Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Stocks Crash. Cars Crash. Good People Crash

Nobody likes a crash. It’s so much nicer to open up RRSP statements and see all of your investments growing consistently. So yesterday’s stock market crash, (which may be followed by a few aftershocks) wasn’t fun. (I didn’t enjoy the dot-com crash of 2000 either. It took years for my RRSP to dig out of that one.)

But crashes are really part of life. Everything fails, from the newfangled gizmo you just bought at the electronics store to the roof on your house. And everybody fails. The Bible reminds us that there is not a righteous man upon earth who does good and doesn’t sin”. Even the best people crash.

The key point is: You can’t be crushed by crashes. Resilience is critical to goodness. Good intentions are great, but how do you deal with failure? Do you feel guilty, because you are no longer perfect? Are you giving up because you’ve come up short?

The answer to a crash is to keep going. The Bible tells us that goodness is more about resilience than it is about perfection. “A righteous man falls down seven times and stands up again, but a wicked man stumbles under adversity”. Giving up hope is a terrible evil.

I love Winston Churchill’s wonderful proverb: “success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm”. So for all of us worrying about crashes of every kind, remember that crashes are just a speed bump on the road of life.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Power of 1%, or Why My Blog is a Miserable Failure

I had breakfast this morning with my dear friend Mitch Joel Cohen, who I am proud to say, has recently made a big impact on the marketing world. We were talking about his mega-successful blog, and contrasting it with my…um…mega-unsuccessful blog. (Aside from a loyal following of 8 members of my congregation and 4 members of my family, my blog boasts a readership of 12 senior citizens in Miami.)

He noted a few issues about my blog, like very little linking, virtually no blogroll, and the fact that I blog rather infrequently, perhaps 2 or 3 times a month. If I only changed a few of these small things, (and I hope to change them soon), my blog might leap up a level or two to genuine mediocrity, and with some luck, may even become an average blog!

What I really learned from Mitch is a lesson about life. Most of us will make substantial efforts to succeed. However, when we near the finish line, we seem content with a pretty good effort, and begin to slow down. (As a football fan, I marvel at how many times players slow down near the goal line after a long run, as if a good effort is all that counts. Then they are tackled five yards short of a touchdown). It’s the last 1% of effort that makes all the difference.

The power of 1% is true in every phase of life: work, family, personal growth. The extra little effort can certainly improve a webblog. More importantly, the extra 1% can transform your life.

The power of 1%. Good for blogs. Even better for people!!

Monday, February 19, 2007

Perfection’s Paradox

Isn’t life about striving for perfection? We all dream of the perfect spouse, the perfect job, the perfect home. Perfection is the stuff dreams are made of.

Striving for perfection is natural. We are instinctively driven to fulfill our ambitions. But perfection is extremely uncommon, and something always goes wrong. Even small mistakes can motivate people to obsess about perfection. In the process, our desire for excellence morphs into perfectionism.

Unfortunately, perfectionism is a corrosive force. Perfectionism destroys relationships. Parents of prodigies can push their children to burnout and depression. “Bridezillas”, brides obsessed with making the perfect wedding, will often achieve flawless, but joyless wedding ceremonies. Perfectionism is a bad mix with human frailty.

Perfectionism is also the ugly side of idealism. Communism aspired to create a perfect society, where everything is shared and all men are equals. Instead, it created a totalitarian nightmare, where all men were equally enslaved. Cults promise a perfect world, if one is willing to follow a strenuous regimen. In actuality, by demanding perfectionism, these cults brainwash their followers by ensnaring them in a web of guilt. Mass movements that demand universal perfection usually end up wrecking havoc.

Paradoxically, perfectionism is an obstacle on the road to perfection. On the other hand, the road to perfection is usually found through imperfect means. Maimonides notes that even the Torah will adopt flawed ancient institutions in order to achieve progress. This practical search for attainable growth underlies a great deal of Halacha, where there are at times different requirements depending on the situation. In an imperfect world, perfection is sometimes best found by making compromises.

It is easy for us to get overwhelmed by perfectionism, obsessed by perfect dreams about what we really should achieve. That is why one must remember Rabbi Tarfon’s admonition that “it is not your responsibility to finish the task, but you are not free to give up on it, either”. In life we have enormous responsibilities; each of us has to transform the world. Yet at the same time, we cannot allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by these responsibilities. Perfectionism is the pursuit of impossible dreams. True human perfection is the patient and capable management of imperfection. This is perfection’s paradox.

Failure is the best test of true perfection. After a defeat, perfectionists will quit, paralyzed by evidence of their own imperfection. Only those willing to embrace their own imperfection have the flexibility to progress after a painful setback.

There’s an Alcoholics Anonymous slogan that counsels “progress, not perfection”. This critical reminder cautions recovering addicts not to quit recovery after a relapse. But this is also a wonderful reminder to all of us who are overwhelmed by the demands of life, that we don’t have to finish the task, all we have to do is make progress.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Reasonable Accommodation, Reasonable People

The issue of reasonable accommodation, now headline news in Quebec, has been met with academic responses. Villages are adopting “codes of values”. Professors are being appointed to commissions, and politicians are discussing constitutional changes. Reasonable accommodation is being treated like a graduate seminar on constitutional law.

On the face of it, reasonable accommodation is a legal issue. Even basic constitutional rights like the freedom of religion are not a blank check, and may be limited in order to insure public wellbeing. Legally, the precise line for reasonable accommodation is unclear, and two recent cases from Quebec on the issue have appeared before the Supreme Court (the Succah case of 2004 and Kirpan case of 2006). So, the focus on the legal realm is understandable.

Unfortunately, it is the elephant in the room that is being ignored: poor relationships between various groups within Quebec society. In any conflict, you go to court only after the two parties have had a failed relationship. I remember a lawyer once told me that anytime he’d get a call from a client asking to look up an old contract, he’d get a sinking feeling in his stomach. If the two parties with an ongoing relationship couldn’t work things out on their own, they were destined for litigation, no matter what it said in the contract. Contracts are only necessary when relationships fail. The legal system is truly the court of last resort.

The same is true of Quebec’s reasonable accommodation debate. At issue is not head coverings or the gender of driving test examiners, but the very sense of cooperation and trust required in a functioning society. Reasonable accommodation would be a moot issue if people with different cultural backgrounds treated each other with genuine respect.

Simply put, reasonable accommodation requires reasonable people.

This is why the innocuous (and silly) code of “norms of life” adopted by Herouxville is upsetting. This code reeks of condescension and rigidity, explaining how in Herouxville one can drink alcohol, and female doctors can minister to male patients. The real point of this code is to mock the religious practices of Muslims and Hassidic Jews. Completely lacking in this code is a true sense of “reasonable accommodation”, where fellow human beings are treated with respect and compassion.

Reasonable accommodation requires a live and let live spirit. Why can’t we be reasonable about cultural differences? For example, let’s take an issue that relates to the majority of Quebec society. The much ballyhooed “War on Christmas” going on south of the border has made its way into Quebec. Now, we have debates over whether politicians should say “merry Christmas” or “happy holidays”, as well as debates over public Christmas displays and the crucifix in the National Assembly. On these issues, it is important for non-Christians to have a sense of respect for those who celebrate Christmas and are practicing Christians. I happily tell Christian friends “merry Christmas” and they will respond with “happy Hanukah”. Two people, two cultures, and yet with mutual respect, you have reasonable accommodation.

Similarly, this sense of respect needs to extend to immigrant communities. How difficult is it to relate to a woman wearing a hijab? In busy offices everywhere, people with urgent needs are accommodated and allowed to move forward in line. So why should an Orthodox Jew at a CLSC asking to move forward in line in order to return home in time to observe the Sabbath be a media event? With reasonable people, this would never have been an issue.

To achieve reasonable accommodation all we need is civility. No need for constitutional changes, “norms of life”, or bureaucratic remedies. With mutual respect, we can create a truly civil society.

Stephen Carter, a Professor of Law at Yale, recounts how one person’s civility had a profound effect on his own life. In 1966, when Carter was 12, he and his family were the first blacks to move into a lily-white neighborhood. The day they moved in, everyone ignored them, until a woman named Sarah Kestenbaum came along. He writes that:

“a white woman arriving home from work at the house across the street…. bustled into her house, only to emerge, minutes later, with a huge tray of cream cheese and jelly sandwiches, which she carried to our porch and offered around with her ready smile, simultaneously feeding and greeting the children of a family she had never met—and a black family at that—with nothing to gain for herself except perhaps the knowledge that she had done the right thing..”

This is exactly what we need in Quebec: reasonable, respectful people. People who do the right thing, who welcome strangers and act with civility. Reasonable, accommodating people like Sarah Kestenbaum.