Ethical will: Curiosity and mistakes

In Pirkei Avot (Chapters of the Fathers) 2:6, the great Hillel is quoted as follows:

הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אֵין בּוּר יְרֵא חֵטְא, וְלֹא עַם הָאָרֶץ חָסִיד, וְלֹא הַבַּיְשָׁן לָמֵד, וְלֹא הַקַּפְּדָן מְלַמֵּד, וְלֹא כָל הַמַּרְבֶּה בִסְחוֹרָה מַחְכִּים. וּבְמָקוֹם שֶׁאֵין אֲנָשִׁים, הִשְׁתַּדֵּל לִהְיוֹת אִישׁ: He used to say: A brute is not sin-fearing, nor is an ignorant person pious; nor can a timid person learn, nor can an impatient person teach; nor will someone who engages too much in business become wise. And in a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.

The most famous section of that Mishnah is surely the last line:

In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.

However, for my purposes right now, I’ll focus on the line I highlighted:

Nor can a timid person learn.

I suppose that for the purposes of an ethical will I could simply stop here because this concept is so very uncomplicated, but I have what to say about Papa in this context.

* * *

For some reason, I don’t have many lucid memories of my childhood, as some do. My wife, for example, has a fantastic memory, and she remembers events from her early years in fairly high resolution. Still, hazy recollections of mine do remain, and snippets have increasingly been coming back over these last two years.

I’ve already mentioned that Papa had a computer at home for as long as I can remember. In the 80’s it was definitely not the norm to have a PC, although I don’t think I knew that as a child. For me, playing games on a computer was normal.

One of my early, hazy memories of Papa goes as follows:

For some reason or another we went together to a computer store. Most likely, he had to purchase some piece of equipment or software for himself, and I just happened to be along for the ride. At the store, there were some computers on display for customers to use, and I was curious so I went over to look at one of the machines and gingerly slid the mouse around to see the cursor move. I wanted to play with it further but was afraid that something might go wrong.

“Can I try it? I’m afraid to mess it up.”
“You should never be afraid of pushing buttons on a computer – there is nothing you can do to one of these machines that you won’t be able to undo. If you fear them, you will never learn to use them. Only by trial and error can you gain knowledge.”

* * *

My five-year-old daughter knows the answer to the following question before she opens her mouth because we’ve had this very same exchange countless times. Still, she continues to ask me:

Abba’chka, I made a mistake, but that’s okay, right?
Yes, Dear, making mistakes is a good thing.
Why?
(she always asks this with such eager anticipation)
Because that’s the only way to learn. If you fear making mistakes, it will be very, very difficult for you to to discover more about the world around you.

* * *

Lastly, for now, I think it’s also important to underscore that we best serve ourselves in this world by approaching other human beings with genuine curiosity, rather than avoiding those who hold views that differ from our own.

People too have buttons, and one such button is the human inclination to talk about one’s self. If we approach others with a sincere desire for understanding, and if we are careful to use open-ended questions (rather than questions that only require short, simple answers), most people will be all too happy to respond.

Human beings, of course, are not computers… but kindness is the key.

Papa was genuinely curious to understand the people he differed with. I remember him proactively engaging ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem with questions while they were protesting against traffic on the Sabbath, querying animal rights activists in Tel Aviv as they campaigned for veganism…

Me, ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ 34, Mar. 10, 2019

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