So here we are, at the beginning of a new year. If we really are going to use these sacred days as a time of introspection, we need to ask a basic question: How do we see ourselves? The High Holidays are sort of a base line for measuring where we are in our lives. Do we see ourselves for what we are, or do we see ourselves as better or worse than we really are?
Social psychology talks about a concept called “self-enhancement.” We have a bias, to think of ourselves as better than we are, when it comes to diverse topics such as how intelligent we are, how well we drive a car, how well we do our jobs, how much athletic ability we have. We think that we have terrific personalities, that we are not susceptible to sickness, and that we always behave morally.
Automobile drivers who are hospitalized after serious accidents are just as likely as accident-free drivers to call themselves, like Raymond in Rain Man, “excellent drivers.” It’s never their fault; the accident always was the fault of the other guy. That’s an example of self-enhancement.
Is self-enhancement a good thing? Yes and no. This is a tough world, and if we think that we are strong and good and resourceful, we can maintain our happiness and our calm and our confidence. On the other hand, if we have an illusion that we are not susceptible to sickness, we may be complacent and fail to do what we need to do to stay healthy.
In a wonderful article, Dr. Jonathan White, son of Alan and Sandra White of our congregation, and Dr. S. Plous discuss self-enhancement biases in the area of social concern and activism. The question is: If I think that I’m more socially concerned than most people, does this discourage me from being socially active? This sounds like a strange question: You would think that if a person is concerned about the environment, then he or she would be more likely to do something about the environment. But it’s a very intelligent question, given what human beings are really like.
So White and Plous surveyed people’s concern about six issues: the environment, AIDS, animal protection, drug abuse, world hunger and homelessness. Those interviewed were asked first, how worried is the general public on the issue, and then, how worried are they on that issue. In every case, the response was that the public is not worried enough and that they themselves have the right amount of concern. On almost every issue, however, they said that they do less than others.
I’ll say it again: People’s self-enhancement mechanism allows them to say that they are more socially concerned than others, but they rate themselves lower in terms of what they do on five of the six issues. The sixth issue is the environment; in that case, people say that they do more than others. If we put some bottles in a green bin, a token activity to conserve the environment, we rate ourselves as more active environmentalists than most people. It’s ironic that in a way, token activities discourage more substantial activism because we feel that we’ve already done our part.
So how do we measure our social concern? By our feelings.
How do we measure other people’s social concern? By what they actually do.
If other people don’t act on an issue, we don’t act on that issue. So if we think that most people aren’t concerned, we won’t be either. If others are indifferent, we will be indifferent. If they do act, we may act, but probably less than others.
So what do I take from this? That while lack of self-esteem is certainly a problem for many people, self-esteem also can lead us to overestimate how good we really are.
This is Rosh Hashanah and we’re thinking about what’s good and what is not. What does it mean to be a good person? Does it just mean that we think that we’re good, so we are?
Judaism disagrees and says: You are what you do, not what you feel. It’s easy to say, “I’m a nice person.” We hide behind our niceness and we don’t realize it’s a transparent shield made out of nothing. Self-enhancement means that we make ourselves seem better to ourselves than we are, and the White/Plous study gives us statistical proof of this. We are quite happy with ourselves if we just think nice thoughts. But if other people just think nice thoughts and don’t do anything concrete, we criticize them and hide behind their inaction to justify our inaction. If we would see ourselves as we are, we would see how little we actually do.
We overestimate how good we are.
At the same time, we underestimate what we can accomplish. We look at history and see how it is filled with examples of individuals who have changed the course of events. We admire those who accomplish great deeds. But we think of those people as on another plane and we are not inspired by their accomplishments because they’re in a completely different category. What we should do is look around and see that on this plane, on a more ordinary scale, just a few people can change a community.
You don’t have to be a world-famous philanthropist to give clothes or food to a poor person.
You don’t need to be the inventor of a vaccine to help drive a sick person to the doctor.
But you need to give clothes and food and you need to help others to be a good person.
I know that we can’t do everything.
But we can do something.
We overestimate how good we are and we underestimate how much we can do.
One of the points of the High Holidays is to give us our balance back. Over and over in the Machzor, in our High Holiday prayer book, we are reminded that we cannot know the future. In the most dramatic prayer, the Unetane Tokef, we are reminded that we are the creations of G-d and that we cannot know what is going to happen in the coming year. We are warned not to think that we know what is going to happen.
If you think you know what is going to happen, you will overestimate your ability to predict the future. The prophets of the Bible could predict the future only because they had G-d. But without G-d, none of us can do it.
Just about every day, I pass by the storefront of a psychic who for a small fee can tell your fortune. I laugh every time, wondering why, if these psychics know so much, they do not invest in the stock market and retire early. Why do they have such schmatta little stores if they know so much?
A brilliant economist named Peter Bernstein has written about risk and makes the point that when we invest in something, say a stock, we need to ask a question: “What if I’m wrong? What if I’m wrong when I think that this stock will go up? What if the stock goes down? Can I handle that?”
And so in the last year, our economy has suffered a major crisis at least partly because everyone said that real estate always goes up and endless credit was given out on that basis. For many years, real estate went up, every year. Why? Because everyone believed it was going to go up every year. It turns out that everyone was wrong, that real estate does not necessarily go up, that its value can go down, that giving away money is not such a great idea, and all of those smart financial experts and their august mighty famous institutions lost billions and zillions of dollars. One of the funniest examples was when the great Jim Kramer, guru to millions with his daily television show of stock tips, told a worried listener that the great financial institution of Bear, Stearns was “fine, just fine,” just a few short days before that great financial institution had to be bailed out by government intervention and bought by another institution after a massive failure.
I think that Jim Kramer is a smart guy. I think that the executives of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch and WAMU are all smart people. I think that, among other mistakes, they overestimated their ability to know the future. These financial whizzes are supposed to be the experts at managing risk. We give people like this our money to invest for us because they’re so smart about these things. But what were they doing? Risking utter disaster. And guess what? Utter disaster struck.
I listen to a business channel like CNBC because to me, the C stands for comedy; it’s a comedy station. Experts predict, and over and over again, they’re wrong. It’s a lot of fun, as long as you don’t listen to them seriously. Which leads me to one of my favorite expressions: When it comes to the future, no one knows from nothing.
My subject is not the economy; I, at least, know that I don’t know anything about it. My point is that many of us overestimate our ability to predict the future and underestimate the possibility that our predictions can be wrong. And so we don’t ask that important question: But what if I’m wrong?
A woman comes to me unsure about whether she should marry a man she’s been seeing. She says: “I’m not sure if I love him, but I might. I’m not sure if the marriage would work out, but I think it might.”
I ask her how long she’s been seeing the man. She says they’ve been in an exclusive relationship for six months and he says it’s ‘now or never.’
Do I even have to tell you what I said to her? Do I need to say that I recommended that she not allow herself to be pressured, that I rejected that whole ‘now or never’ thing, especially after such a short time, that marriage is such a difficult proposition that unless you have every possible factor in your favor, the risk is great. I said: “You may be right, but what if you’re wrong? Are you prepared to be wrong about this?” P.S. She told the man that she needed more time, he broke up with her, married someone else within a year, and that marriage lasted a year and a half before it dissolved.
In love, and in life, you have to be prepared to take a risk. But you must be prepared to be wrong. If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you shouldn’t take the risk.
If you understand that you cannot be certain about the future, what do you do? You plan for every aspect of the future by gathering all of the information you can and making a decision but you must be prepared to be wrong. You must have a Plan B in place if Plan A doesn’t work.
I know how simple this sounds, but very few people think this way.
We’re so sure that we’re right, that we’ve got it all figured out, that bad luck cannot happen to us, that misfortune is alien to our lives,
we’re so sure that nothing can go wrong,
that we simply don’t need to be ready for anything but blue skies.
For the next two mornings, we will read about Abraham. We will see how he is given a son named Isaac, a miracle baby born to him and his wife Sarah in their old age. But the birth of Isaac has unintended consequences, and Abraham has to send his older son Ishmael out into the desert. And then G-d commands him to take Isaac and sacrifice him on a mountain. G-d does not allow him to carry out this terrible act, and Abraham and Isaac go back to their lives together.
When Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his son on the mountain, Abraham did not underestimate G-d. He knew that G-d must have a purpose in His horrible command. But Abraham also didn’t overestimate his power to understand.
We’ve been reading this passage for thousands of years. This is the Torah reading that the rabbis picked for Rosh Hashanah? Are you kidding? Of all things! But maybe it points to the idea that we don’t know everything.
Here’s what I’m taking from Abraham’s life: That he went on with his life, no matter what happened. That he believed in G-d, and while he certainly had his times of questioning G-d’s purpose, he kept going. He didn’t overestimate how much he knew about life or G-d or the future. But he also didn’t underestimate G-d’s power or his own ability to make a difference.
Moses, perhaps the greatest person in history, was the most humble person in history. He knew what he knew and what he didn’t know and what he could and couldn’t do.
If Moses and Abraham were humble, what we are so full of ourselves about? Why do we make so many mistakes in our lives?
We overestimate what we know, who we are and what we do.
If you’re humble, you say, ‘I’m not so good, I could do more.’
If you’re humble you say, ‘I don’t know everything.’
All of the great financial wizards could use a little humility.
I promise you, if you don’t have humility, life will humble you.
The High Holidays come every year to measure who we are. Start with humility.
Start with the idea that you may be overestimating how good you are and underestimating what you can accomplish.
Think about the White/Plous study: We care about issues; we care about others. We criticize others for not caring more and not doing more. But what do we actually do? We overestimate how good we are, we underestimate the good that we could do.
Every day, I see the good that people in our congregation do for each other. I believe, more than ever, that each of us can make a difference. Let this year be the year that we live up to our self-enhanced impressions of ourselves by enhancing the lives of the people around us and the community in which we live.