The 19th century psychologist and philosopher William James wrote:
“Whenever two people meet, there are really six people present. There is each person as they see themselves, each person as others see them, and each person as they really are.”
It’s important to be able to separate the three perspectives, and then to focus on the last of the three identities most deeply.
I’ve been asking myself who I really am since I retired from the active congregational rabbinate two-and-a-half years-ago. When I retired, the designation “Rabbi” (in the congregational sense) was no longer applicable to me, though I remain a rabbi even without a congregation (I’m privileged to hold the honorific title Rabbi Emeritus).
This week I decided to think and write about my changed identity in my personal journal as an exercise in self-clarification without planning to publish it. After finishing, however, I realized that there are take-aways that are generally transferable to everyone.
I passed this week my 72nd birthday (a quadruple chai of years) and realize that I’ve experienced roughly four life-stages (or long chapters) through which my identity changed and evolved.
The first stage concluded when I was nine years-old and my father died suddenly. Next came my young adulthood with my decision to enter rabbinical school. The third included all the years of rabbinic study and service as a congregational rabbi. And now I’m in my post-retirement period.
I’m not all that different from anyone else, though I made a choice early on that few people make, to become a rabbi/teacher/pastor, a role in my community that privileged me to engage with others amidst the most important moments in their lives – joyful, sad, and challenging. All my encounters with others over forty years taught me not only much about them, of course, but about myself as a fellow sojourner. I’ve tried to learn from everyone I’ve met and from everything I’ve done, as well as from the history, traditions, and experiences of the Jewish people, and from the wisdom, thought, and creativity of inspired thinkers, artists, and cultures the world-over.
For me, I’m a happy husband, father, grandfather, brother, and friend; a happily retired congregational rabbi; a learner, seeker, thinker, and writer; an advocate for justice and fairness in America and around the world; a believer in the power of simple human kindness to touch the lives of others; a democrat (with both large and small “d’s”); a Progressive Reform Zionist and lover of the People, Land, and State of Israel; a cancer survivor who’s grateful for my physicians and health care workers, and who works hard to remain healthy for as long as possible.
I’m surely not one thing alone. I have many identities, each intersecting with one another. Each of us is an emanation of our family histories and genetics, and we’re shaped by our experiences of loss and gain. We’re political beings bound by culture, institutions, societal and historic events and norms. We’re creative beings, and most of us want to be productive and relevant, appreciated and loved by the people we love and respect. None of us can predict the future, but we have the agency to make considered choices based on what we’ve done and learned, on our core beliefs and values, and on how we believe we can best help others.
We’re all bit players in each other’s lives even with the mistakes we’ve made. Hopefully, we’re able to acknowledge our imperfections, apologize when we err and hurt others, take responsibility for ourselves without casting blame, strive to do better, and choose to nurture relationships of meaning.
Given that we live in increasingly polarized American and Israeli cultures, maintaining balance, equanimity, and civility are huge personal, moral, and communal challenges. We Jews are a choosing people after all, and we ought not to allow ourselves to drift thoughtlessly or be led by intolerant, myopic, self-centered, and soul-less actors.
For me I’m happy to be able to wake up each day, drink a strong cup of coffee (a little resurrection in the morning), read the latest news and commentary, write some, take a long walk in my neighborhood, greet the people on the street I see each day, and continue through the hours reading, writing more, spending unpressured time with my wife and family, seeing friends, engaging with my interests, and feeling grateful that I’ve lived as long as I have with the hope that I have many more years ahead.