Ari S. Lorge | September 21, 2018
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“Do you think he would like you?” That was the question that stopped me in my tracks. That is the question addressed to us all. “Do you think he would like you?”
The question comes from a recent documentary about Stephen Sondheim’s 1981 Broadway flop Merrily We Roll Along. The film explores the musical’s creation, failure, and the subsequent lives of the younger-than-usual Broadway cast. At one point in the movie, one of the now-grown actors is watching an interview he gave 37 years ago right before the musical previewed. He wells up with emotion as he sees and hears his 22-year-old self. He says, “it’s good to not be embarrassed by him, you know? I was afraid I would be embarrassed by him.” “Do you like him?” the cameraman asks. “He’s okay,” the actor replies. “Do you think he would like you?” And this question seems to hit hard. There is a long pause as he weighs an honest answer. 1
It’s a haunting question. But, an important one in this season of self-reflection. There are many benchmarks we can use to take stock of our lives on Yom Kippur, but this question is certainly one marker. Do you think your younger self would like you? Is there any greater existential distress than the idea that we might be confronted by our young, hopeful, bright-eyed-self, that he or she might look at us, hear what we’ve done, see who we’ve become, and feel disappointed or worse, regard us with disdain? Do you think your younger self would like you? Who doesn’t want to be able to say: “Yes. Yes, the 18-year-old me, the 7-year-old me, would like me.” How do we ensure that we could answer that question unquestioningly in the affirmative? To live in such a way that we could say, he or she might not recognize me, might be surprised by what has happened in my life, by what choices I made and by what hurdles I faced, but would like me; would be proud of the life I’ve lived.
We might be tempted to say the answer lies in fulfilling the dreams of our youth. However, achievements need not, perhaps often don’t, lead to lasting happiness. And, youthful dreams are rarely prudent or worthy. The documentaries entitled, The Up Series, make this point clear. In 1964 documentarians gathered 7-year-olds from around Britain and interviewed them. They have followed up with the same group every subsequent 7 years. Those children are now in their 60’s. Over the course of a few weeks, or if you’re a really dedicated binger, in one weekend, you can watch their lives unfold. It becomes clear that there is not necessarily a correlation between achieving and happiness. At age 7 most of them want to be astronauts. By 14 and 21 some dream of prestigious universities, grand careers, or building homes and families. Some went to those universities, got the jobs, built the homes. Some then failed the universities, lost the jobs, left their marriages. Others, who saw a bright future ahead, ended up homeless, stuck in dead-end work, or alone. None of them are astronauts.2 Achievement or not, dreams manifest or not, those who are truly happy seem to be able to reflect that, in some way, their younger-selves would say, “I like the person I’ve become.” What is it that allows them to say that? Ideals.
Being idealistic is often disparaged. When we call an adult idealistic it is typically a euphemism for being naive. But there is a vital difference. As we gain experience, as we learn from mistakes and hardships, we should in time lose our naivete. However, with ideals, the opposite is the case. Difficulties can temper our ideals like a hammer tempers steel. One Jewish commentary explains that the Menorah, the Cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant, and the Trumpets used in the ancient Temple represent Israel’s greatest ideals. How do we know? Because they are made from hammered silver and gold.3 Our loftiest ideals are the ones that have been shaped by hard knocks, and instead of becoming misshapen or growing dull they become more beautiful and more true. Untested ideals are naïve, but ideals we’ve clung to and allowed hardship to refine are the greatest gifts life can offer us.
The life of Senator John McCain is a clear example of this. Whatever your opinion of his politics, he lived according to deeply held ideals. Ideals, which were tested in unimaginable ways. But, those trials did not cause his commitment to them to wane, rather it was deepened. And as he neared the end of his life he shared in his statements that death was acceptable to him, because he felt he’d spent his life in pursuit of ideals that guided – ideals sprung from a source greater than himself and which he put to use to serve something more than himself.4 Who among us would not seek a similar sense of serenity? The source of those feelings of fulfillment is an idealistic life. Because, ideals instill within us two vital parts of our identity: ideology and idealism.
Ideology is the belief system created by the network of our ideals. It tells us who we are and for what we stand. It allows us to look at situations and discern what our best, highest self, would want us to do; even if we don’t listen. As we experience setbacks, triumphs, as we learn more about human nature and ourselves, we hone our ideology. As it evolves, our ideology helps take our ideals from a place of naivete to a place of experience and wisdom. But ideology alone is not enough to ensure that we are living in a way that would make our younger selves proud. For that, ideology needs its partner, idealism.
Idealism is that core part of us that remains optimistic and hopeful; that believes we can and should act upon our ideals. It is that force that propels Charlie Brown to keep trying to kick Lucy’s football. It is what Bob Dylan had in mind when he penned the lyrics hoping that his son might, “stay forever young.”5 Dylan didn’t literally want his son to remain a child. Rather, he wanted his child to grow up and retain his idealism. What does that idealism look like? Dylan’s lyrics describe it. “May you always do for others, may you always be courageous, stand upright and be strong, may you build a ladder to the stars, may your heart always be joyful.”6 While our ideology can shift, our idealism should remain constant. And yet typically we do the opposite: we cling to our beliefs, while disappointment leads us to give up any hope that we can live by them. And this ultimately embitters us. We’ve seen those people; we’ve been those people at some point. Those people who trade in idealism for the safety of so-called pragmatism or realism, who grow tired of doing for others because others aren’t doing for them in return, who see courage go unrewarded and no longer stand upright if they can’t calculate the clear benefit, whose joy has turned to cynicism. But, when we give up on idealism we are just a step away from compromising our ideals. We begin down a road at whose end is a person of whom our younger selves would not be proud and of whom we are unlikely to be proud.
The trick of life is allowing setbacks and sorrows to refine our ideology while our idealism remains intact. It is a challenge. But, it is possible. It is necessary. And, it is so very worthwhile.
Take one of the subjects of the Up-Series. At age 7, Bruce had a strong sense of faith and responsibility for those less fortunate than himself. When he grew up he wanted to be a missionary who would, “teach people to be good.” Not exactly a personal ideology that will carry you through life, but the beginnings of one. 7 years later, at age 14, Bruce was full of doubts. He said he, “wouldn’t be good at being a missionary…but…would help people if,”7 he could. By 21 he was at Oxford studying mathematics. He no longer knew what he wanted to do. Bruce seemed lost until he shared that he took time off to teach at a school for children with special needs and had found it fulfilling. Between 21 and 28, Bruce worked for an insurance company. Eventually he quit and began teaching underserved and predominantly immigrant children in East London. Why? He wanted to provide students in public school the same quality of education he received in private schools. Asked, as a 42-year-old, about his outlook amidst the difficulties of teaching in an underserved area he said, “I’m an optimist. We can show the way for developing a harmonious multicultural society.”8 At 49 he left London’s East End, worn down by the work. He teaches as a prestigious private school where he has become head of the math department at age 56.9
Bruce’s life has not been a straight path. But watching the films, it’s clear that from age 7 to 56, Bruce held ideals that guided him. They formed a personal ideology we can articulate. He believes his life is about helping others. He believes that all people deserve an equal shot. He believes that his privileged upbringing gives him a responsibility. This ideology matured. At first it was focused on, in his words, “helping civilize others,”10 very British. But as he grew and encountered those “others,” his ideology evolved into the creation of a multicultural society.11
His ideals didn’t provide him a life of ease. Bruce looks back and sees moments when holding onto his ideals made life more difficult, moments when he lost his way, moments when he felt alone. They did not provide him a life of unmatched material success. But, if we asked those younger versions of him if they like the person they’ve become, we have no doubt, they would say yes. And, there is an incredible sense of fulfillment, wholeness, and meaning to be found in that self-knowledge. And, it is not limited to a self. It can be true of communities and nations as well.
Just as we can use this question on Yom Kippur to take stock of our individual lives we can also use it to take stock of our national life. And one could say that election day is the Yom Kippur of the secular calendar. Like for Yom Kippur, leading up to an election, our nation takes stock of where we’ve been, who we are, and who we want to be. So, in a season when we will vote into office individuals who will serve as the stewards of our national ideals, we might ask, would they like us – those early generations of our nation? Of course, America has never been one thing. There have always been diverse voices clamoring to shape our nation’s ideals. But even amidst dissent, there is a predominant viewpoint in society about who we are, and for what we stand. In this case, we can look to the words of George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. In his first inaugural address Jefferson wrote about ideals that “form the bright constellation which…guided our steps.”12 These ideals come into focus in the speeches of our first three Presidents.
So, would they like us? Unquestioningly, there is much about which early Americans would be exceedingly proud if they encountered us today. But let’s ask, are there ideals that shone brightly in their writing, ideals which have been tested and tempered by time and experience like hammered gold, but which we have allowed to lose their luster? If so, let’s examine them because, as John McCain advised us, “We weaken our greatness…when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.”13
One ideal our founders might lift up is, to quote from Jefferson and Adams, “a jealous care of the right of election by the people.”14 Such care is necessary to ensure that no foreign nation or party, “should infect the purity of our free…and independent elections.”15 A second ideal is what Adams called, “A love of science and letters and a wish to…encourage schools…universities…and every institution for propagating knowledge…among all classes of the people…” because an educated populace is, “the only means of preserving our Constitution.”16 A third is equality under the law. We are to fashion a nation reflective of the truth that “all…are created equal,”17 a government which gives “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,”18 for, “the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.”19 A fourth ideal is that of national unity. George Washington said it best: “the name…American…must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations,” or political factions.20 Our citizens, and especially our representatives in government, should be concerned more with the business of state than the game of party politics.
These are among the ideals laid down by our founders and framers. They were not fully achieved by them. They were not fully achieved by our mothers or our fathers. And, our ideology around these ideals have evolved. What they meant by ‘equality for all’ was different from what we envision today. But, the responsibility to continue the work to embody these values falls to us. As John Adams charged: “It is for the young to make themselves masters of what their predecessors have been able to comprehend and accomplish but imperfectly.”21 For this work we need our idealism intact. We need to continue to believe these ideals which have guided our steps for generations are worth pursuing and that progress is possible.
Because, ideologies aside, whether it is in our personal life or in the life of our nation, we can no longer allow pragmatism to excuse lack of action and lack of vision. We can no longer allow fear, whether fear of failure or futility to stifle our attempts at living in accordance with our ideals. We can no longer allow cynicism to keep us from acting on our deepest-held beliefs and convictions. This holiday season calls on us all to reconnect to our idealism.
Do you think they would like you? Your 7-year-old self, your 18-year-old self? Do you think they would like us, that generation who dreamed up this great nation? May we always be able to answer that question yes. And may we always remember and help remind others that at the heart of Yom Kippur is the conviction that we have never gone too far down any road that we might not return to our best selves. We can still recommit to our ideals, no matter where along life’s road we may have cast them aside. We can still revisit and refine our ideology, no matter how entrenched it has become. We can still rekindle our idealism, no matter how accustomed we’ve grown to the darkness. In the year ahead, in every New Year, in every new beginning may we stay forever young.
1 Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened. DVD. Directed by Lonny Price. New York: Abramorama, 2016.
2 Apted, Michael, Paul Almond, Douglas Keay, Margaret Bottomley, and Claire Lewis. 2013. The Up Series.
3 Isaac ben Moses Arama, trans. Eliyahu Munk, Akeidat Yitzchak 25:2:6.
4 John McCain. “Farewell Statement from Senator John McCain.” News release. John McCain: U.S. Senator Arizona. https://www.mccain.senate.gov/public/.
5 Dylan, Bob, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, and Richard Manuel. 2004. Planet waves. CBS.
6 Dylan, Robertson, Danko, Helm, Hudson, and Manuel. 2004. Planet waves. CBS.
7 Apted, Almond, Keay, Bottomley, and Lewis. 2013. The Up Series.
8 Apted, Almond, Keay, Bottomley, and Lewis. 2013. The Up Series.
9 Apted, Almond, Keay, Bottomley, and Lewis. 2013. The Up Series.
10 Apted, Almond, Keay, Bottomley, and Lewis. 2013. The Up Series.
11 Apted, Almond, Keay, Bottomley, and Lewis. 2013. The Up Series.
12 Jefferson, Thomas. “Inaugural Addresses of the Presidents of the United States: From George Washington 1789 to George Bush 1989.” Avalon Project - Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy. Accessed September 13, 2018. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/jefinau1.asp.
13 McCain, “Farewell Statement from Senator John McCain,” https://www.mccain.senate.gov/public/.
14 Jefferson, Thomas. “Inaugural Addresses of the Presidents of the United States: From George Washington 1789 to George Bush 1989.” Avalon Project - Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy. Accessed September 13, 2018. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/jefinau1.asp.
15 Adams, John. “Inaugural Addresses of the Presidents of the United States: From George Washington 1789 to George Bush 1989.” Avalon Project - Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy. Accessed September 13, 2018. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/adams.asp.
16 Adams, John. “Inaugural Addresses of the Presidents of the United States: From George Washington 1789 to George Bush 1989.” Avalon Project - Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy. Accessed September 13, 2018. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/adams.asp.
17 Thomas Jefferson, et al, July 4, Copy of Declaration of Independence. -07-04, 1776. Manuscript/Mixed Material. https://www.loc.gov/item/mtjbib000159/.
18 “From George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, 18 August 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 13, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-06-02-0135. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 6, 1 July 1790 – 30 November 1790, ed. Mark A. Mastromarino. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996, pp. 284–286.]
19 Jefferson, Thomas. “Inaugural Addresses of the Presidents of the United States: From George Washington 1789 to George Bush 1989.” Avalon Project - Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy. Accessed September 13, 2018. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/jefinau1.asp.
20 Washington, George. “Avalon Project - Washington’s Farewell Address 1796.” Avalon Project - Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy. Accessed September 13, 2018. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/washing.asp.
21 John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: with a Life of the Author, Notes and Illustrations, by his Grandson Charles Francis Adams (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1856). 10 volumes. Vol. 6. 9/13/2018.
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