Driving in any unfamiliar city can be daunting, disorienting, and disconcerting. Driving in a foreign country can be downright dyspeptic. Driving in Israel can be a flirtation with catastrophe.
In some ways it’s better than it used to be. Traffic has gotten so dense that drivers simply cannot indulge the reckless habits that once prevailed. It’s hard to bob and weave when your car is stuck in gridlock.
But when the traffic starts moving, the experience can be harrowing, made all the more stressful as you try to find your way along unfamiliar boulevards and position yourself to make quick turns with little notice.
Thank goodness for Waze.
Just plug in your destination, follow the directions, and voila! Oh, sure, we made a few wrong turns, but even then Waze got us right back on track.
Most of the time.
You see, every once in awhile, whether because of transliteration problems from Hebrew into English or for reasons incomprehensible to a Luddite like myself, the destination simply refused to appear on the screen. When that happened, we were dead on the highway.
But we always managed to find our ways in the end, and the advantages far outweighed the deficiencies.
At least, that’s what I thought at first. But after a few days, I noticed that my wife — who had the good sense to leave all the driving to me — was telling me which way to go moments before I heard the same instructions from the polite voice of the GPS. After travelling many of the same routes to and from our rented apartment, my wife had learned her way around from the passenger seat while I had given myself over so completely to the computer that I was utterly lost if left to my own devices.
VICTIMS OF OUR OWN DESIGN
When Johannes Gutenberg introduced the world to moveable type in 1439, intellectuals lamented the inevitable death of scholarship. It was only a matter of time, they predicted, until people would come to rely so totally upon the written word that they would neglect the real acquisition of knowledge, which is the foundation of wisdom. The prophets of doom, were wrong; but they were also right.
In May 2010, media outlets reported that John Basinger of Middletown, CT, had memorized John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. It had taken the 76-year-old stage actor eight years to master the 60,000 word classic, which he subsequently rendered from the stage.
Once upon a time, such a feat would have been considered unremarkable, even pedestrian. Even after Gutenberg, scholars commonly committed whole volumes to memory. Jewish scholars used to play a game identifying words and passages from each successive page of their massive tomes; this was not a sign of intellectual greatness, merely refined entertainment. Nowadays, such cognitive prowess is not only unknown but unimaginable.
One might legitimately wonder whether technology is a metaphysical response to mankind’s diminishing capacity, or whether our dependence upon every new technology is responsible for our intellectual decline. Either way, there is no denying that dependence on technology begets ever greater dependence.
None of which presents a serious problem until our battery dies or the grid goes down. When that happens, our inability to cope on our own leaves us crippled, if not paralyzed. We don’t need a dog to eat our homework anymore. A malfunctioning cell tower or a faulty modem is ample excuse for any failure.
THE WAZE OF THE WORLD
There may be a more positive lesson in all this, however. Just like some people are born with a natural sense of direction, almost everyone is born with a natural sense of moral direction. This is commonly referred to as our conscience, the inner arbiter of right and wrong, the angelic figure hovering over one shoulder, the pang of guilt we feel when we cross over the dividing line between what we want to do and what we ought to do.
But where does conscience come from? Why does one person’s conscience steer him in a different direction from another’s? And why do we find it so difficult to follow where our conscience wants to lead us?
Sigmund Freud famously divided the human psyche into three components. The id is the sense of self, the seat of survival instincts, personal desire, and immediate physical gratification. The ego is our concern for how we are seen by others, for social acceptance, for power and influence. The superego is the conscience, forever embattled trying to rein in the other two impulses and keep them on the straight and narrow.
According to talmudic tradition, the drive for physical gratification is a function of the body, while the impulse for social gratification is a function of the mind. And what of the conscience? It is a function of the soul.
But what is the soul? It is the divine spark that elevates human beings above all other creatures, that inspires us to strive for purpose in our lives and nobility in our conduct, that makes each and every one of us a unique creation, even identical twins who share the same genetics and environmental experiences. It is the conduit between our ethereal selves and our animal selves, the message center for receiving guidance from a higher plain of existence for harnessing our baser instincts.
In short, the conscience is our spiritual GPS, our universal guidance system for living meaningful and moral lives.
And just like the GPS that tells us which street or avenue to follow, so too the prompting of the soul can become weakened when we don’t update the software, when we travel into dead zones, when we lower the volume, or when we turn it off altogether.
So here are three simple tips for keeping the voice of our conscience clear.
Start with authority. If we go to experts for medical advice, legal advice, and auto service advice, why do we assume that we are experts when it comes to moral and spiritual well-being? Throughout the ages, purveyors of wisdom have pondered the definitions of good and evil, attempting to aid those of us who follow them to find our way. So don’t try to go it on your own, and beware of charlatans who espouse virtue for the advancement of their own agendas. As Isaac Newton said, If I have seen farther, it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants.
The mind and the heart are often in conflict. Generally speaking, the mind is a more reliable adviser than the heart. But that’s only generally speaking. Human capacity for rationalization is limitless, and we are exceptionally talented at finding reasons for what we want to do and ignoring that inner voice whispering that something may not be a very good idea. So we have to do our best to evaluate our actions before we act, to re-evaluate them after we’ve acted so we can be better prepared for the future, and to continually re-evaluate as long as the head and the heart remain at odds with one another.
The majority is not always right. The world is flat. The sun revolves around the earth. Man is not meant to fly. These were all once popular ideas, along with all kinds of beliefs contrary to modern sensibilities concerning equality and justice. Just because a belief is widely held does not make it right. In fact, the less willing people are to question or debate their own beliefs, the more reason there is to fear that their reasoning may be flawed.
No one ever said it was easy to do the right thing. But the harder we try, the better we will become. And the better we become, the better effect we will have on the world we live in.
Rabbi Yonason Goldson is a professional speaker and trainer. He draws upon his experiences as a hitchhiker, circumnavigator, newspaper columnist, high school teacher, and talmudic scholar to teach practical strategies for enhancing communication, ethical conduct, and personal achievement. He is the author of Proverbial Beauty: Secrets for Success and Happiness from the Wisdom of the Ages. Visit him at yonasongoldson.com