On Faith: Discover self to identify areas for change

A century ago, the Times of London invited writers to answer the question, "What's wrong with the world?"

Essayist Gilbert Chesterton's answer was the shortest of those submitted. He simply wrote: "Dear Sirs: I am."

In those two words, Chesterton marked the gap between our aspirations and our accomplishments; he acknowledged the distance separating what we wanted our life to be and what it had become.

People are practiced in identifying how others should change, while forgiving their own behaviors. Following a sermon in which the rabbi chastised his congregation for a variety of misdeeds, a worshipper approached and said, "Excellent sermon, rabbi. You really gave it to them. They really needed to hear that. I hope they were listening. They really need to change."

Tolstoy lamented: "Everyone thinks of changing humanity, but no one thinks of changing himself." It is much easier to reckon how "they" should correct their lives than to identify our own deficiencies and take up the laborious task of self-improvement.

It is said that New Year resolutions "go in one year and out the other." It is a principle of human personality that individuals tend to respond consistently. Late comers can be counted on to be tardy, punctual people will regularly be on time, charitable people are generally amenable to giving, and the self-centered are often unresponsive.

Most of us are comfortable with ourselves, accustomed to our behaviors and deeply ingrained responses. They are difficult to reshape.

We say: "I'm set in my ways," "I'm not ready," "You are asking too much of me," or "I'm too old." People detail to me their shortcomings, but conclude: "What can I do? That's just who I am."

In our personal lives we reflect Newton's First Law of Motion: an object at rest tends to stay at rest.

The stubborn truth is that people are stubborn and for some to change is like reversing the course of a river, for while people want things to get better, they don't want to change.

But trying to change others without changing our selves is like trying to clean the dirty face we see in the mirror by scrubbing the glass. However vigorously we scour the mirror, our reflection will not improve. It is only by washing our own face that we can alter the image.

Change requires change. If we think what we thought, say what we said, and do what we did, we will have what we had. After all, if nothing changes, nothing changes.

Our obsession with diet and exercise bespeaks a fear of growing in the wrong places. We need a greater fear that, in vital ways, we stop growing altogether. In terms of who and what we are we dare not stay same size.

A rabbi wrote: "When I was younger I thought I would change the world, but that proved daunting; I then decided that I would work on my community, but my efforts were frustrated; later, I concentrated just on my family, but to no avail. Now I have decided just to try and change myself."

This rabbi did not mean that he would work only on himself and ignore others. He meant that the only effective way to change our world is to begin with ourselves.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn observed: "The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties, but right through each human heart."

That is why it has been said that "the greatest sound in the entire cosmos is the sound of someone changing himself."

We know not what changes the new secular year will bring to us. We can only hope that we will overcome resistance and change ourselves for the better: that our horizons will be broader, our character deeper, and our moral reach higher. For while everyone thinks of changing the world, and everyone proposes how other people should change, we would do well to give some consideration to changing ourselves.

We must undertake the longest journey of all, the one that turns inward. There we will discover precisely what is wrong with the world: "I am."

MARK S. MILLER is the senior rabbi at Temple Bat Yahm in Newport Beach.

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