By Dr. Joseph Chuman
It happens to all of us. We get into our car to travel to a friend. Though we have been on the route countless times before, for reasons unknown we make a wrong turn and find ourselves lost. Or perhaps we are on our way to work and need to make an important call. We reach into our pocket and, lo and behold, experience the sinking feeling that we forgot to bring our cell phone with us. Who has not gotten flustered in the face of such mishaps?
These are small issues. But they have their greater analogues. Perhaps we have our ambitions set on becoming a doctor. Through perseverance and hard work, we get into medical school. But after the first year, we find we can’t hack it or we determine that medical school is just not for us. Or maybe the cost becomes prohibitive and incurring greater debt becomes too burdensome and unwise. We choose to go into our father’s retail business, instead. Then, of course, there are the all-too-familiar experiences of failed romances and broken dreams; the guy or girl of our dreams ditches us and chooses another.
A gap between our wants and our reality
When we step back and look at the bigger picture, we see the world and reality, which will play itself out as it will according to its own designs, often inscrutable to us, and then here we are pursuing our desires, dreams, ambitions, and plans. But life is such that there is often a gap between what we aspire to and how things work out. It was Freud who observed that it would be odd if things occurred just as we wanted them to. He was right. We are limited beings and reality is much larger than we are. This disparity leads to what we call “frustration” and it is a ubiquitous component of the human experience.
How we relate to this disparity is part of the adjustment to life that we all need to make, and it can lead to a variety of different responses. When the gap between our plans and how they eventuate is large and the stakes are very great, we can be overcome with anger and feelings of the cosmic injustice of life. Or perhaps we become filled with feelings of victimhood and self-pity, or assess ourselves as people condemned by fate to a life of abject failure.
Then there are those who are monumentally self-impressed and possess inflated egos. They believe that their abilities are limitless and they are inclined to deny reality and its boundaries altogether. The Greeks have a word for it–“hubris.” It is a stance of extreme arrogance. It is equated with not knowing our place as mortals in the scheme of things. It is the act of defying the gods, of going too far. This act of blindness to the limits of reality was a salient theme in Greek drama, and the consequences of such cosmic arrogance was to suffer the pain of tragic misfortune.
A stance of humility and humor
But there is a third way of responding to this discontinuity between our aspirations and strivings, on the one hand, and what the world has in store for us, on the other. Except for those circumstances in which the outcomes are irredeemably tragic, we can adopt a stance of humility and humor. We can either become immiser-ated and impatient with ourselves in the face of our faults, foibles, and failures or we can step back and engage a healthy-minded understanding that we are imperfect creatures who are often bound to stumble and fall in the face of our limitations. And oftentimes our failures and fumbles are not as awful as we sometimes make them out to be. It is the human experience that we often fall short of our aspirations, and our most sincere efforts many times do not turn out according to our best-laid plans. Indeed, there is absurdity in the human condition and perhaps the best response is to be able to laugh at ourselves. And then, in a spirit of humility when confronting a reality that does not conform to our wishes, we pick ourselves up and with perseverance try again.
In regard to this existential fact that reality does not always bend to our wishes, there is an adage in the Yiddish language to the effect that “man plans and God laughs,” which happens to be the title of my address for Feb. 2. I look forward to seeing you and hope you can successfully make it to the Society to join me.
Dr. Joseph Chuman is leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.