Friday, June 16, 2006

My Bad

This week’s Table Talk is in memory of my grandparents, Lester and Sylvia Seinfeld, whose yarzeits were last week.

Sometimes is should be obvious that whoever is running this world is sending us messages, but we’re not always listening.

Why is it so hard to say, "I was wrong" ?

Back in New York yesterday, I was supposed to teach a class on this very topic: how to live ethically. My basic premise is that an unexamined life cannot be ethical.

Beforehand, I was supposed to meet landsman Stanley. We didn’t set an exact time or place, but we made up for around 5 or 5:30 at 72nd and Broadway and then to go to dinner. Since he had warned me that I’d likely arrive first, I didn’t rush. I lingered downtown, finishing a cup of coffee. After all, there was a direct train.

Well, not exactly.

As the initiated know, there are two kinds of trains in New York, the “local” and the “express”. The express, obviously, doesn’t stop at every station. You can guess where this is going – I was on the express and should have been on the local. Don’t think that I’m so green that I didn’t know the difference. I’m sure it can happen to anyone, right....?

Now, I thought I was being very conscientious – I studied the map and counted five stations until 72nd. That should be enough time to get through a few lines of the Gamara (that is, the Talmud – a travel size that I carry around for these occasions), and I was pleased to find an open seat on the train.

The trouble began after the first stop. A woman boarded dressed perfectly appropriately for June in New York. I wouldn’t have even noticed her except for the fact that she kept leaning over me, almost on top of me, and it became impossible to ignore her. What is the problem? It dawned on me that she was straining to read a subway map on the wall behind me. That alone was probably a sign from Heaven that I should be paying more attention to the map, but I buried my nose deeper into the book.

Then, at the second stop, a sweating, heavy-set man came on board carrying a placard as large as himself and plopped himself right on the seat beside me. The placard had a larger-than-life photo of a fetus and said something about equating abortion to murder. I thought, that’s an interesting ethical question that really depends on your definition. I heard him strike up a jovial conversation with the woman to his right, chuckling, “Is this express or local? I didn’t even check” but I didn’t hear her answer. “Clever ice-breaker to proselytize her,” I thought.

I just wasn’t getting the signals.

Third stop was Columbus Circle, where I should have de-trained to switch to the local. But no, I was oblivious, still counting my stops and working through the page of Gamara. It was a difficult passage, one of those long, intricate sections of Talmud that require you to connect ideas together that are scattered across several pages. It’s hard to hold onto the thread of thought and tricky to know when to come up for air.

After some success deciphering this never-ending passage, I started to sense that the train was taking a really long time. It seemed to be going and going....I looked up and the people around me didn’t appear bothered by the fact that we were obviously headed into some kind of cosmic wormhole or New Jersey. Everyone had that dull, stupefied end-of-the-day subway look. I didn’t really want to engage Anti-Abortion Man in conversation, so I sort of wondered aloud, “Where are we?”

“One twenty-fifth,” he chirped, helpfully. But then added without discretion, “Where do you need to be?” Like it was his business. I wasn’t about to tell him the truth and get a lecture on the difference between local and express trains. If I mentioned 72nd street, he and everyone else would know that I screwed up. That would be embarrassing. The question remained, however, how to rectify the situation. Do I return on the local, or backtrack on another express, and redouble the journey on a local from Columbus Circle? Then there is the third possibility of ditching the train altogether and taking a cab to make up for lost time. But what if there are no cabs? Then it would be a waste of time.

Absorbed in these complicated thoughts I eventually made it to the rendez-vous spot, only not to find Stanley. I wasn’t sure I’d remember what he looked like. So I tried to make myself conspicuous and assumed that he’d find me. No such luck. When we eventually found each other an hour or so later, I wondered if I should tell him the subway story. Did it matter? Was that an excuse for being late? Was I really so late to start with? Maybe he should have waited longer? Maybe he should have called me? Maybe maybe maybe. Maybe these are all great excuses to let myself off the hook. Because the last thing I wanted to do was to admit that I had made a mistake.

Why is it that some of us have such a hard time saying, “I was wrong” and “I’m really sorry” ?

It seems to me that there are a couple answers. The most basic one is because we’re so concerned about looking good. How awful to look bad. But a spiritually-oriented person cares about being good rather than looking good. To err is human, but errors still have to be fixed. The only way to fix something I did to someone else is to own up to it.

This desire to look good has made all of us experts at rationalizing: “It’s not so bad because...” as in “It’s not so bad because everyone does it” or “It’s not so bad because the ends justify the means” or “It’s not so bad because no one really got hurt.”

Sound familiar? How many times did you let yourself off the hook this week with such a thought?

The only way to be good is to take full responsibility for my choices. I’m so out of practice that it’s hard to do, and so sometimes I practice when no one is looking: “I’m sorry. I blew it. I was wrong. My bad. My mistake. I’m really sorry. I goofed....”

Try this at your dinner table: see how many ways you can come up with for saying, “I was wrong.” Send me your list (or post it to the blog), and whoever has the most will win a free copy of my upcoming CD, The Art of Amazement Part 3 – Being Good.

Sorry Stanley, for blowing our plans! I was wrong. And it hurts to know that I was getting the signals all along, I just wasn’t paying attention. If I can pay more attention, maybe I’ll do better next time.

Shabbat Shalom.

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