Sunday, February 25, 2018

Call Your Mother

Late in his career, South Central Bell Telephone Company asked the University of Alabama football coach Bear Bryant to do a TV commercial. Bryant was to speak about how he instructed his young football recruits to call home. The script called for Coach Bryant to end the commercial in his tough, gruff voice and say: “Have you called your mama today?”

On the day of the filming, Coach Bryant ad-libbed the ending, and with a emotional voice said: “Have you called your mama today? I sure wish I could call mine.”.  

While I don’t make it a habit of quoting football coaches, “Have you called your mama today? I sure wish I could call mine” is actually a very profound message. Yes, we all know we should call our mothers; but we don’t call, at least not as often as we should. Why?

In Chassidut, there is a mystical concept called “gadlut hamochin v’katnut hamochin” or “great mindedness and small mindedness”. The Bnei Yissaschar, Rav Elimelech of Dinov, explains this is about seeing the big picture without fixating mindlessly on the small picture.

Katnut hamochin is about the small picture, about getting the little things done. One must get the little things done; laundry needs to be washed and checkbooks need to be balanced. Everyday minutiae are inescapable; even the most spiritual man needs to eat a nourishing lunch.

But katnut hamochin becomes a problem when it monopolizes your consciousness. It’s easy to fixate on the details and lose sight of the big picture. Minding the mundane can rapidly devolve into small mindedness.

A classic example is the instinctive response to hurry.

On April 10, 1971, The New York Times reported about two academics at Princeton:
“Prof. John M. Darley, who teaches psychology at the university, and C. Daniel Batson, a doctor of theology doing graduate work in psychology there while teaching at the Princeton Theological Seminary, ...recruited 40 volunteers from the seminary. Explaining that they were studying the vocational placement of seminarians, Dr. Batson and  Professor Darley asked each to record a brief talk on a given text. To half the volunteers they presented a text on job opportunities; the other half got a text of the Good Samaritan parable. (Which talks about people refusing to help a an injured man on the side of the road - C.S.)......

One by one the volunteers were then told to proceed from Green Hall to record their talk in the Annex….The volunteers were dispatched at 15
minute intervals….and there—lying in a doorway in the alley—was a young man coughing and groaning and possibly in pain. The “victim” had been put there by Dr. Batson and Professor Darley to see if the seminarians would play the role of the Good Samaritan — or pass him by……

Of the 40, a total of 16 stopped to help. Twentyfour did not swerve from their path. One even stepped over the “victim” to get through the doorway he had mistaken for the one he wanted.

What determined whether a man stopped to help—or passed by? The simple answer turned out to be not the personality or character of the seminarian, but simply whether he was in a hurry.

Of those in the “low hurry” condition, 63 per cent stopped to help. In the “intermediate hurry” condition, 45 per cent stopped. In “high hurry,” 10 per cent stopped to offer help.”

This response would be shocking, except that it’s not. The seminary students know better, but forget everything in pursuit of arriving on time; and so does everyone. When we are stuck in traffic we lose our temper, unwilling to accept the unchangeable; and when we get a small opening to move forward, we frequently drive recklessly, throwing caution to the wind. Being in a hurry is a moment of fixation on katnut when we often forget the big picture.

Small mindedness is far more common today. Our smartphones are designed to make us constantly focus on the immediate, and social media is calibrated to get us to focus on trivialities like selfies and tweets. At the same time, an overabundance of choice has us fixating on insignificant details. Everything we want can be customized in endless ways; and these choices offer more confusion than comfort. There are times where both options are excellent, and yet we get so absorbed in the details that we are upset if we don’t get exactly what we want. I have been at weddings where the bride was upset about the tablecloths, because they weren’t what she ordered; and so on the happiest day of her life, instead of celebrating her new marriage, she is lamenting the mismatched linens.

While we wade through an endless stream of appointments, emails, and tablecloth choices, we are so bombarded with details we forget…. to call our mothers. That is the wisdom of this saying: we forget to call our mothers because we get caught up in the urgent but unimportant details of our lives.

So how do we evade fixation, the small minded katnut of the soul? With the second lesson: “I wish I could”.

This lesson is the foundation of all practical wisdom: one day we will die. Mortality demands that we live life thoughtfully; as Marcus Aurelius put it: “Live each day as if it were your last”. Or, as Rabbi Tarphon put it in an earlier statement: “The day is short and the work is great”.

Here too, the advice sounds simple, but is not. The Talmud (Pesachim 54a) explains that our mortality is hidden from us. In other words, we don’t believe every day is our last.  We have a psychological blind spot, and instinctively repress any thoughts of our own mortality. Sigmund Freud, in  Reflections on War and Death, notes that:

We cannot, indeed, imagine our own death; whenever we try to do so we find that we survive ourselves as spectators….. in the unconscious, every one of us is convinced of his immortality.”

No person can imagine his own death, because in our imagination, we are always a spectator to the scene, very much alive while observing our funeral! This is why we don’t live each day as if it were our last: because we really don’t believe it to be true.

But what does one do when they really know it is their last day?  Peggy Noonan wrote a powerful column in 2006 about the final messages people left during the 9/11 tragedy, when they were aware of what was going to happen. She noted that:

People said what counted, what mattered. It has been noted that there is no record of anyone calling to say, "I never liked you," or, "You hurt my feelings." No one negotiated past grievances or said, "Vote for Smith." Amazingly -- or not -- there is no record of anyone damning the terrorists or saying "I hate them."

Noonan explains: “Crisis is a great editor”. 

The messages from those in their last moments of life on 9/11 are moving, because they are true examples of what it means to live each day as your last.

       Flight 93 flight attendant Ceecee Lyles, 33 years old, left an answering-machine message to her husband: "Please tell my children that I love them very much. I'm sorry, baby. I wish I could see your face again."

       Capt. Walter Hynes from Ladder 13 (down the street from KJ),  dialed home that morning as his rig left the firehouse and said: "I don't know if we'll make it out. I want to tell you that I love you and I love the kids”.

       Shimmy Beigeleisen on the 97th floor of the south tower, spoke to his family and his friends. In his last moments on the phone, in a voice hoarse with smoke, he recited the 24th Psalm (in Hebrew) with them, beginning with the words: "Of David a Psalm. The earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it ..."

These heroes demonstrate what really is meant by “living every day as your last”: to focus exclusively on love, meaning, and spirituality.

Years ago, I officiated at a funeral where one of the children mentioned in his eulogy that even though he lived out of town, he had called his mother every day. After the funeral I got into my car, and  thought to myself: I never do that. I was living in Montreal, and I called my mother in Monsey perhaps once a week. And so I started, right there in the car, to call my mother every day, and to put my kids on the phone so they could say hello, and did so until the end of my mother’s life. I was lucky to learn that lesson before it was too late.

A final lesson from this quote is about something simpler: why do we call our mothers?

Because they make a difference. Sometimes parents are called upon to be heroes. Think of Hadar Goldin’s parents, who have put their own lives on hold to find a way to get their son’s body back from Hamas.

But most parents have smaller, but no less significant tasks to fulfill. They listen, drive carpools, hug away tears, buy ice cream, and make dinner.

Small deeds may seem small, but often make a big difference, because no good deed is small. Maimonides contends we should always see the world as evenly balanced between good and evil, and see each good deed we do as the one that might tip the world from the side of evil to the side of good; the size of the deed doesn’t matter, because even the small ones will tip the world to the side of good. It is parents who excel as those small, world changing good deeds. As one Rabbi once put it: “I learned more from my mother’s chicken soup than I did in all my years in Rabbinical school.”

Yes, even a favorite food recipe can make a big difference.  Barbara Sofer, tells of one such story (The Human Spirit: Brit In Beersheba, Jerusalem Post, November 8, 2007 ).

She writes about Pvt. Shimon Ohana, who on his first combat assignment, leapt forward to protect a child and took a bullet in the chest. When he arrived at Hadassah-University Hospital he was initially declared dead. After surgery and treatments, the medical team was able to revive Pvt. Ohana. But his recovery stalled because Shimon refused to eat. They spoke to his mother Rahel, and found out that Shimon was a picky eater. So the surgeon asked her: what does your son like to eat? Only her homemade meatballs. So Mrs. Ohana was sent home to Beersheba to cook her son spicy Moroccan meatballs.

The next morning she returned with the meatballs, and they began to feed her son. As Sofer describes it: “When Shimon finished his first meatball, he made awful gulping sounds. At first Rahel thought she'd injured her son, but then she realized he simply wanted more. His doctor nodded. Shimon swallowed another meatball and made the same scary sounds. Four meatballs later he was calm and quiet.

Before long he left the hospital on his own two feet.”

The story continues with Shimon recovering, getting married, and having children.

Perhaps this is the first time a mother’s meatballs saved a life. Or maybe it’s not; the little things mothers do are much larger than they appear at the time.

With this, we have completed our exploration of Bear Bryant’s simple yet profound lesson:

       Remember not to get tangled up in life and forget to do the important things.
       Remember that we don’t have a lifetime to get those important things done.
       And sometimes the most important things to do are little things, like the little things mothers do for us.

So call your mother. I sure wish I could call mine.

No comments: