Contact Rabbi Suzy Stone via email.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I wanted to be the first one to tell you that we are facing a brand new epidemic in America – it is called “Short-Termism.” Symptoms may include:
Basically, short-termism is anything that is easier to do in the here and now, but will create more complex problems down the road. “Making short-term decisions is the equivalent of hitting a rough patch of ice, and slamming on the brakes.” While we may feel in control at the moment, we will eventually end up on the side of the road calling AAA.
The problem is, when we no longer feel in control, we tend to gravitate towards zero-sum thinking such as: “Of course, my friends are selfish and they will ever change;” or “Of course, American politics are broken beyond repair;” or, “Of course, war and famine is irreversible.”
However, in a truly transformative book published last year by Ari Wallach, entitled the “Longpath: Becoming the Great Ancestors our Future Needs,” there are three main ways to inoculate ourselves against this new spiritual, and intellectual, disease economists call short-termism.
First, we need to stop and breathe. While this sounds absurdly simple, we all know that when something unpleasant, or unexpected, happens, such as: When you get a news notifications about another horrendous natural disaster, or a text from a family member in crisis, or a simple social media notification from friends hanging out without us, our amygdala basically takes over and we are quickly skidding through black ice once again. Yet, if we pause, take a few short breaths, we can at least reset our system so we aren’t trying to brake on thin ice.
For example, by a show of hands, how many of you use your cell phone as your alarm clock? And how many of you, check your text messages, notifications, or news, while still laying in bed? Thus, many of us have not even made it out of bed before we become triggered by a looming deadline, a forgotten birthday, or a classmate, friend, or co-worker who needs you immediately, if not sooner.
Yet, the great scholar, and Holocaust survivor, Victor Frankel, once said that between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space, lies our freedom. In other words, we are only free when we can learn to be like a match that is struck, but does not ignite!
For Frankel, who survived four different concentration camps, freedom was not only a grand gesture that took place the day the camps were liberated; but rather, in the day to day moments when we resist letting the matchbook burn without our consent.
The second antidote to short-termism is believing that we can do better. As Professor Carol Dweck, of Stanford University, explains, there are two mindsets we can inhabit at any given time, and we often vacillate between them on a day to day, or hour by hour basis. In a fixed mindset, we believe that we are born with certain realities and abilities that we cannot change. When we inhabit a growth mindset, we believe that change can be developed through hard work and dedication.
It is the difference between saying: “I’m not good at math,” versus “I’m not good at math yet.” Or “I don’t have hope;” versus, “I don’t have hope yet.”
By adding this simple, provocative word, “yet,” neuroscientists have found that a growth mindset can actually benefit our brain’s neuroplasticity.
Similarly, in the study of Jewish ethics known as Musar, there is a concept known as hitlamdut. It comes from the Hebrew root – למד — L.M.D – which means to learn. Yet, in the reflexive form, it is the process by which you cause yourself to learn by thinking in certain ways, even before your actions can catch up to your thoughts.
For instance, let’s say you are just minding your own business and someone really offends you or throws you off track. Rather than letting the whole matchbook go aflame, the Jewish practice of hitlamdut asks us to pause, take a breath, and ask ourselves: “What would a patient person feel or do right now? What would a generous person feel or do right now?”
Even this half second pause may be enough to stop the matchbook from igniting in order to help us become a more patient, kind, or thoughtful person in the here and now.
As the great medieval scholar Maimonides once taught, hitlamdut is the essence of all Jewish learning because learning Torah is not the practice of gaining information. Rather, the purpose of Torah learning is to impact and transform our lives!
Number three, we must start to think about the Longpath.
The Longpath is a mindset in which we see ourselves not as isolated units but rather as links in a longer Chain of Being. Our fundamental goal is to become the great ancestors our future descendents so desperately need us to be. How do we begin to achieve this?
For Wallach, it all starts with neuroscience. Because the hippocampus, our memory making machine, cannot tell the difference between past, present, and future, we can ostensibly trick our brains into committing to small positive actions by asking ourselves:
“How do we want our descendants to feel in 100 years?” This is what psychologists call “future-casting,” which activates a form of transgenerational empathy. In turn, this allows our brain to act more compassionately, sustainably, or even more productively, in the present moment.
Thus, the Longpath is not a goal; rather, it is a process that requires us to move beyond thinking of failure and success in 70-80 year increments.
As Wallach explains, Plato and the other Greek philosophers are the only reason that we currently measure success and failure, virtue or vice, in the span of our own lifetime.
But as Jews, we have a very different way of measuring time– especially today– of all days. We often say that, on Rosh Hashanah, that we are celebrating the world’s birthday. But unlike a human birthday, which celebrates us becoming a year older. On Rosh Hashanah we celebrate the creation of a brand new, and newly born, world.
As we say after each and every shofar blast that we will hear tomorrow: “Hayom Harat Ho’oalm,” or “Today is the birthday of the world.”
But anyone who has ever sung Happy Birthday in Hebrew, “yom huledet sameach…” knows that the word for birthday in modern Hebrew is ילד (Y.L.D), which is not the same as הרת (Ha.R.T). Thus, Yom Harat Olam, doesn’t connote birth, but rather, conception. In other words, today, on Erev Rosh Hashanah, the world is eternally pregnant with potential.
This is what Wallach calls the “Longpath,” and what we Jews have always called Rosh Hashanah. As Rabbi Naomi Levy teaches: “Every single one of us, somewhere in our lives, we are pregnant forever. There is something we’ve already conceived that is pleading with us, ‘Let me be born.’ Maybe it’s a creative endeavor…. Maybe it’s a career shift. … Maybe it’s the words ‘I’m sorry,’ or the words ‘I love you,’ or the words ‘I forgive you.’ They are fully formed inside your mouth, but you haven’t gotten up the courage to actually speak them.”
Thus, on Rosh Hashanah, an existential invitation is being made: Can we stand up, and see ourselves, and the world, with new eyes? Can we clear away the debris of disappointment and despair? Can we avoid thinking that we are too late, too tired, too weak, too hurt, or too flawed to change? Because today the world is born anew. And tonight, as we enter 5784, the world is eternally pregnant with potential.