The Urgent Question: Who Am I?

Yogi Bera once said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” That has not stopped innumerable people, from all walks of life, from predicting what the future will be for our children when they are grown. A day doesn’t go by where you can’t find an article about the future workforce or articles that question the very status of our economies and political and religious structures in the future.

Yogi Bera, in his own legendary logic, was right. We are bombarded with information, and misinformation. It is nearly impossible to discern what matters, what is true, relevant or potentially impactful. At best we can accept the idea that change will continue to accelerate, because we are experiencing rapid change now with no slowing in sight. We can’t know what the future structures of our societies may look like or the impact of any potential economic shift both in the United States or globally. And we can’t know, with the rise of totalitarianism across the globe, what it means for Western democracies.

In addition, we are under constant bombardment about what we should want, what we should think, and what we should believe. Amazon, Facebook, and Google are all vying for our time and attention – prodding us to focus on ourselves, to become more self-absorbed about what we should want and need, and that we are entitled to it immediately with one click. Algorithms are designed to watch our online behavior, and try to influence our choices of what to read, think, and buy. Big data has the potential to know us better than we know ourselves.

The truth is that the world is always constantly changing, and it is human nature to think the best is behind us. However, if you take the time to research the actual data, you will learn that it has never been a better time to be alive! Poverty is going down globally each and every day, as is illiteracy. There is less war than in any time in our history, and here at home, violent crime is lower than historical averages.  Paraphrasing the historian Jon Meacham, the only time worse than now, in our history, is every time before now! Yet, all of the changes and uncertainties that we are experiencing in this era are real, and they can leave us feeling unsettled.

It is inevitable that our concerns spill into our schools. The anxiety adults feel results in the expectation that children need to learn “more,” and take in more data and information than ever before.  But what good is all of the data and information that students are exposed to if they have little to no ability to make meaning of it all, or use it to build a quality and meaningful future?

To make sense of their world, it is essential that our children learn to think critically, and to be able to discern the myriad of information that comes their way. And, maybe most of all, they must learn to be able to answer the urgent question, “Who am I?” in order to make grounded decisions.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and other thought leaders speak of this urgent question as the fundamental problem that we need to address for our children to live successfully in a world of uncertainty and rapid change.

In this century, children need to learn who they are, and what they want, in order to navigate successfully our very complex society. They must learn to think flexibly, adapt to the changing currents, and build emotional stability. The best way for children to learn who they are is to live according to their values. Values help us to keep our equilibrium, and to create borders around that which are contrary to our beliefs and principles. Values and ethics help us to block out the noise!

We learn best about who we are and what we value through stories, and both our Jewish and American traditions are framed in compelling and value-laden stories. The American story focuses on the ideals of freedom, equality, happiness, and self-determination. Our Jewish stories focuses on the responsibilities that come with freedom, our obligation to be God’s partner in building a more perfect world though helping others, and taking care of what we have. Judaism emphasizes the place for gratitude in our daily lives, and being the best person we can be based on the values that were gifted to us. These two narratives, American and Jewish, link us to the past, inform our present, and obligate us for the future.

Rabbi Sacks, in his book on ethics, quotes the philosopher Alasdair Macintyre, who wrote, “I can only answer the question, ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question, ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part of?’ Deprive children of their stories and you leave them anxious stutterers in their action as in their words.” Our stories answer the question, who am I?

Your children will be more than ready for their unknowable future as long as the adults in their lives are as concerned about prioritizing the teaching of our two great stories and how to live by them, as they are with teaching everyday skills. The traditional skills taught at school are very important and necessary for their future. Teaching children their stories, and how to make meaning in their lives from these stories is priceless — and will best prepare them for whatever they will encounter as they journey through their lives now and as adults.  I know with certainty that only schools like Hillel can give our children both.


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