FUSING MY RELIGION:
THE DARK SIDE OF AN OPEN MIND
Everybody knows that in life, there are mentches, and there are assholes.
The mentch is inclusive.
The asshole is exclusive.
It goes without saying that mentches are better than assholes.
Tolerant people are just more likable than judgmental jerks.
I think we can all agree on that.
Closed-minded ignorance begets racists.
The recent measles fiasco has certainly exposed the ills of communal ignorance.
But the other extreme has its own challenges.
Too much tolerance can sometimes breed moral paralysis. Indeed, there’s an unexpected dark side to wholesale inclusiveness. When we stand for anything and everything, we, essentially, stand for nothing.
In such a society, educators and parents have no concrete moral compass.
No communal code.
No cultural narrative.
They just have Oprah.
“Educators have struggled to identify an ever-shrinking set of moral ideas everyone could agree upon. This shrinking reached its logical conclusion in the 1960s with the popular “values clarification” movement, which taught no morality at all. Rather, it taught children how to find their own values, and it urged teachers to refrain from imposing values on anyone. While the goal of such inclusiveness was laudable, it had unintended side effects: it cut children off from the soil of tradition, history, and religion that nourished older conceptions of virtue. You can grow vegetables hydroponically, but even then you have to add many nutrients to the water. Asking children to grow virtues hydroponically, looking only within themselves for guidance, is like asking them each to invent their own language. Even if they could do it, the resulting isolation would be crippling.”
– Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis
Today, everyone marches to the beat of his or her own drum.
But the beats are harder and harder to follow.
Because we live in a gymnasium full of simultaneously conflicting drum solos.
The marchers stop marching when the beats become inaudible.
Judaism was my beat.
And I became a wayward marcher.
I opened my mind to alternative beats.
And, in doing so, lost touch with my own.
At first, it was intellectually stimulating.
But the journey took a turn for the worse.
“When there’s no plot line,
there are no digressions.”
– Ronald Sukenick, The Death of the Novel
Indeed, sinning is a lot easier on an ever-shriveling conscience.
There is less guilt.
But there is also less hope.
I became a contrarian.
And I was proud of it.
After all, I was the one with an open mind.
What my peers took for granted, I took for debatable. There was always another side. There was always an equal and opposite perspective. What an open-minded mentch I was!
But my mind was so open that it began to leak. Pretty soon I was running on empty. It quickly became apparent what the sages meant when they described an empty mind as fertile ground for unfettered folly. Vice thrives in moral vacancy.
Confusion morphed into cynicism.
Cynicism morphed into nihilism.
Nihilism morphed into depression.
“I would choose my own religion,
Worship my own spirit,
But if he ever preached to me
I wouldn’t want to hear it.
I’d drop him a forgotten god,
Languishing in shame.
And then if I hit stormy seas,
I’d have myself to blame.”
– Phish, Sand
Meaning was meaningless.
The postmodern ethos of “anything goes” was my battle cry.
But it came at a heavy cost.
Because without faith, I felt chronically empty.
Which is kinda tricky for an Orthodox Jew (albeit, of the modern variety), fully enrolled in the Orthodox program. Yeshiva tuition is a bitch. I pay a hefty premium for my children to get the full Jewish package.
Part of this is socially enforced.
Communal standards are nonnegotiable.
But a deeper part is purer than that.
I want my children to believe what I struggled to believe. Because I know that my mind and heart were healthier when I was able to believe.
I call it healthy brainwashing.
Because, in the end, we are all brainwashed to believe something.
So we may as well choose our brand of brainwash wisely. If this sounds offensive or irreverent, it’s not as demeaning as it seems. It’s a deeper discussion for another time. For now, let’s get back to my melodramatic memoir…
Going through the motions so the kids don’t get confused is even more confusing for the kids.
Faking it wasn’t enough.
It may do the trick for some.
But not for me.
I needed to do some serious soul-searching.
Because the eternal darkness of a Godless mind was just unbearable.
I am not trying to overdramatize the experience. I am simply seeking to share what I suspect to be a more universal inner conflict than we tend to portray at wedding smorgasbords and synagogue lobbies. But for many of us, the struggle is real.
“I am incurably convinced
that the object of opening the mind –
as of opening the mouth –
is to shut it again on something solid.”
– G. K. Chesterton
The time has come for some solid mind-closing. The art of return is an emotionally charged experience, and the poets have done justice to the psycho-spiritual plight of the seeker. It is an admission of vulnerability. An admission of powerlessness. An admission of defeat. My way is just not working. We call this moment a moment of surrender.
An ironic part of open-mindedness is understanding and acknowledging its limitations. Tolerance. Inclusiveness. Acceptance. Yes, on a person-to-person scale, these are the makings of a mensch. But when inclusiveness verges into permissiveness, moral relativism, and nihilistic emptiness — the inner compass begins redirecting us.
The only question is: do I listen?
For today, my answer is as follows:
If I was open enough to follow a call for exploration, I can be open enough to follow a call for return.
Ignoring the redirect will only get me more lost.