the autonomous self

Written by  rabbi russ resnik

art-mishpochaLast week I was in Southern California, where I grew up and where my most of my family has always lived. One of my nephews had unearthed a box of old family photos that he is now copying and cataloging, including some of Jewish ancestors I can’t even identify for sure. Viewing pictures of my grandparents and parents and my own early years made for a melancholy day. My father has been gone for twelve years and my mother for seven and a half, but the photos made my sense of loss fresh. I’m an orphan. But viewing the pictures was a healthy thing too—it’s right, even if it’s sad, to remember those who’ve gone before us and how much they’ve given us. We would not be what we are without all the resources our forebears laid upon us.

A generation ago social critic Christopher Lasch wrote The Culture of Narcissism, and we’re still in the midst of it. Our age of narcissism exalts the autonomous self—Be your own man, or woman! Follow your dream! Do what is right for you! —but it’s a self-absorbed fantasy. Humility recognizes the reality of how much the self owes to others. In Messiah, that recognition ramps up to realize that we owe everything to God’s mercy, and nothing to self.

“For I am telling every single one of you, through the grace that has been given to me, not to have exaggerated ideas about your own importance. Instead, develop a sober estimate of yourself based on the standard which God has given to each of you, namely, trust” (Rom. 12:3 cjb).

Humility—the sober estimate of self—recognizes how much we owe to God. And it also recognizes how much we owe to parents, which is why “Honor your father and mother” is such an important commandment, one of the ten engraved upon the stone tablets Moses received at Sinai.

Narcissism doesn’t think much about what we owe to anyone, but my family photos reminded me not only of my debt to parents, but of another debt as well. The young Russ looked like a man of promise, but how much of that promise has come into fruition? What am I passing on to those coming after me? This could lead to another melancholy day, but it could be part of humility, too—to see myself not as autonomous but as part of an unbroken chain of generation to generation. When my great-grandparents loaded themselves and their young families onto crowded steamships and left everything behind for an unseen and unknown new land, they weren’t doing it just for themselves, but to make a better life for the generations to come. Humility accepts that kind of assignment. It’s ready to see self not as the center of the story, but as part of something far bigger and more important.

So, how do we live out such a realization in practical ways? Here are a couple of exercises that could probably be applied just about every day.

  1. Honor others. Give credit to others at every opportunity. Acknowledge, inwardly as well as outwardly, what you owe to others for any success you enjoy. Ask yourself each day, how did I openly acknowledge my indebtedness to someone else for any success I enjoyed?
  2. Pass it on. The purpose of success and accomplishment is to give something to others, so give daily of your time, energy, resources. Each day you can ask, what did I pass on today of that which was passed on to me?

 

Debbie Friedman, of blessed memory, and Drorah Setel caught it all in their version of Mi Shebeirach:

    May the source of strength who blessed the ones before us,  
    Help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing 
    And let us say: Amen.

Copyright 1988 Deborah Lynn Friedman and Drorah Setel (ASCAP), Sounds Write Productions, Inc.  http://www.ritualwell.org/, accessed 2/5/11

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