Psalm 131

Adonai, my heart is not proud nor my look haughty …. (131:1)

It feels good when people praise me. When I teach or write something that elicits positive feedback, I am proud of myself. I have to remind myself, however, that several of the people who have told me that I am the best teacher they have every learned from, the most compassionate listener, the most useful advisor, have later turned out to have had ulterior motives. Our egos love to be stroked, but the people who do the stroking too often have their own agendas. They want something out of us, so their praise comes with strings attached. The moment we no longer serve their purposes, suddenly we are no longer their teacher, advisor, or confidant.

Cultivating humility means keeping one’s ego in check. The more powerful the leadership position, the more advisors one has, the more vulnerable one is to believing the stories that they tell. Remind yourself that no matter how important others make you feel, in the scope of history among the billions of people on earth, you are just a momentary presence. Within a generation or two or three of your passing, you will be forgotten. If you are lucky, one of your descendants, perhaps sharing your name, will happen upon your grave marker and leave a small stone as a token. But the substance of your life, other than your name or a couple of dates, will be gone.

While you exist, your life can have infinite meaning but do not mistake meaning for transcendent importance. Live your life so that you make a difference, but remember that ultimately, the only one who can make a difference, generation after generation, is God.

A Comment on How Difficult it is to FIGURE THINGS OUT

In the field of Jewish ethics, Reb Simha Bunum suggests a way for the human being to balance humility and self worth:

“Rabbi Bunum said to his disciples: “Everyone must have two pockets, so he can reach into the one or the other, according to his needs. In his right pocket are to the words:’For my sake was the world created,’ and in his left:’ I am earth and ashes.”

Anochi Afar va-efer  (from Gen. 18:27)

and

Bishvili nivra ha-olam (from Sanhedrin 37a)

[from Volume 2 of Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim, p. 249]

The comic strip “Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal,” by Zach Weiner has a slightly more complicated take on the same basic idea: