Saturday, October 8, 2011

Will it be same old, same old or will we have the courage to change?

Okay, we've done it. We had the new year and we had Yom Kippur, and now all we have left of the Tishrei holidays are Succot and Simchat Torah. I certainly don't mean to belittle these holidays; they are full of tradition and we feel their presence throughout the country. We also still have a lot of vacation time, due to these holidays. But at this point we are no longer wishing one another a good and sweet new year, but have rather moved into the new year, and begin taking it for granted.

                                       a really modern and nice Sukka - סוכה

So this means that we have to actually DO some of things we said we were aiming for: like trying to be a better person, like working at not causing harm to others, and like trying to really bring about the health and the peace we said we wanted to see.

Okay, that's a bit harder than just wishing for it, or saying the nice platitudes to your family, friends and colleagues. The words come easily enough, but the actions...? That's another story.

In social psychology there is a concept known as diffusion of responsibility. Many people like this, because it gets them off the hook. Diffusion of responsibility means that when there is a group of people, and someone needs help (for instance, you are in your apartment and you hear a woman screaming for help), no one helps, since everyone assumes that someone else will come to the rescue. 

If we continue with the example of the woman in desparate need of help, since your apartment is just one of many in a high rise building, you assume that someone else will help, and so you do nothing. And that's the problem; EVERYONE is doing the same - that is nothing - since everyone is sure that someone else will call for help. The often tragic end result is that the woman is found injured, or worse, later on.

People don't shirk responsibility because they are inherently cruel or evil (at least most people aren't), but because of at least 4 reasons: (1) it's hard to get involved - it takes time and energy; (2) it's not always clear if there is a real need for help, or if it will pass; (3) aiding someone else may cause us to  fear for our own safety, and we instinctively first take care of ourselves; (4) in individualistic societies (thank heavens not all societies are so individualistic and there are collectivistic societies where people really do care more for one another), we are taught to mind our own business. And so we do just that, even if means that someone else is being harmed.

Diffusion of responsibility doesn't mesh well with all of those great new years blessings and wishes for peace and social justice and a year of significance and goodness if you don't care for one another, and if you don't help one another. It's hard to work for peace and social justice and goodness if you ignore cries for help, continue to be blind to oppression and suffering, and assume that someone else (Obama? The Quartet? The UN?) will step in and do what needs to be done.

We can continue with the same same old, same old, or we can have the courage to change, to take responsibility, and to worry less about how much time/money/energy it will cost (it will cost us something), if the one who cries for help is really in danger (they are), if it may put us in some danger (it might) and if we should mind our own business (we shouldn't).

The same old same old has proven to be toxic. It takes some courage to change, but there is hope that if we do dare to change, our new year may really bring us - all of us - some more health and goodness.

Thank goodness for that.

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