Last week I facilitated an evening discussion focused on contending with moral injury and the existential crises that arises when our core moral values are violated, by others or by our own actions.
I drew from many different frames from myth and scripture, fairy tale and psychology - that I have found comforting when such crises have erupted in my life.
This week, reading Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim for my study group revealed another throughline, woven through three small stories, offered itself up to help me negotiate an enervating, paralyzing moral injury that I absorbed over the weekend.
The first story, summarized:
Humility No Commandment
Students ask their rabbi why there is no commandment to be humble, when humility is such an important virtue according to Torah. The rabbi explains that anyone who obeyed the a humility commandment in order to become “learned and righteous and devout, a master in all good works” would end up feeding their pride.
Humility is not attainable as a goal, as a positive virtue. It cannot be earned; it cannot be achieved. We cannot set our intentions to succeed at humility, or effort ourselves into humility in anyway. Humility is not the result of a desire fulfilled.
The second story, summarized:
In the Last Hour
A dead man is reincarnated on New Year’s Night. After living an impeccable life, he is sent back to earth.
“Before my death I thought over everything I had done and found I had acted in just the right way. Because of this my heart swelled with satisfaction and in the midst of this feeling I died. So now they have sent me back into the world to atone for my pride.”
Ego-inflation is a lifelong struggle, up to the moment of death, and there is nothing that inflates our egos more than the notion that we are unilaterally good.
The greatest danger of too much goodness is self-righteousness, and the harms we are likely to inflict on others when caught in its clutches. And there is a particular kind of righteous inflation that is summoned when we witness or are the target of acts of moral indifference, or cruelty.
Marie Louise von Franz says that “to look upon evil is to become infected by it” and this is one way the infection spreads: One succumbs to a primal “evil urge” to dominate or disregard another. And those who witness it and do not succumb in that moment decide they are unilaterally better people. When harmed in an innocent state, we can become too certain that we are essentially innocent in any and all circumstances. All our own moral failures, all the cruelties and harms we have inflicted on others rinsed entirely from our minds.
These holy men are also contending with the collective theological aspects problem of evil. The evil urge, temptation, sin, error, failed moral reasoning are the mechanisms that grant us humility, for how, without such failures, would we ever modulate our self-righteousness? This is the negative virtue that emerges from moral failure. There is no way to be humbled without failing ourselves and others. The sweet relief of humility is only attained through guilt, error, and failure. We can only come to understand and have compassion ourselves and our fellow human beings, by failing to be good.
One more story:
A hasid complained to Rabbi Wolf that certain persons were turning night into day, playing cards. “That is good,” said the zaddik. “Like all people they want to serve God and don’t know how. But they are learning to stay awake and persist in doing something. When they have become perfect in this, all they need to do is turn to God - and what excellent servants they will make for him then!”
These stories challenge me to metabolize my inflated notions of my own righteousness, and my inflated imaginings of myself as better or innocent generally rather than merely momentarily.
When I bear witness to someone in a simultaneously abusive and self-righteous state, I am filled with my own. When I wrap myself in an “I-would-never!” or imagine that I have conducted myself impeccably on this earth, I succumb to my own evil urge. When I am horrified by individual or collective “inhumanity” I must reach toward my own shameful failures, my own catalogue of sins of commission and omission, and remember how human such failure is.
Only then will return to eye-level with the human being who is harming me or another, that I have reified as a perpetrator. Only then will I see how I hold myself apart with a prideful belief in my own moral superiority.
Most of us are learning and failing and trying once again to stay awake, to persist.
Most of us are persisting at something we will never be perfect at, and thank God, because to achieve perfection begets its own impiety. It is our own moral failures which will allow us to remain whole, and firm and humble in the face of the immoral actions of others.
And only our limitations can teach us how to turn night into day and receive the humbling gifts that are only granted to those who fail at goodness.
The discussion on moral injury was recorded and is available to those who register until July 30th. Click here for more information and to register.
I offer an online video dream workshop for those interested: This course consists of 10 approximately fifty-minute long videos of a dream workshop I facilitated in Spring 2021. The videos include a brief didactic presentation, as I outline the themes for each session, followed by class discussion.
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I will be facilitating a fall session of this Living Intentionally With Mortality workshop, and my Dream Workshop - dates to be determined.
Thank you! The older I get the more I recognize vengeance as a subtle thing. How when I’m treated less than or as an outsider, I make the aggressor less than or an outsider in my mind. And so many words and actions follow. How to suffer through and focus on the path in front and all the obstacles placed and fallen there--how to go over or around or through. That’s the journey. Thanks again! Enjoyed the last discussion by video!
Well, I feel like I've failed (at least partially) to everything I've turned my hand to so I guess I'm well on the path to virtue...? I need to think more about this.