Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Key to Life

"To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to uproot the planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to scatter stones, and a time to gather stones;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to mend;
a time to be silent, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace." - (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)

This passage is one of the most famous and poetic in all of Tanach. Yet, there is an obvious inference that needs to be more closely followed: don't take anything to an extreme; there is a place for different types of behavior depending upon the circumstances. If we were meant to engage only in certain character traits all of the time, this passage wouldn't have been written. Hence, it's letting us know that there needs to be a balance. Given the appropriate time and place, even dreaded aspects of life such as hatred and war can be necessary.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that the key to life is moderation. In all sorts of areas, striving for the middle road is usually the way to go. From health to politics to character, staying away from extremes can help improve not only an individual's life but also civilization as a whole. Despite the fact that most people acknowledge the indispensability of moderation, few people seem to focus on actually achieving it. Instead, there is a tendency for people to simply label those with whom they disagree as "extremist," even when the person making the charge is guilty of having taken some action too far.

The Rambam teaches that we should strive for shvil hazahav, a golden mean. He states, "The right way is the mean in every one of a person's character traits" (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Character Development 1:4). However, there is one exception: correcting a bad trait. In such an instance, a person should temporarily go to the opposite extreme. For example, if someone gossips habitually, they should not say a bad word about anyone for a sustained period of time. By engaging in this process, they should be able to make their way back to the mean. The logic of the Rambam's approach has been explained by commentators with an analogy: if a bamboo cane is bent in one direction and needs to be straightened, simply holding the cane straight will not help; it must be bent in the opposite direction until it bounces back to the middle.

Take any concept - even something generally regarded as good - to an unthinkable extreme and the result can be quite problematic. Giving too much of one's income to charity is as unreasonable as giving too little of it to charity; refusing to engage in necessary war is as irresponsible as seeking out unnecessary war; loving everyone (including evil people) all of the time is as absurd as never loving anyone any of the time; the list goes on and on. This conclusion can be drawn by simply using logic and common sense. Yet, there's a reason why people tend to drift to one extreme or another: it's easier than having to think through issues and act accordingly.

Whether religious or secular, liberal or conservative, man or woman, people have a tendency to feel a sense of purity above others by drifting to an extreme. However, this will neither lead to more interpersonal decency nor a better world. Ironically, the way to combat extremes isn't by maintaining the opposite extreme, but by striving for moderation. Even the Rambam's advice for correcting a bad trait is only meant to be done temporarily. Just as people seek to alleviate themselves from excessive temperatures, we should seek to alleviate ourselves from behavioral excesses. Unless there are extenuating circumstances, there is no substitute for moderation.

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