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  • Rabbi Mordecai Finley Ph.D.

Simple Wisdom Step 5 – Motivations and Goals

It has been hard to stay focused during these turbulent times, from the recent outrage to the recent tragedy. I think some events propel us into venting, in anger or fear, and then we are silenced with heartbreak over witnessing the profound destruction and suffering. Regarding the heartbreak: if you have money, donate, and if you have time, go volunteer. Regarding the outrage: Some people are happy to stay in the venting place, expressing anger and fear. Journalists are making a good living from it. Others of us want to move to processing. I am not saying that venting is wrong, but I will say that venting alone rarely leads to wisdom.

In “Step Five” of Simple Wisdom, I want to move from virtue to wisdom itself. First, a review: The virtue/wisdom steps I have discussed so far are 1. respect for yourself and others (kavod habriyyot), 2. insight into yourself and others (tovanah), 3. understanding the different kinds and stages of conversations (for example, venting, soothing, processing and deciding), and 4. Understanding the nature of processing. One idea of processing that I shared was to a. look at yours and the other person’s (or groups) basic axioms and premises, b. look at facts as they are known by each side (they will differ), and c. what policies or conclusions can be reached from aligning those premises with those facts. In this respectful and insightful presentation of axioms and facts, much of a dispute can be brought to light. Clearly mistaken facts can often be addressed. Gaps in thinking can be seen. The classic meaning of the word “argument” (to make something clear or bright), is achieved.

A further step, step five, as it were, is understanding goals and motivations, a further type of insight. Now remember, what I am presenting here are not really steps in order, but steps in difficulty of acquisition. Understanding human desires and motivation takes a higher level of wisdom and insight. A wise person can understand the complexities of motivations and goals. Sometimes I am asked, “why does my spouse do this?” The first part of my answer is always the same: “Some mix of genetics, what happened in early childhood, what happened the rest of their life up until this very moment, and their history of decision making. I don’t know what the proportions are of this mix, and nobody can fully know.”

At a deeper level, when a person asks why another person does things, I refer to my mythological “15 reasons.” There are 15 reasons we do anything, and 15 different goals for what we do. Because of the complexities of goals and motivations, I always recommend that in a difficult conversation a person try to clarify, as much as they can, and ask the following:

First, what exactly do I want? A specific, observable behavior, in time. Make sure that what you want is reasonable, attainable and realistic. Differentiate between short term, mid term and long terms goals, and understand the tensions between them. For example, hectoring my kid about their homework might get the homework done (short term), but might leave lasting bitterness in the relationship (long term).

Second, are my motivations clean and are my goals clear? This is where delving into the “myth of the 15” comes in. We have many levels of motivations, some quite pure, others not so much. We have many goals in a given setting, some clear, some not. A wise person is attentive to this complexity.

And here is the stinger: the same complexity exists in the lives of everyone else. A wise person can settle the waters with virtue, but then can look beneath the waters into the vast realm of the unconscious mind with wisdom. A wise person also knows that to discover one motivation or goal does not disqualify the others. I have often related the story of one of my most memorable classes in rabbinic school. The professor, Rabbi Wolli Kaelter, had us each go deeply into the personal stories of our path to the rabbinate. It became clear that each of us was working something out that the word “rabbi” in front of our names would serve. We all felt embarrassed and exposed. He reminded us that our other motivations were true, but he wanted us to be aware of the unconscious ones, as well. Every person who strives for a title, a description, at least in the beginning, sees that title as a talisman, something that endows us with power and protects us from harm.

In essence, a person of wisdom is skeptical of themselves and others. Not cynical, but rather always knowing that things are not as they seem. A person of wisdom develops a rich understanding of the human experience and life processes that human beings go through, as we work out our inner lives. I think this rich understanding of human beings and the human condition leads to a centered kind of patience, tolerance and certainly, a sense of humor.

The essence of humor (and tragedy) is reversal – peripeteia - and life is filled with nothing as much as reversal.

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