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Whether he is interviewing God (“I must be the first since Moses to be allowed into your presence”), preaching on “marriage as music,” or reflecting on a visit to his parents’ grave, Friedman always has the power to surprise us and invite us to change. This new collection of Edwin Friedman’s writings, most of them unpublished, reveal a different side of this rabbi, teacher, and leadership coach who caused a revolution in viewing human relationships with Generation to Generation....
Whether he is interviewing God (“I must be the first since Moses to be allowed into your presence”), preaching on “marriage as music,” or reflecting on a visit to his parents’ grave, Friedman always has the power to surprise us and invite us to change. This new collection of Edwin Friedman’s writings, most of them unpublished, reveal a different side of this rabbi, teacher, and leadership coach who caused a revolution in viewing human relationships with Generation to Generation.
Organized into life stages, specifically the journey from young adulthood to maturity and death, What Are You Going to Do with Your Life? captures Friedman’s signature wit and playfulness as he cuts straight to the heart of human growth and relationships.
Throughout his life, Friedman eloquently applied the insights of family therapy to churches and synagogues, organizations and businesses—and, of course, to families themselves. He energized and delighted a wide public in his lifetime and continues to engage us with What Are You Going to Do with Your Life?, an essential reader for those seeking life-changing insights.
Baccalaureate address given at Montgomery Blair High School, June 19, 1960
It is the custom of rabbis when they are to preach a sermon to base that sermon on a phrase or idea from the portion of the five books of Moses that is scheduled for that sabbath. The portion scheduled for this past week was from the book of Numbers and it had to do, interestingly enough, with a spy story. It is all about the twelve spies that Moses sends out to bring back information about the promised land—you will notice, by the way, that careful record is made as to who was responsible for the mission. Now when these spies return, all except two spread a report that the people they saw in Canaan looked to them like giants. And, they continued, "We appeared in their eyes as grasshoppers."
But this is a most extraordinary statement, "We appeared in their eyes as grasshoppers." For how can any of us know how we appear in the eyes of another? We can't. It is just such a question that some rabbis, many centuries ago, asked about this same biblical statement. "How do you know how you appeared in their eyes?" asked the rabbis. "Maybe," they went on, "you appeared in their eyes as giants." It is a similar question that I would like to ask you this evening: namely, do you see yourself as the reflection of how you think you appear in the eyes of others? For, as you can see from the very asking of the question posed by these rabbis, it can be very misleading to assume because what you see outside of yourself appears large, that you therefore are small.
Moreover, even if we reverse the situation, we still find a similar danger. That is, it would be just as faulty to assume that you are big if everything outside of yourself appeared in your eyes as small. In other words, if all appear to you as grasshoppers then you are a giant. Thus not only may you not be a grasshopper when others appear to you as giants, but even if others come to you and tell you that you are a grasshopper, this may not be the case. For when we human beings seek to find our value, our worth, our dignity, we must not be guided by what appears outside of us nor even by what speaks to us from the outside. Rather we must be guided by what appears to us from inside, by what speaks to us from the inside.
For you see, dignity is very important to a human being—it is in fact what makes you human and what differentiates you from other forms of life. A human being is the only form of life that truly senses shame, and is not shame by its very nature a loss of dignity? You can have a sense of shame only if you have a sense of dignity to lose. And this sense of dignity comes not from without, but from within. You will remember the story in Genesis about Adam and Eve. Sometimes this tale is referred to as the fall of Adam—it is much less the story of his fall than of his rise, which is described here. For is this not a tale of how the first human beings felt for the first time ashamed—felt a loss of dignity? The inference then is that for the first time, human beings felt that they had dignity to lose. And how did they learn that they had dignity? Did someone tell them? Did they see something? The answer to both questions is no! Their sense of dignity did not come from without, either by comparison to the slimy snake or even by word from the great God. It came from within, after they had tasted of the fruit of knowledge.
All of you have been tasting of—indeed, feasting on—the fruit of knowledge for quite some time now. And all of you will continue to eat of it throughout your lives. Some of you will favor the more academic variety and some of you will find that the flavor of practical experience better suits your taste. But all of you will continue to learn and all of you will continue to experience. And as you do, your sense of dignity should increase.
But even as this process goes on, you are going to come into contact with gigantic forces telling you that you have no more dignity than a grasshopper. And these forces will appear to you as so gigantic that you may be misled into thinking that you are smaller than you are. What are these forces which threaten your dignity and how can you cope with them? Upon what can you rely to gain the self-confidence, the inner security that will preserve your dignity in the face of these giants?
These gigantic forces which threaten the dignity of the human being today are massive. They may be divided into two categories, for they operate in two different ways. The first category is that of armed might. You belong to the first generation in the history of humankind that will grow up in an age when the world can go up in smoke, when the technology of war has become so intricate that human beings have been robbed of their responsibility to defend themselves and of their responsibility or even ability to prevent or initiate hostilities. Such a gigantic force is almost mystical. It tells us we are slaves to what we cannot see—an atom. It is a case of the powerless giant and the almighty grasshopper.
In such a time it is all too easy to say that the machinery of government is as intricate as the machinery of war. "I can have no say in the matter. What do I matter? There is no use in even thinking about it." And the next step down the ladder of dignity leads to a retreat into "Live for today, for tomorrow I may die." It leads you to escape from the worries of how you might die and even into the worries of how you might live. But you should be concerned with how you are going to die because it is part and parcel of how you are going to live.
The second group of forces is more subtle. These too seek obliteration of your dignity. They too are massive. They may not take away your lives, but they will take away your dignity and make your lives worthless. Among these are automation, the huge organizational complexes that govern your job, your education, your religion, your neighborhood, and even the way that you play, and the mass media of communication telling you what you should buy, what you should enjoy, and even what is happening to you. They seek to influence you and overpower you—and not even you as individuals, but as part of the mass.
In such a time, it is all too easy to begin to believe that you are really nothing more than a grasshopper, one of a swarm of grasshoppers blown hither and thither by the winds of public opinion, moving this way or that way simply because the swarm is moving this way or that way. Worst of all, you are not even able to tell which way the swarm is moving because there are too many in the swarm and the swarm itself is a giant.
And if we remember that knowledge is essential to human dignity, then certainly of first importance is where you are going, what are your goals—what, to coin a phrase, are you going to do with your life? That question which appears in your programs as the title of this talk was worded very carefully. It does not ask, "What are you going to do when you grow up?" or "What will you do when you go out into the world?" or "What are you going to do in life?" It asks, "What are you going to do with your life?" The emphasis is on the word "with." For your life belongs to you. There is a tremendously important assumption underlying that title, one that stands up to all the forces that will negate your sense of dignity. It is the assumption that you can have something to do with your life, that you can influence it, that you do not have to be what the world is forcing you to be.
Furthermore, it is not a question that asks you to answer; rather, it is a question that asks you to question. In the words of a rabbiteacher of mine, addressed also to a graduating class, if you do not have answers, do not feel too badly. But if you do not have questions, you had better feel your pulse.
Now if I do not expect that any of you have ready answers for the problem of how to preserve your own personal dignity in the face of these forces, neither can I be expected to have ready answers myself. There are no ready answers. Each one of us must find our dignity in our own way. For dignity is partially the result of the uniqueness of one's own individual personality. I can give you no individual answers but I may be able to give you an approach, a guide, or plan for living, that will at least ensure that you will be conscious of your dignity.
What then would be the nature of such an approach; what would be its characteristics? First at all, it would be an approach to life that seeks earnestly and honestly what life has to offer. It would be an approach that would never be afraid to question what has come down from the past, and would realize that the answers given in the past were to questions raised in the past. But today new questions have arisen and the answers may not be the same.
For no matter how lucrative your job, how conservative your politics, how secluded your home, how liberal your politics, how segregated your race, how large your donations to charity, how often you go to church—these answers that might still satisfy the old questions will not take the place of your concern for what your government is going to do with your life or your concern for what you are going to do with your life.
It is an approach to the problems of life which is, above all, concerned with meeting these problems, accepting their challenges, never seeking refuge from them. An approach, in short, which seeks those answers that will enable us to grant ultimate respect to the human personality, and this no matter what the cost to our traditional beliefs and attitudes. For truth is the fluid in the spinal column of life. As long as it flows through our experience, our lives are supple and we can adjust to the quick and the uncertain. When it dries up, our lives lose the capacity to adapt, become rigid and inflexible, human being appears out of proportion, and the dignity of a human being is bent out of shape.
The second aspect of the approach is perhaps even more important. It requires that you understand what is meant by the dignity of a human being. Because the question "What are you going to do with your life?" was not meant to be restricted to what are you going to do for a living. It's an odd expression, isn't it?—"do for a living." We human beings seem to define ourselves according to our professions rather than according to our natures. As Eric Fromm, the wellknown psychiatrist, has pointed out, if you could ask a chair what it was and it could talk, it would undoubtedly tell you, "a chair"; a table, and it would tell you, "a table." But ask people what they are and they will tell you a doctor, a lawyer, a businessman, a government worker, a housewife, a secretary. Rarely will one think of oneself first of all as a person, much more rarely as a human being.
To take the raw materials of which you are made, your special qualities, your interests, your abilities, and your talents, and pour them into a mold made by the demands of society is to show the ultimate contempt for the individuality out of which springs your dignity. True respect for your own dignity can only come when you find that role in society which most integrates the uniqueness of your personality, and which will enable you to be most productive in contributing to that society.
Finally, it is an approach characterized by a genuine love for the reality of experience, for the desire to encounter experience for its own sake. By the realization that experience is life itself and we were made to live it. Experience is the matrix through which the dignity, the individuality, of the human being receives its raison d'être. The dignity, the sacredness of human beings obtains its value, is enhanced, not by the getting of experience, but by the living of it. We are not machines to be broken in that we might work better! That we can do a better job after experience no one can deny. But if we look upon experience as merely something practical, as a breakingin process, then we have lost the value of life.
Like Moses, you are preparing to enter a new land, to make your conquests there. Like Moses you have heard reports that there are massive giants there that threaten, swiftly or slowly, to crush from you your life and dignity. But you have not been told that in the face of such giants you are grasshoppers. For in the final analysis, it is not what society expects of you that should shape your life and determine your dignity, or lack of it, but rather what you expect of yourself that should shape and dignify you, shape and grant dignity to your society.
Change Too Must Change
Baccalaureate address given at Albert Einstein High School, June 14, 1964
Next summer I imagine many of you would like to visit the World's Fair. They are always such exciting and attractive adventures, these opportunities to explore time and see a profile of change, to visit the future, as it were. A World's Fair, I think, is the nearest thing to a time machine that a human being can encounter. Thus it is not surprising that at each of these fairs, some kind of capsule containing evidence of the present is entombed for some lucky archeologist to find several centuries hence, and compare how his world has changed from ours.
At the 1939 fair in New York, Albert Einstein was asked, among others, to place some message in that time capsule. Part of his brief message of twenty-five years ago to the people of the future read as follows:
Our time is rich in inventive minds, the inventions of which could facilitate our lives considerably. We utilize power in order to relieve humanity from all tiring, muscular work. We have learned to fly, and to send news without any difficulty over the entire world....
However the production and distribution of commodities is unorganized so that everybody must live in fear of the economic cycle. Furthermore, people living in different countries kill each other at irregular time intervals, so that for this reason anyone who thinks about the future must live in fear and terror....
I trust that posterity will read these statements with a feeling of proud and justified superiority.
Alas, as far as we are part of that posterity to which Einstein was speaking, we have no justification for feeling proud or superior. To think of that future is still terrifying, and for much the same reasons that existed a quarter-century ago. In this respect there has been little change. If anything has changed, it seems to be not the reasons for fearing the future but rather the swiftness and the intensity with which those reasons come upon us.
It is a truism to say that the only permanent thing in the world is change. But, of course, if everything changes, then change too must change. And it is—changing for the faster. Change seems to me to be changing in the ratio of a geometric progression, so that each generation finds itself further removed from its predecessor. The ideas, the tastes, the art of the next generation are always a little farther out; the gap between children and their parents always a little wider than it had been for parents and their parents. And one of the most disrupting aspects of all this is that for you who are growing up, the conventional bridges that have traditionally spanned the generations—country, religion, race—are becoming inadequate because things become old-fashioned before they have been tried. There is little, it would appear, that is stable or permanent, little that can be relied upon to remain the same, to serve as a fixed star and help us chart the course of our future lives.
I grew up during World War II, so I was taught to hate the Germans, to despise the Japanese, and to dislike the Italians. The Chinese were good guys and so were the Turks and the Russians. For my parents who had grown up during World War I, it was quite disconcerting. They had been taught to hate the Turks, and to consider the Japanese and Italians as friends, and they had already been indoctrinated with fear of the new, young Communist Russia. Well, in a way, they'll get along better with my children than I will, for today once more the Japanese and the Italians are our friends and the Russians are again the bad guys.
Excerpted from WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO with YOUR LIFE? by EDWIN H. FRIEDMAN Copyright © 2009 by Edwin H. Friedman. Excerpted by permission of Seabury Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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