My husband and I mostly watch Sesame Street these days, but last night after the baby went to bed we decided to give that new show, Utopia, a try. I was intrigued by the idea of a diverse group of people coming together, each with his or her own dreams and values, to build community. Building community, strengthened and bolstered by diversity and respect of differences, is right up my rabbinic alley. Alas, the show merely focused on clashing personalities and near violent arguments. I fell asleep within the first quarter. However, one piece, illuminating human behavior when faced with the task of creating unity, stayed with me.
The group’s first task was to sort through the belongings each person brought and decide which was essential to the survival of the group.. and of course space was limited. Each person in the group decided what was most important to him or her and each time the rest of the people respected their decision. Near the end of the task, one man, who had been standing quietly off to the side, began to scream and yell that he needed all his belongings and he was not going to leave any of them behind. He was angry and cursing. Several people tried to soothe him, telling him there was still room and that he could bring everything if he wanted. Others objected at first, but in the end the group’s need to “all get along” won out and the grown man was coddled like a child, his belongings taken by others and put into the communal box. I found this fascinating. One man, behaving badly, took control of a group stranger, simply by being loudly unhappy. The group reacted instinctively to give in to him in order to retain their sense of unity.
In our Torah, the principles of communal unity and freedom of choice are given in close proximity in parashah Nitzavim-Vayelech. “You stand today, all of you, before the Lord your God: your heads, your tribes, your elders, your officers, and every Israelite man; your young ones, your wives, the stranger in your gate; from your wood-hewer to your water-drawer — to enter the covenant of the Lord your God.” (Deut 29:9-10) In our establishment as a people in relationship to God, everyone is present. We all stand together in unity. Later in Deuteronomy we read “I have set before you life and goodness, and death and evil: in that I command you this day to love God, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments . . . Life and death I have set before you, blessing and curse. And you shall choose life.” (Deut 30:15). This second command gives perspective to the concept of unity… Each one has free choice and we should be careful how we choose, actively choose to pursue the life we want, rather than being caried away by mere instinct or passivity.
I have notice in my years of pastoral care of families in grief and crisis that at times there is a family member the others fear to enrage or hurt and walk on eggshells in their presence. The group, without ever discussing the issue, works to bend their own wills to the needs and desires of this person so as to maintain the sense of calm and unity the family craves. It is an elegant solution for families built of the concept of love where ousting the badly behaved person is unthinkable. I am intrigued that the same solution is used in other communal systems.
Recently a fellow parent called me about her daughter’s birthday sleepover party. The daughter had just three friends over and all seemed fine… until the morning. It seems one of the girls decided it would be funny to urinate in the room of her host’s little sister. The other girls said nothing, to her or to any adult, until after the badly behaved child left for home… then all the girls came and poured out the whole story to the mother in charge. While there, one rude and obnoxious little girl of 12, seemingly held the her “friends” hostage. They could not conceive of confronting her, or seeking a way to remove her. This is what parents and educators call a “teaching moment”, an opportunity to encourage discussion and give lessons on standing up to bullies or bad behavior. But the pattern repeats itself so often, and so subconsciously in groups of adults.
We are all familiar with the studies done after the Holocaust explaining why people follow those in authority without question or thought, especially groups of people… but this is not an issue of a person with power or authority… this is a case where all that is threatened is the group’s illusion of calm unity. How often in group work, is it the opinion of those who complain most that is followed? How often is visioning and dreaming to create our communal utopiahs do we find ourselves navigating endless lists of things we can’t do because they offend people, completely obliterating any sense of building to follow a dream?
The idea of rebuking someone who behaves badly or distracts from the dreams and goals of the community is upsetting to most people. A public rebuke makes everyone terribly uncomfortable. Our Torah answers, again, with two opposing teachings. On the one hand we are forbidden to publicly embarrass another. On the other hand, when someone’s actions are a danger to the community, they can not be litigated unless they have first been formally and publicly rebuked and given a chance to mend their ways. (ie The case of the goring ox.)
Rabbi Edwin Friedman wrote extensive about group dynamics and the power the unhealthy and selfish have to control our lives and the direction of our paths. One of my favorites is his story about the boy who was born with all his nerve endings on the outside of his body. In order to avoid hurting him, everyone had to be excruciatingly careful around him. So that he shouldn’t feel different or left out, all the children in his class had their schedules changed to suit his needs. So that no one should every accidentally touch or brush against one of the sensitive nerve endings that trailed on filaments around him, everyone had to think constantly of where he was, what he was doing, and what he needed. When he grew up, his wife never felt she could truly express herself or her needs to him, for fear of hurting him… and it slowly drove her into a deep depression. Finally one day, she actively choose to step on one of his nerve endings. He howls in pain, and she remains there, foot on nerve. It is a poignant lesson on the courage it takes to withstand another’s pain for the sake of growth and personal freedom.
Becoming conscious of what we do instinctively and then making a choice, with all the free will God has endowed to us, breaks us from the slavery of unconscious group patterns. Sometimes bad behavior needs to be stopped. Sometimes we need to face the discomfort we feel at someone else’s pain and think carefully… if I act to soothe, am I helping a person in distress, or am I soothing myself? Am I being held captive? If I choose to act or not act, do I condone bad behavior… and what will the long term consequences be for me and my community?