What a summer of drudgery it’s been: staring at a computer screen, books and journal articles strewn around my office, trying to put together a few sensible paragraphs to add to my doctoral dissertation, in hopes that my seminary will see enough progress that they won’t kick me out of the program.
If that wasn’t bad enough, I’ve had to juxtapose that, day after day, with the Facebook postings: colleagues reveling in a summer in Israel; friends taking their kids on extended tours of Italy or Spain or the British Isles; former students trekking through South America. And me, slogging through yet another anthropological study about the use of gesture and posture in interpersonal communications. And wanting to be anywhere but staring at a computer screen, books and journal articles strewn around my office.
There’s a name for this syndrome. It’s called FOMO – F-O-M-O, otherwise known as “Fear of Missing Out.” It’s even got its own entry in the Oxford Dictionaries, which defines FOMO as “anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may currently be happening elsewhere, often aroused by posts seen on a social media website.”
Facebook is bad enough. But my FOMO problem has been exacerbated by my TV watching in the evening, which is supposed to be relaxing. Here’s Andrew Zimmern eating bizarre foods around the world in a culinary voyage of discovery. There’s “36 Hours,” the New York Times international travel column that’s just made its way onto television, focused on whirlwind experiences of seeing, eating, drinking and playing in thrilling locales. As for me: Another cup of herbal tea? Yes, thank you very much.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t begrudge people exploring new worlds and new civilizations. Actually, I do. Well, at least I envy them. In the abstract, I could take those opportunities and would love to do so. In the real world, where do I find the time? In the real world, I get sick every time I travel, whether it’s to Memphis, Tennessee, or to Warsaw, Poland. You’ve never had the flu until you’ve had the Polish flu, straight from the source. Trust me on that.
Froma Harrop of the “Providence Journal” made me feel a little better about my FOMO anxiety. She asked in a recent essay: “Are we to believe that their travels are as fabulous as their Facebook posts suggest? Note the pictures showing them in some sublime Croatian village, never at overcrowded Gate 42B.” And “how about the quality of time spent traveling?” she wondered. How deep is the experience when you’re rushing to fit in every café, festival, and museum in southern Spain, where people who actually live there don’t go anywhere?
But it was David Brooks of the New York Times who talked me off the FOMO ledge when he wrote about what he called the “moral bucket list.” “There are two sets of virtues,” he wrote, “the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral – whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful.” When you look at it that way – which is exactly what we are supposed to be doing on this day, of all days – it seems to me that where we have been isn’t nearly as important as where we intend to go.
Brooks pointed out that, instinctively, we know that eulogy virtues are more important. But, he pointed out, “our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies that you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.”
That’s really the task facing each of us on this Day of Atonement, isn’t it? Even if we know what we would really like to add to our eulogy virtues in the coming year, do we even know where to start?
This morning I’m going to pull out three suggestions from David Brooks’s essay to try and give us a start.
The first is what he calls “the humility shift.” Let’s face it, we live in a culture where we reign supreme. Social media encourage us to talk about ourselves, post about ourselves, take selfies at every possible opportunity. If we want to get ahead professionally, we have to be good self-promoters – emphasizing our strengths and hiding our weaknesses. Weakness is for losers, as anyone knows who’s watched a political debate lately.
But Brooks points out that the people he has most admired have achieved what he calls “a profound humility . . . an intense self-awareness from a position of other-centeredness” rather than self-centeredness.
That’s actually a very Jewish concept. It comes from the practice of Mussar, a Jewish path to consciousness and self-awareness. I actually went to a Mussar program this past spring and found it a really challenging experience. Mussar involves a series of contemplative practices that allow us to identify the middot, the character traits and weaknesses, that hold us back: things like anger, pride, envy, cruelty, and worry.
Mussar teaches that even the angriest person has a degree of calm within him; the stingiest person has a drop of generosity; people who are lazy or arrogant have the opposite somewhere inside them. We are encouraged, not to avoid these negative middot, but to face them, to engage them, to work through them to the other side: anger to peace, envy to respect, cruelty to kindness, worry to calmness. It can take a lifetime of steady work, within ourselves and with others who can help us identify where we are and how far we’ve come on the journey to teshuvah – to the place where we have turned our inner life around.
In Mussar, they call that letting the inner light shine through – the true essence of each of us, the neshama – the soul that we thank God for in our daily morning prayers: “Elohai n’shama shenatata bi t’hora hi: God, the soul that you have implanted within me is pure.” It may often be obscured by our habits and our egos and the imbalances we struggle with every day. But it’s there, if we give ourselves the time, and do the hard work, to bring it out. And as the rabbis teach: “If a house has no lower doorsill, it looks unfinished, left to fall apart. You, too, even if you are endowed with all other virtues but lack humility, are ‘unfinished.'” It’s the neshama that gives us hope; it’s the work to uncover the neshama that makes us humble.
The second way we come to a place of teshuvah in our lives is what Brooks calls “The Dependency Leap.” He writes that, for example, when we give the Dr. Seuss book, “Oh the Places You’ll Go” as a graduation gift, we’re sending the implicit message that, in his words, “life is an autonomous journey. We master certain skills and experience adventures and certain challenges on our way to individual success.” But Brooks points out that nobody can do it alone. “Individual will, reason, and compassion,” he writes, “are not strong enough to consistently defeat selfishness, pride, and self-deception. We all need redemptive assistance from outside.”
Actually that’s one of the reasons why Mussar is not just an individual journey. Much of the work happens in a group, where people check in on each other, identifying each other’s issues and challenges. But opening up like that is not easy, and it can be very scary. So can simply asking for help when you need it.
A lot of us learn this the hard way. I know I’m not the only person who’s been stumped by a challenge in my career and thought – hey, I’m a grown up. I can handle this myself. Dysfunctional workplace? micromanaging supervisors? People who challenge my professional skills and integrity, with no earthly idea what I really do? I’ll work it out. That’s my job.
Only it’s really not. Colleagues, mentors, therapists – they’re all available to help us work out the problems, or to help us walk away from them. To help us essentially identify those middot – be they pride or stubbornness or fear – that keep us from a resolution one way or the other. They help us understand that nobody navigates life alone, if you want more than another star on the chart or another bullet point on the résumé.
They also help us understand that we might be stuck in our own mind, in our own self-centered notions about how things should be, or should work out. They provide other-centered insight, encouragement, and love – and occasionally a kick in the tush. If we want our neshamot to shine through, we need that love in our lives, and we cannot be afraid to call upon on it.
A third avenue to teshuvah is one that Brooks identifies as “The Conscience Leap” – that moment when, he writes, “people strip away all the branding and status symbols, all the prestige that goes with having gone to a certain school or been born into a certain family.” Those may be virtues when it comes to the résumé – but not when it comes to the eulogy.
I’m guessing that very few of you recognize the name Flavia Pennetta. She’s 33-years-old. She’s from Italy. She plays tennis. She just happens to be this year’s US Open champion. She’s the one who defeated fellow Italian Roberta Vinci, who had beaten the great Serena Williams. Ah yes, that Flavia Pennetta!
Flavia Pennetta has some impressive credentials in her résumé, as listed in a recent Wall Street Journal article: She has won more than $10 million dollars in prize money. She is engaged to fellow tennis pro Fabio Fognini. She has had a top-ten ranking, a number-one ranking in doubles, and four Federation Cup team titles with her fellow Italians. So what did she do after she snagged her greatest prize of all, hoisting the US Open trophy on the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium? She walked away from tennis. She already had decided that this would be her last year playing professionally, and she’s still at peace with her decision.
Why? Here’s the way the Journal’s Tom Perotta explained it: “Pennetta didn’t mind that Serena Williams had won 21 Grand Slam singles titles. Or that Maria Sharapova had won five and earned more in endorsements in a year than Pennetta had earned on the court in her entire career. Pennetta enjoyed the little things, the stuff that stars like Williams and Sharapova couldn’t do. She could get a coffee alone. Paparazzi didn’t follow her when she shopped. She could ride a bike around Central Park without an entourage. She was what she called a ‘normal’ player, and life was good.”
“For me it’s a little bit easy, the life, because you can still have the normal things and sometimes that’s what they miss most of the time,” Pennetta herself said. For Flavia Pennetta, enjoying and appreciating everyday joys is simply more important than the all-consuming life of a tennis champion. Nobody – herself included – knows what the future holds. But she is leaving herself open to infinite possibilities, as career ambitions take a back seat to the peace and serenity that comes from finding balance in life. She has said ‘no’ to FOMO.
David Brooks wrote that “people on the road to inner light do not find their vocations by asking, ‘What do I want from life?’ They ask, ‘What is life asking of me? How can I match my intrinsic talent with one of the world’s deep needs?’” This, too, is fundamental to the path of Mussar, as we gain understanding of the traits that make us who we are, for better or for worse, and embrace the traits that make us better – traits like enthusiasm, loving-kindness, generosity, and responsibility.
Here’s how the rabbis described it in the Mishnah, in the section we know as Pirke Avot (2:9), the ethical sayings of the early sages”
“Rabba Yohanan ben Zakkai had five [distinguished] disciples, to whom he said: Go forth and discover what characteristic should be cultivated as a way of life. [When they came back], Rabbi Eliezer declared: A generous eye. Rabbi Joshua declared: Being a good friend. Rabbi Yossi said: Being a good neighbor. Rabbi Shimon said: The capacity to consider the consequences of one’s action. And Rabbi Eleazer ben Arakh declared: A joyous heart.
Rabba Yohanan said to them: I prefer what Eleazar ben Arakh has said to what you have said, because his definition — having a joyous heart as a way of life — includes all of yours.
“Then he said: Go forth and discover what characteristic should be shunned. [When they came back], Rabbi Eliezer declared: A grudging eye. Rabbi Joshua declared: Pretending to be a friend. Rabbi Yossi said: Being a bad neighbor. Rabbi Simeon said: Borrowing and not repaying—because doing that to a person is like doing that to God. Rabbi Eleazar ben Arakh declared: the characteristic that should be shunned is a despondent heart.
Rabbi Yohanan said to them: I prefer what Rabbi Eleazar ben Arakh has said to what you have said, because his definition includes all of yours.”
A joyous heart, then, is most fundamental to creating a life that is fulfilling and productive for ourselves, and enriching and supportive of others. It is, I think, the antithesis of FOMO anxiety. You can’t have ‘fear of missing out’ if, every day, your goal is – not to seek adventure – but to seek ways to bring out your inner light, your neshama, for all to see and share.
Or as David Brooks put it, “external ambitions are never satisfied because there’s always something more to achieve. But there’s an aesthetic joy we feel when we see morally good action, when we run across someone who is quiet and humble and good, when we see that however old we are, there’s lots to do ahead.”
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t travel, to take in the natural beauty of the earth, or to explore the manmade beauty of art or food or architecture or the relics of history. But, as Froma Harrop wrote, we shouldn’t be so fixated on “the labor of earning more badges to place on the ledger of life.”
Personally, I’d like to take the train through the Denali and see a whale up close. I’d love to walk along the rocky coast of Maine, eat real Italian food in Italy, take a river cruise up the Danube, and finally get my Hebrew up to par in Israel. I might or might not get to any or all of those things. And I have to learn to be okay with that, to keep my FOMO anxiety in check, and just work hard to find a serenity and a balance and an inner voice that tells me that life is okay and beautiful and meaningful either way.
If I can cultivate a generous eye, and being a good friend, and being a good neighbor, and understanding the consequences of what I do and say, and – most of all – unleash a joyous heart that treats every day as an adventure to be savored for all its worth and every encounter as potentially deep and important…if I can do that, then that’s the person I really want to be.
It may take a lifetime to get there. But that’s okay. Because, at the end of my life, it’s not the résumé virtues, but the eulogy virtues, that I want people to remember.
Ken Yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.
©2015 Audrey R. Korotkin