William Hamilton

Self-evident truths

When the facts are so clear, why is it so hard to get somebody to affirm them? Jonathan Haidt offers an insight.  When you want to believe something, you ask “Can I?”  All you need is one instance where the answer is ‘yes’. Then every other counter-claim can be dismissed.  But when you don’t want to believe something, you ask “Must I?” And the answer is almost never ‘yes’.  It’s not that they have different facts.  It’s that they have different wants.

Of course our wants do evolve.  Experiences and relationships may awaken new perspectives and even stir us toward new goals.

A favorite illustration of this is found in one of this week’s portions of Torah. The foreign prophet Bilaam has grown irate.  The donkey on which he is riding is misbehaving.  A sword-bearing angel is visible to the donkey but invisible to the prophet.  Bilaam strikes and threatens further harm to the donkey.  Then the donkey wondrously replies,  “Behold, I am the reliable donkey on which you have been riding for years, ‘Am I in the habit of this sort of behavior? And the rider replies ‘No you’re not’”(Num. 22:30).

The question is brilliant.  It’s an invitation to revisit assumptions.  Is there more going on here?  Do I have all the relevant facts?  Sincerely asking, “Is this typical conduct for me?” can dramatically shift a perspective from conquest, “Don’t you see?!” to curiosity, “What don’t I see?”

On this Independence Day weekend, when Hamilton is released by the Disney Network whose animated films have brought us talking donkeys over the years, may we bring new curiosity to storytelling and self-evident truths. And may we draw added inspiration from A. O. Scott’s reminder of Hamilton’s faith “in the self-correcting potential of the American experiment.”

The next time you’re frustrated with a colleague, friend, or family member whose conduct seems erratic, try doing more than demanding their apology.  Ask, “Is this normal behavior for her or him?”

You may discover that shifting from righteous indignation to interested curiosity will be rewarded, and perhaps even returned to you in kind.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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