When I was first learning to drive, every movement of the steering wheel caused the car to veer too far in one direction, and when I attempted to correct by steering the other way, I often went too far back. Until I’d practiced a few times, I drove like a drunken skater.
And so we are challenged as we make our way through the world. I like the way Gandhi put it:
All religions teach that two opposite forces act upon us and the human endeavour consists in a series of eternal rejections and acceptances.
One of the underlying structures in Jewish mysticism focuses on the sephirot, sometimes called the tree of life, a complex relationship of ten qualities that may be seen as spiritual attributes or practical realities (and many other things besides). Click here for a nifty interactive chart.
The relationship of three central sephirot is often in my mind as I try to navigate social and interpersonal realities. Chesed stands for lovingkindness, expansiveness, multiplying energies; its opposite, Gevurah (sometimes called Din) stands for structure, discipline and containment. Both lead to Tiferet, signifying beauty and harmony. Imagine Chesed for a moment as a flood of brilliant red. Without boundaries and barriers, it suffuses everything—and therefore nothing is distinct. Now imagine Gevurah, a coronet of symmetrical shapes, devoid of content, structure without color. Put them together and you have Tiferet: a rose, supreme manifestation of beauty and harmony.
Last week, in one of my essays on generation gaps, I wrote this:
Both readers wondered whether an apparent lack of interest in roots and antecedents (and the feeling that tossed-off work is good enough) stems from the ultra-permissive parenting style of many in our own generational cohort. That brought to mind kids whose lot in life was to make up for the restrictions and emotional deprivations of their parents’ childhoods: kids who were given no boundaries, who had perpetual license to talk without being expected to listen in return, who were praised extravagantly and equally for everything they did and made. That child-rearing regime seems to produce remarkable self-confidence, a good thing that becomes its opposite in adulthood when it is unmoored by actual ability or achievement.
I was pointing to an excess of Chesed without the necessary balance of Gevurah.
A reader wrote in to ask this: “Following this line could lead to an acceptance of conservative ideas about parenting and education… couldn’t it?”
He was right. Indeed it could. Someone trying to steer social policy the way I learned to drive a car would face the consequences of boundariless parenting and try to correct by erecting a forest of boundaries, much like the mechanical, test-driven approach to education now serving so poorly in California’s public schools. Far too much Gevurah without the balance of Chesed.
These balancing acts are as challenging for political progressives like myself as they are for committed right-wingers. Neither wants to give a hint of approval to the other’s perceptions, for fear of lending aid and comfort to a repugnant position. So the right has to deliver three cheers for “standards-based education,” ignoring the soul-killing consequences of consigning teachers to curriculum that focuses on standardized testing and students to the deadening rote learning that entails. And progressives have to embrace a “whatever” approach to child-rearing that accepts boundless excess in order to avoid the imposition of unwanted constraints.
I prefer an uncolonized mind. Occasionally, that makes for strange bedfellows, but it’s usually only a one-night stand. I want to call the truth as I see it, even knowing I risk that someone whose views I find distasteful might use it very differently than I—so long as I remember to keep my balance.
I know quite a few children who were brought up in countercultural settings, with great parental emphasis on freedom from restraint: clearly, the parents’ desire to heal the unhappiness of their own conformist childhoods caused them to steer their kids in the opposite direction. A few young people burnt out on an excess of underboundedness (but probably no more than might have been casualties of some quite different regime). Others became addicted to rebellion, expressed in tearing down the countercultural alternatives their parents had worked so hard to create. Happily, many more possess the virtues of their upbringing—resourcefulness, a healthy skepticism about received knowledge, an encompassing worldview.
But here’s the thing, from adolescence, the majority dosed themselves with large helpings of the Gevurah they’d missed in childhood. Some started building their retirement accounts at twenty. Some married early and began crafting lives that were perfect facsimiles of TV families. Some headed straight for careers their parents would have seen as upholding oppressive social structures. I was once a featured speaker at a meeting where Ken Kesey delivered the keynote; his daughter drove him to the event. She wore a neat, tailored gray suit, sensible black pumps and a starched white blouse. Making conversation, I asked, “Are you a writer too?” “Oh, no,” she said, shaking her head as if I’d asked whether she were a tightrope walker. “I’m Miss Business.”
My own ideas about education are pretty much in line with my ideas of everything: balancing Chesed and Gevurah to cultivate the whole person in all dimensions, freedom from unnecessary constraint combining with healthy boundaries to create Tiferet, the glorious harmony of bringing all we are with us, wherever we go, whomever is watching.