Saturday, September 9, 2017

Earth Etude for Elul 19 - Keeping Agreements as a Spiritual Practice

by Rabbi David Jaffe

I am a people pleaser. On the surface that may sound just fine. I get along well with people, care about people and want to give them what they want. But the motivations for my people pleasing reveal its dark underside. I don’t like conflict, so I will do whatever is necessary to make sure people like me. For example, I will say yes to things I know I will never do, sacrificing my integrity to avoid the momentary discomfort and hard feelings of saying no. 

I am not sharing this publicaly to self-flagellate. Rather, my own condition is instructive for many people because these patterns of behavior are not of my own invention and are not a “personal problem.” On the contrary, I have been trained well by the dominant Protestant middle-class culture of the United States to be a good cog in the capitalist machine. This training teaches us to work hard, keep your head down, conform, avoid conflict, get people to like you and you will achieve a level of comfort that is the goal of life. Then, do whatever possible not to lose this comfort. This means avoiding hard things with other people that might create conflict.

Caitlin Breedlove, a community organizer with the Auburn Seminary, names the broader implications of conflict avoidance in Elizabeth Aeschlimann’s powerful unpublished master’s thesis, Getting Mixed Up With Each Other (May, 2017, Harvard Divinity School). Breedlove, who was raised working class, recounts numerous experiences with middle-class college students and organizers who said yes to certain agreements and then broke their word in the course of work together. The difficult changes community organizing seeks to make take relationships people can count on. Without knowing that someone really has your back, it is hard to fight for real change. Breedlove tells Aeschlimann that people involved in campaigns, “… really wanted spiritual accompaniment on the road… I think when you’re really accompanying them, you have a spiritual covenant with them. You’ve given them your word, and you’ve asked something in return.” This idea of covenant is key for Breedlove.  Covenanting with someone means that you are there for them in a real and continuous way and will not break your agreements, even if it makes you deeply uncomfortable. 

Am I willing to give up the momentary comfort of saying yes to a request and instead have the integrity to make agreements I will keep? Am I willing to always keep my word? A lot is at stake in the white middle class in our country confronting these questions. On an environmental level we have an implicit agreement with future generations to steward the earth and leave it in better shape than how we found it. Will we follow through with that agreement? Will we keep our word to our children or sacrifice our integrity for short term economic comfort. In the language of Middot – Jewish soul traits – the commitment and integrity Breedlove advocates is called Emunah – trustworthiness and reliability. A traditional blessing given to couples upon marriage is, “May you build a Bayit Ne’eman B’Yisrael – a trustworthy and reliable home.”  

This Elul I am asking myself to sacrifice comfort and risk creating conflict with people by only saying yes to things I can actually do. Taking on a commitment, no matter how small, means actually following through and doing it. If everyone with these same people pleasing patterns can commit to keeping our word, we can make this world a Bayit Ne’eman, a reliable, trustworthy home, where we responsibly steward this miraculous earth for the generations to come.

Rabbi David Jaffe is the author of Changing the World from the Inside Out: A Jewish Approach to Personal and Social Change, winner of the 2016 National Jewish Book Award for Contemporary Jewish Life. He is the Founder and Principal of Kirva Consulting, which helps individuals and organizations access spiritual wisdom for creating healthy, sustainable relationships and communities. He blogs at 

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