Ashley pointed out yesterday that I use a lot of “shoulds.”  It’s hard to know what to do with that, other than to tell myself that I “shouldn’t” use them, which is just another “should.”  I always wonder how people without shoulds avoid being bad people and just acting hedonistically.  Donald Trump, for example, clearly does not have many “shoulds” in his brain, and I don’t want to end up like him.  Serial killers like Ted Bundy also come to mind.  Maybe there’s a model for people who don’t have “shoulds,” but who aren’t total narcissists or psychopaths.  I think Orthodox Judaism does involve a lot of “shoulds.”  Maybe I could talk to my rabbi mentor about this, but I’ve been avoiding him since I became worried (on slender evidence, I must admit) that I had upset him.

***

My fear that I’ve upset my rabbi mentor may be more evidence that my social anxiety has got worse during lockdown.  Obviously there’s social anxiety in the obvious sense of worrying about saying the wrong thing, but also there’s a feeling of inadequacy, that I can’t give people what they want.  I emailed some friends this week to try to work on my loneliness, and they emailed back, but I felt strong feelings of my not being “good enough” to deserve a response, in some vaguely-defined way.  That sounds like a grey area between social anxiety and low self-esteem.

***

I did a little work on my novel, but quickly became stuck.  I went for a walk and thought about what I was writing and decided to change my plans a bit, but I worry that this chapter is going to be short, and I was already worried that some of the later chapters are going to be short.  I hope I don’t run out of story before I reach the minimum word count.

***

Depressing thought for the day (non-mental health related): I saw a Tweet thread from a teacher who asked his students what side they would think of slavery if they had lived in the Antebellum South in the USA.  They said they would all be abolitionists.  He was trying to teach them that they probably would at least passively accept slavery, because they would have values and ethics conditioned by the society they lived in and would be wary of exposing themselves and their families to scorn, social ostracism and possibly violence by supporting radical minority opinions like abolitionism.  Although the thread did not say this, in fact, most European liberals in the 1860s wanted the South to win the Civil War, despite not even coming from slave-owning societies.  This was because the war was widely seen as being about a tyrannical central government restricting states’ rights, rather than about slavery.  Our perspective on the war (that it was a moral fight against slavery) is arguably simply the perspective of the victors, and not even all of them (even Lincoln spent the early part of the war insisting it was being fought to save the Union, not to end slavery).

One could pick many societies to play this game with e.g. Nazi Germany or the USSR.  There’s a famous story by Ursula K. Le Guin called The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, about a utopian society called Omelas that exists in complete bliss for all, except that one small child must be kept in misery and degradation to prevent the society falling into anarchy.  Most people accept this; only a few are the titular ones who walk away from Omelas, preferring an uncertain future of exile to condoning such a situation.  (The idea is also found in Dostoyevski’s The Brothers Karamazov and William James.)

This is something I’ve often thought about.  How can I tell I’m not making morally wrong decisions or passively supporting immoral actions that are so “normal” that I don’t even think about them?  In fact, I probably am, on some level.  I’m semi-vegetarian (I only eat meat on Shabbat and Yom Tov (Sabbaths and festivals)) and I do think of going fully vegetarian or even vegan because industrial meat production is so cruel to animals (I don’t think eating meat is wrong per se, just that we should treat the animals more humanely before slaughter).  It’s a tough choice.  Then there’s the fact that a lot of our goods come from developing world countries where people are paid very little for their labour; in terms of cotton, there’s a real issue over actual slavery in some cotton-producing countries.  However, boycotting these countries would harm the poor of those countries much more than the rich and powerful, so how can we protest effectively?  Once you start thinking things through, it can be hard to know what workable solutions exist (unworkable solutions are much easier…  abolish this or that Bad Thing without wondering what the consequences will be).

I do have some minority beliefs that I would characterise as moral beliefs that most people disagree with (i.e. they see my unusual viewpoint as the immoral one, whereas I would see their dominant one as immoral, or at least mistaken), most of which I don’t talk about because I am conflict-avoidant.  I do sometimes wonder if I should “stand up and be counted” for them more.

It is scary to think that I am wrong about some of my core beliefs (I’m not talking just about ethical beliefs now, but general religious, political, social etc. beliefs), although doubtless I am.  It’s scarier to think that our society as a whole is wrong about major things and we’re all too close to see it.  I have often wondered what people will think of our society in a few decades’, or centuries’, time.  One wonders what statues our great-grandchildren will pull down.

On the other hand, it’s possible that I spend too much of my ruminating on unanswerable questions and expecting an impossible degree of moral perfection for myself…

12 thoughts on “Walking Away from Omelas

  1. This is a fascinating an thought-provoking post, and parts of it would make a great article in a newspaper or journal. On my own walk, I will be searching through my own biases, especially trying to figure out my unconscious ones.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s not surprising that you hold onto your shoulds tightly if you treat them as necessary to avoid being a bad person, whatever a bad person is. The average mentally well person isn’t carrying around a bucketload of shoulds. Values prevent people from doing “bad” things; should just hold people back from living.

    As an example of what I mean about shoulds vs. values, Torah study is clearly something that you value. But you seem to have a lot of shoulds around some unspecified and likely unattainable amount of time that you “should” do to be “good enough.” As a result, it seems like each day, rather than the focus being on having done something value-aligned, the focus is on a failure to have done what you “should” have done. And my guess would be that the actual time learning Torah is less fulfilling when it’s getting buried under shoulds.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, my value isn’t that I should do some unspecified amount a day. I wouldn’t see it as being in line with my values if I did two minutes, unless I was exceptionally depressed that day.

      There is a concept of fixing a set time for Torah study each day too, where actually setting a time is a part of the value.

      EDIT: sorry if that sounded blunt. I didn’t mean to. I would like to get rid of some shoulds, but I struggle to see how I can.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. If you believe that shoulds are serving you, then you’re probably not going to come up with ways to get rid of them. I guess the question to consider, though, is whether or not what you’re doing is actually working for you. Because change of any kind isn’t going to happen without first considering that question.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I guess I find it hard to focus on connection rather than the minutiae of the mitzvah.

          My shul is a Federation shul, although there is another one nearby that I’ve never been to. My shul was originally independent, then joined the Federation about five or six years ago, about a year before I started going.

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          1. I like Rabbi R who is a rabbi in one of them.

            I get it. It’s a fault in the education system. Really the details are there too for connection. The purpose of everything is to give a path (halacha means way) to connect, to unify, with infinity. Mitzvah, tzav, means connection.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Thanks. I don’t want to blame the education system too much, because I think some of it is me. On an intellectual level I am aware of what you say, it’s just hard to connect emotionally because of my depression.

              Liked by 1 person

  3. Re: Shoulds — We all have our inner “shoulds” because we all have consciences. It’s just that some of us have over-active consciences, a chronic sense of inadequacy and consequently easily become tormented by guilt. Agree it is very hard to get this right. Turning from looking inward at your own (real or imagined) sin/inadequacies, to outwards to God’s love and mercy can be a start.

    ‘How can I tell I’m not making morally wrong decisions or passively supporting immoral actions that are so “normal” that I don’t even think about them?’ You cannot. I believe God judges our hearts (consciences) and he does not judge as we judge. It is impossible to live in this world and not be part of some chain of evil. All of our sin starts in our minds. It can therefore be a relief to just accept this and stop looking inwards at ourselves but outwards towards God’s grace. He is not primarily looking for good works; he desires “mercy not sacrifice.” (Hosea 6:6; Psalm 61 16-17). This is the core of Christianity but its origins can be found in Judaism.

    ‘I do have some minority beliefs that I would characterise as moral beliefs that most people disagree with.’ You might be surprised how many deep and original thinkers will agree with you. We are all too afraid to challenge the prevailing dominant culture which tears apart those who do not fall in line. Hope you will test the waters here a little bit …

    ‘One wonders what statues our great-grandchildren will pull down.’
    You cannot judge one generation by the standards of another. And there is a myth that we are progressing. We are not. There may be technological progress but human nature remains fallen. Indeed, we are very likely to be getting worse (as indicated in biblical prophecy about the end times ).

    “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” – I would like to read this. Thanks for mentioning.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I definitely have an over-active conscience!

    In Judaism God IS looking primarily for good works though. This is one of the major divergences between Judaism and Christianity.

    I don’t know if we’re getting worse, but I definitely struggle to see much moral improvement in mankind.

    The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas is in the short story collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters

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