Rabbi Simcha Bunim Bonhart of Peshischa was born in Poland in the mid-1700’s and later became one of the most prominent leaders of Hasidic Judaism in his country. He’s also coined one of my favorite parables ever.
The parable is short. It doesn’t have a title or a main character or a dramatic punch line. It’s instead more of an observation and recommendation on living life. A short story where we take what we have and look at it in a new way. According to Wikipedia’s uncited entry it goes
Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need.
When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: “For my sake was the world created.”
But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: “I am but dust and ashes.
The World is Only…
As a Humanist (and therefore by definition non-theist), those who know me might have wondered why I’m quoting a Hasidic Jewish Rabbi. Well, the immediate answer is that this parable was recently quoted by one of my all time favorite professors – but that’s another story. The more general answer is that I believe that Humanists can and should take hold of truth and inspiration wherever we can find it. But again, that’s another story.
More specifically, how can an atheist like me find inspiration from a note in their pocket that “the world was created for my sake”? Well, I don’t. This parable, to me, answers something a lot deeper, and a lot more general. A lot of people like to quote the phrase “The world is what we make it.” The world is something that forms us and who we become. However, it’s also something we have the ability to change and make fit our needs. In addition, and tied into what I absolutely love about this parable, the world is also what we focus on.
The world we live in is too big to process and physically we can do nothing more than focus on either this or that ‘pocket’. Now I’m not saying that we shouldn’t factor in all that we can to make an informed decision. We obviously should. Instead, the beauty of the Rabbi of Peschischa’s quotation is that we should spend our finite time meditating only on some certain things out of the infinite number options we have. Namely we should meditate on those true observations and facts, even though they often conflict with others, that bring us back down the Buddha’s Middle Path, Aristotle’s Golden Mean, or Goldilocks’ Porridge That’s Just Right.
Are Atheists or Christians more Arrogant? Humble?
In addition to the personal lessons above, I love this little parable because it answers a bickering argument between Christians and Atheists that I’ve always thought was silly.
Christians argue that, while Christians take a humble stance to the world, Atheists embody self glorification, pride, and a selfish view on life and the world. Christians obviously submit to God and are called to live a life of personal sacrifice and service to others. Further, our sinful nature means that we are intrinsically morally base and must seek forgiveness. Therefore, focusing on yourself is a sure fire way to lose the little we have. The first shall be last and the last shall be first, as Jesus said in Matt 20:16. Atheists, however, reject any kind of authority and place themselves at the top of the natural and moral food chain. If there is no god, I can do whatever I want. “Man is the measure of all things!” is seen as being as arrogant as one can get.
Atheists argue in contrast that, while Atheists have de-centered man from the center of the universe, Christians and other religions have created the most personally gratifying story that can be told. Atheists see no special and unique separation between humans and animals. We’re just one more animal that will inevitably become extinct and passed over by innumerable fitter species. And not only being just one more part of the World, it turns out the World was not made for us and doesn’t care about us one way or another. Christians on the other hand claim not only that everything revolves around human kind, but even further that it ultimately revolves only around them in particular. Everyone else is just lost and wrong in one way or another and, in the end, destined for hell because they don’t believe the obvious, i.e. what Christians do.
So as it turns out: Both Christians and Atheists have two pockets.
Both of the Christian’s pockets can easily be filled. Our Rabbi’s quotation already shows how. But equally the Atheists pockets can be filled too. When I’m feeling down and insignificant I remember that I am star dust and the way the universe knows and explores itself. That I am alive when countless other deterministic permutations would have led to a world without me. And then, when I’m feeling cocky and need a reality check, I look into my other pocket and remember that eventually I will be forgotten. That I am a product of an unguided process and that my best talents are flawed, limited and will never be fully sufficient to combat the constant struggle that Nature gives each of us.
By now I hope my little message is clear enough that I don’t need to say much more. The world is made up of facts and truths independent of what we imagine it is like. However, there are just too many of them to keep in mind at any one time. The world is then, fortunately and unfortunately, subject to interpretation and generalization. Our only option is to choose what we will fill up our mental space at any given time and then meditate on to exclusion to other options.
Paul Chiariello (Chief Editor, Rutgers & Yale University) Paul Chiariello graduated from Rutgers in 2009 after studying Philosophy and Anthropology and has been running around the world ever since. Currently he is on the Board of Directors of the Rutgers Humanist Community, Co-founder of the Yale Humanist Community, and Director of the Humanism & Philosophy Curriculum for Camp Quest, Inc. Paul has a MSc in Comparative Education from Oxford, completing his field research in Bosnia on ethno-religious identity and conflict, and has spent a year studying philosophy of ethics and religion at Yale on a PhD fellowship. He has also worked with research organizations at the UN and in DC, as well as schools abroad in Uganda, Kenya, India, Indonesia and Germany.