How to Practice Tikkun Olam
I got this email from a former, brilliant student a shamefully long time ago and have waited to respond because I didn’t know what to say. Her message reads like this:
I've been struggling with feeling intensely saddened, followed by scared, by bad things that happen to people that I hear on the news, see on the street, read about …. I've asked the people around me how they deal with the reality that there are terrible things in the world, and they all had the same answer of simply not thinking about it. I am envious of the people that are unaffected by the pain of others and even more envious of the people that acknowledge that terrible things happen to people and still find the strength to be happy and brave.
Oh, dear. I have spent the last 3 months thinking about a thoughtful and truthful way to respond. Today I send my disappointing response, but it’s the best that I’ve come up with so far.
I vacillate between living the Jewish idea of tikkun olam and living the Bob Dylan idea of “everybody just get stoned.” (I don’t do drugs, by the way).
Tikkun Olam is the Jewish tradition to heal the world. Basically, for me, I want the world to be a better place with me in it. And I have these two end-of-the-spectrum emotions and every one in between in the face of atrocities. Sometimes, I see a homeless person on the street, wonder if he or she is a veteran, or was kicked out of their parents’ home because of mental illness and think, I have to do everything I can. Other times, I’m busy. Other times I think, “eff it. Everybody just get stoned, go sit in front of the TV, do whatever it is that makes you happy and give up.” My reaction probably depends on my to-do list for the day and the last time I’ve seen a stirring documentary.
The only thing that I have learned over the years in terms of “how to deal with it” is that neither the “I have to go do everything” response nor the “let’s go binge on donuts and reality TV response” are helpful. These responses are not helpful for me and they are not helpful for the guy on the street.
The world is absurd. The world is romantic. The world is corrupt. The world is beautiful. Which of these ideas, or which amalgamation is most serving to you in the life you want to lead? That’s the question. I am not encouraging ignoring the other ideas. I am saying that it is a choice to respond (emotionally) and you can control it to a large extent through practices. Practice volunteering doing something you love once a week. Practice meditation. Practice arts and crafts. Practice veganism. Practice the law. I don’t care what you practice. But being a good person in an authentic way takes practice.
It also takes a goal—a vision. I think that that’s the hardest part. You have to envision the type of good person you want to be in order to then go be it. Here’s the thing—it doesn’t have to be a totally clear vision. Look at artists’ methods. Sometimes they just start painting with a gut feeling—they are inspired, and so they put the brush to canvas. Sometimes, that’s enough. Get inspired by your life, and by your idea of the future and start painting. Even the mistakes can be used to help create that sunset, or whatever it turns out the painting is of- but you have to bring your true self to making the world better. Or it won’t stick.
An idea that I was admittedly obsessed with during my first semester of Divinity School is that all of the great spiritual leaders, who I admired, worked on a skill that they loved and then stepped up when an opportunity came their way. Dorothy Day worked on her writing and when a man walked into her home to start the Catholic Worker’s Movement, she was ready to do it and write about it. Gandhi practiced the law and went where he was called, South Africa, back to India, back to South Africa, back to India.
Being overwhelmed doesn’t help anybody. Least of all yourself. So, acknowledge that if your response to the world is a choice, that’s a blessing, get over the guilt that blessings come with, and practice your choice.
I’ll try too.