Friday, April 08, 2005

The Lesson of a Sleepless Night

(this is a few years old, but never posted on this website)

I like to get a good night’s sleep. But, like most parents of small children, my sleep will often get interrupted; and, like most parents of small children, I get annoyed when my kids wake me up. Usually, I try to solve any "problem" with the utmost speed, dispensing water, calming words and occasionally discipline in 30 seconds flat, and then rush right back to bed. But one night was different; at 1:30 AM, my 5 year old son called me, upset that a spider had climbed by his bed. I patiently explained to my son that there is no reason to be afraid of spiders because they are a lot smaller than us, and that spiders are actually good and friendly creatures (OK, I was exaggerating; what would you say to a frantic child at 1:30 AM?). I sat on his bed for an hour and a half, waiting patiently until he calmed down and went back to sleep. I did not get annoyed.

My newfound calm was not due to a relaxed schedule at work; in fact, it was the week before Rosh Hashanah, and I was frantically looking for the right topic for a sermon. However, that night, I had the blessing of perspective. An hour before the spider "crisis", I was woken up by a phone call. A friend’s mother had just died and he had a few questions about Jewish mourning practices. During our conversation, I could hear the pain in his voice. When my son woke me an hour later, how busy I was or how much I needed my sleep made no difference to me. I was quite happy to sit on his bed and talk about spiders. That night I realized that parent-child relationships are invaluable, and every minute spent together is a gift; and if the price of those precious minutes is a mediocre Rosh Hashanah sermon, so be it.

Everybody understands the value of perspective; it is easy to recognize that big things are more important than little things. Yet, despite knowing this, we lose our perspective anyway. The reason why we do so is the power of details.

Human beings are adept at fixating on details. To make matters worse, we are unaware of our capacity to blow things out of proportion. The Jews, travelling through the desert after the exodus from Egypt, survive by eating manna, a miraculous food that appears each morning. Are they happy? No!! They complain to Moses "we remember the fish....the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks and garlic....that we ate in Egypt....and now, our soul is dried out....all we have to eat is this manna". I could never understand these absurd Jews, recently released from the hell of slavery, only to complain about the menu on the way to the promised land. Then I began to officiate at weddings. On occasion, I would arrive at the synagogue, only to find the bride teary eyed; why? What could have marred the happiest day of her life? And then, someone would explain.......the wrong color napkins arrived. It may seem ridiculous that a bride could get upset about the napkins at her wedding; unfortunately, it’s human nature to obsess about details. My experiences at weddings gave me new insight into the Jew’s complaints in the desert. They were intoxicated by details, crying because God had delivered the wrong color napkins.

This intoxication can cloud our moral judgement. A study by two psychologists, John Darley and C. Daniel Batson, found that 63% of Seminary students, on their way to give a sermon, would stop to help a homeless man help if they had extra time. However only 10% stopped for the homeless man when they were late. What is more astonishing is that the students were giving a sermon about caring for strangers!! Although arriving on time is certainly a virtue, fixating on punctuality can distort our moral judgement. Remarkably, the power of details is such that it is natural to ignore the needy as we rush to preach compassion.

We spend too much time worrying about the watermelons and napkins of life. It sometimes takes a misfortune to remind us to ignore details and focus on what is important. What I learnt that sleepless night, sitting on my son’s bed, is that talking about spiders with a five year old is more important than a good night’s sleep. Luckily for me, as tired as I was the next day, I came up with an interesting Rosh Hashanah sermon. It was on the topic of........perspective.

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