Sunday, October 5, 2014

I'm baaaaaccckkk!!!

One year on; one year off. One year on again; one year off again. And now I am back, about to dive into a new year of new practice. I started this blog in 5771/2010. The first year I wrote it, every single day, I did something I had never done before, and I wrote about it—and tied it to my mussar (Jewish ethics) practice. At the time, I was 47 years old, and was afraid that maybe my life was going to get less expansive as I passed the 50 year mark, when I really wanted was to feel more expansive. The daily practices (both doing and writing) were thrilling and tiring. The year felt both like exploration practice and also awareness practice; at times I intentionally set out to do something I had never before done, and at times I noticed that I was at a crossroads, where I could choose the never-before-traveled path. By the time the year ended, I did feel expansion, but I also felt tied some other things. I spent anywhere between 30 minutes and 2 hours a day writing up the blog posts. I needed a break from the pressure of producing a daily blog.  I also needed some time to absorb what had been meaningful about the year of practice. So when the year ended, I took a break.

The break turned out to be for a year. Fall 5773/2012. I wasn't feeling very good. I couldn't tell if I had felt better during the Never Done year because I was busy and distracted, or because doing something new every day was genuinely making a positive difference on my life, or if those are actually the same things. After much reflection, I decided on a new practice: A year of pure, selfish joy. Every day I would do something geared just for my own pure selfish joy. I also told you all that I wouldn't worry too much about the writing—that I would write something every day, but that the posts wouldn't necessarily be as well crafted as the first years' had been. When that year came to an end, I realized I had a problem. I wasn't actually able to feel joy. I was able to seek it, but not to feel it. I found that seeking joy definitely felt better than not seeking it, but I was worried that I wasn't feeling it. About a month after I ended the practice, I fell into what I used to call "one of my hard times". When I found my way to a  therapist, she suggested that my "hard times" might be depression. The minute she said it, I knew she was right, and I was also a little embarrassed that I had never figured this out before. (Also, a little incredulous that none of my other therapists had either.) So I spent this past year addressing my inner emotional life, and I'm doing a ton better now.

I've spent the past few months in deep reflection about what practice I might most want to engage in—and write about—this year. Remembering that this is primarily an ethics practice, that I am interested in the intersection between caring for myself and caring for others, I sorted through a range of ideas before ultimately deciding on ...

It was an intense summer. Police in the United States murdered and otherwise harmed African Americans at an even more alarming rate than was already happening. The war in Gaza went nuts, and the Israeli government bombed and otherwise harmed Palestinians at an even more alarming rate than was already happening. Lots of us (progressives, anti-racists, pro-African American, pro-people of color, pro-immigrant, pro-woman, pro-LGBTQ, pro-Palestinian human rights types) spent the summer asking ourselves what we can do differently. Asking ourselves, how can we create the world we wish we lived in? What we can do to protect each other? How do we effectively reach across the deep divides in our country (and other countries) to bring humanity, peace, and an end to violence? How to we finally end the structural racism that is devastating lives, families, and communities? How do we end the systemic sexism that limits women's control over our own bodies? How do we create a culture that welcomes and protects immigrants and refugees, rather than incarcerating them, and tearing apart their families? And above all, how do we each act in an ethical way that can help bring about these changes that we want to see in the world?

This coming year, I am going to try to address these questions in my daily practice and in my blog. I'm interested in the intersection of humility and humiliation.

More specifically, I think that fear of humiliation prevents us from asking questions that we need to ask in order to understand the world. We are afraid of being humiliated for not knowing already, so we pretend we know. We nod our head, and then Google the thing later. We mumble through conversations instead of just saying, "Hold on a second. I don't know that book you just referenced." Or "What's structural racism?"

At the same time, humility—one of the mides (middot, or Jewish ethical principals of Mussar) is the practice of seeking wisdom from others.

The words come from the same Latin root: humilis, meaning low. And from humus, meaning earth.

Humility is about not putting ourselves high above others; humiliation is about others putting themselves high above us (or trying to.)

It seems that some other people have already given this a great deal of thought. Even Jewish people. I found an uncredited Chasidic quote on the internet (does anyone know the real source?) that says, "The man who thinks he can live without others is mistaken; the one who thinks others can't live without him is even more deluded."

For my daily practice this year, I am going to ask questions I don't know the answers to. And I am going to ask questions I think I know the answers to, but want to know more answers to. Sometimes I'll ask them to real people. Sometimes I'll ask them to the internet. Sometimes I'll ask them to myself. But I'm going to ask, and I'm going to write about the process of asking and learning. And as always, I will try to tie the experience to my mussar practice.

A word about mussar practice. I am in a mussar vaad (group) with three dear friends. We've been together for four years now. Or maybe five. We meet weekly, and we base our ethical practice around the 13 mides (middot) or ethical principles, of mussar:

Humility: seek wisdom from everybody
Patience: Do not aggravate a situation with wasted grief
Equanimity: Rise above events that are inconsequential
Truth: Say nothing unless you are 100% sure it is true
Decisiveness: When you have made a decision, act without hesitation
Cleanliness: Let no stain or ugliness on our self/space
Order: All actions and possessions should have a set place and time
Righteousness: What is hateful to you do not do to others
Frugality: Be careful with your money
Diligence: Always find something to do
Silence: Reflect before speaking
Calmness: Words of the wise are stated gently
Separation: Respect in sexual and intimate relationships

These are guidelines for Jewish ethical living. Other practitioners of mussar might have different interpretations of these principles. These are the ones we use. Each week we center our practice around one of these principles, and we let it guide our actions. When we aren't sure what to do, or when we aren't sure if we did the right thing, we discuss our actions with the group. We ask ourselves how our actions affect the other—and we ask ourselves, "Who is the other, in this particular situation?"

This coming year, I will ask questions that probe all of these principles, but underneath them all will be this question of practicing humility in order to overcome humiliation in order to know more about the other and the burdens of the other in order to protect and transform our society. Please (whatever god or spirit or force that we can believe in) let it help.


At the same time, I am going to offer myself as an Jewish ethical resource this year, with an Ask a Musernik column here on the blog.

As we go through this year together, I invite you to send me your ethical questions. Not quite like the New York Times Ethicist column, which often asks about whether someone ELSE'S actions were ethical, I'd like to answer questions about your own actions—to help you consider who might be the other, and how to assess and value their burdens. To discuss the ins and outs of the daily decisions we make that affect ourselves and others. To help explore the sticky questions of how to balance our own needs with the needs of others. To look at those times when you thought you did the right thing, but then someone got mad at you, and you maybe get defensive and don't really want to consider their point of view, but you also know it would actually be good for you to consider it. To explore an upcoming decision you have to make, or an ongoing conflict with a friend, sibling, or co-worker.

You can send your questions to with the subject line ASK A MUSERNIK to

SO ... here are my first questions of the year. To all of you. What should this year's blog be called? What do you think about Never Asked? Something about humility? Should it stay on this Never Done page, or migrate somewhere new? Looking forward to hearing your ideas. Thanks in advance!