestly honors, Korach was not singled out in a way that was commensurate with his grandiose sense of self.  After the “incident of the spies,” the Jewish people knew they were not going into the land of Israel but were condemned to die in the desert, and it was a period of crisis and unrest.  Korach figured the time was ripe for him to overthrow Moses and Aaron, and he was able to manipulate 250 prominent leaders to take up his cause. 

At first blush, Korach’s challenge sounds legitimate: “The entire community is holy, and God is within them; why do you raise yourselves over the congregation of God?”[2]  Basically, if everyone is holy, what makes Moses and Aaron different from anyone else? 

Holiness does not mean sameness.  Each of us possesses unique qualities and gifts, and we are assigned roles and tasks to express and fulfill our individual missions.  Korach’s claim of “separate but equal” was only to foment resentment and enroll others to his cause (and to their unfortunate deaths).  In truth, Korach only regarded himself as “holy” and “worthy;” Moses and Aaron were merely objects in his way, and assuming Korach would have achieved his goal of a takeover, his 250 “comrades” would have to be subservient to him.

In the Box versus Out of the Box Thinking

Whether or not one is a “full-fledged narcissist,” difficult encounters with others can bring on one or more narcissistic attributes. The Anatomy of Peace,[3] describes this as “In the Box” versus “Out of the Box” mindsets or worldviews:      

      In the Box:  I see people as objects. They are a vehicle for what I want, an obstacle in the way of what I want, or irrelevant to what I want (sense of entitlement).  They don’t count like I count (sense of being unique and special).  When I’m in the box, I can’t see what’s going on for the other person – nor do I really care (lack of empathy).  I get into the box to justify myself.  I blame or judge others, become “right” or see myself as different from them, which is the way I see the world.  And I loop others into my self-serving visions (fantasies of power) to feed my ego (need for devotion and admiration).    

      Out of the Box:  I see people as human beings, as others who have personal needs, wants and desires – just like I do.  They count like I count. From this worldview, I get that they have fears and dreams – just like I do.  I wonder what they need to feel OK.  Instead of taking hardline positions, I can allow myself to talk about problem solving and meeting needs (including theirs).

The Korach Within 

            But Korach is not just “the other guy.”  When we become triggered, or feel threatened, it’s almost instinctive to jump into that box, to hunker down, and to protect ourselves in our self-absorbed denial of any perspective but our own.  What happens then, is that the other person reacts by jumping into his or her own box as well, creating a vicious downward spiral of negativity. This behavior does not end the conflict; it only prolongs the war.  The next time that you are experiencing an upset do an internal check for any of these enumerated narcissistic characteristics.  And ask yourself – Am I “in” or “out” of the box?  Then choose where you want to be.

 

[1] Based on, What is a Narcissistic Sociopath and How to Spot One.

[2] Bamidbar/Numbers 16:3.

[3] Put out by the Arbinger Institute.

What Does Changing Your Mind Say About You?

imagesWell, that could mean that you are curious, intellectually honest, and grounded in a strong sense of self that is not tethered to old and false beliefs to feel secure.  Many people feel a sense of shame when they retreat from a position or opinion they hold dear.  Once we have a strong vested interest and identification with our thoughts, the incessant need to be right leads us to fight to the death against people who disagree (especially our loved ones), as if our very survival were in jeopardy.   

The problem with a mindset that runs observations through a rigid preconceived worldview is that it stifles our growth and kills relationships. And tragically, in the case of the men who were sent by Moses to spy out the land of Israel in advance of our entry, it caused the death of an entire generation and altered the very course of Jewish history for millennia. 

The Fight against Smallness

Jewish sacred texts describe newly created Adam as filling the whole world, but that after the sin of eating the forbidden fruit, he became small.  In this week’s Torah portion, Shelach, the spies reported back: “We are unable to go up against the people for they are stronger than we….. All the men we saw in it are men of stature…. In our eyes, we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes.”[i]  Since the spies were able to completely avoid detection, this was pure projection on their part, a surmised fearful interpretation that was nevertheless reported as an absolute fact of reality.  Because the spies’ self-image and misperceptions were so warped, their judgments and conclusions were erroneous and fatal.  They suffered from a case of “motivated reasoning.”  Unfortunately, such biased thinking is mostly unconscious and pervasive in that we all do it.  The good news, however, is that with the proper mindset, it can be prevented.       

Soldier versus Scout

In a fascinating Ted talk, Why You Think You’re Right Even if You’re Wrong, Julia Galef describes two mindsets: “Soldier” and “Scout.”  Soldiers are sent into battle to defend, protect, and defeat the enemy.  The mission of a scout, on the other hand, is not to attack or defend, but to understand.  Thus, a scout will map terrain, identify obstacles and threats, and seek out vantage points, in the quest for accurate and honest information.  Both the soldier and the scout are essential, with each playing a vital role.  Described by Galef as two different mindsets, however, each acts as a metaphor for how all of us process information and ideas in our daily lives.  As in all matters of a dual nature, one must know when to be what.  Sent by Moses to scout out the land, the spies merely defended their own views and biases, and thus, they strayed from their mission.

Scout’s Honor

Shelach lecha, the command that God gave to Moses to send out the spies, means “send out – for yourself.”  Thus, when we act as scouts leaving what is known, going to the unknown, and willingly seeing what is truthfully there, it is really for our benefit.   

The next time someone criticizes you, disagrees with you or is just plain different, resist the habitual urge to defend and attack.  Rather, look within to see whether there is a grain of truth to the criticism.  Consider whether there is another point of view to be had, and for goodness sake, stop being angry at those who are simply not the same as you.  And the next time someone upsets you, don’t just write them off, or dismiss their complaints with the easy conclusion that they are wrong or irrational.  We all make assumptions that are inaccurate, unfounded, and self-referential, (i.e. I wouldn’t do that; therefore neither should you). Instead, try to find out what is really bugging them.  Ask for help in understanding the issue and sincerely inquire as to what you could do to avoid causing them pain.   

There are definitely times and situations which call on us to marshal the soldier mindset.  It is said that those who stand for nothing will fall for anything.  On the other hand, changing our mind in response to a newly emerging truth is not a weakness, but the strength of having an open mind willing to grow.  Thus, we can heal from those false beliefs that make us feel small, and we and our relationships can become big, growing into the potential we were meant to have from the beginning of time.   

 

[i] Bamidbar/Numbers 13:31-33.