Full text of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ talk: How We Can Face The Future Without Fear, Together at TED conference.
Best quote from this talk:
“When we have too much of the “I” and too little of the “we,” we can find ourselves vulnerable, fearful and alone.”
Listen to the MP3 Audio here:
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks – former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth
“These are the times,” said Thomas Paine, “that try men’s souls.” And they’re trying ours now.
This is a fateful moment in the history of the West. We’ve seen divisive elections and divided societies. We’ve seen a growth of extremism in politics and religion, all of it fueled by anxiety, uncertainty and fear, of a world that’s changing almost faster than we can bear, and the sure knowledge that it’s going to change faster still.
I have a friend in Washington. I asked him, what was it like being in America during the recent presidential election? He said to me, “Well, it was like the man sitting on the deck of the Titanic with a glass of whiskey in his hand and he’s saying, ‘I know I asked for ice — but this is ridiculous.'”
So is there something we can do, each of us, to be able to face the future without fear?
I think there is. And one way into it is to see that perhaps the most simple way into a culture and into an age is to ask: What do people worship?
People have worshipped so many different things — the sun, the stars, the storm. Some people worship many gods, some one, some none.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, people worshipped the nation, the Aryan race, the communist state.
What do we worship?
I think future anthropologists will take a look at the books we read on self-help, self-realization, self-esteem. They’ll look at the way we talk about morality as being true to oneself, the way we talk about politics as a matter of individual rights, and they’ll look at this wonderful new religious ritual we have created.
You know the one? Called the “selfie.”
And I think they’ll conclude that what we worship in our time is the self, the me, the I.
And this is great. It’s liberating. It’s empowering. It’s wonderful. But don’t forget that biologically, we’re social animals. We’ve spent most of our evolutionary history in small groups. We need those face-to-face interactions where we learn the choreography of altruism and where we create those spiritual goods like friendship and trust and loyalty and love that redeem our solitude.
When we have too much of the “I” and too little of the “we,” we can find ourselves vulnerable, fearful and alone.
It was no accident that Sherry Turkle of MIT called the book she wrote on the impact of social media “Alone Together.“
So I think the simplest way of safeguarding the future “you” is to strengthen the future “us” in three dimensions: the us of relationship, the us of identity and the us of responsibility.
So let me first take the us of relationship. And here, forgive me if I get personal. Once upon a time, a very long time ago, I was a 20-year-old undergraduate studying philosophy. I was into Nietzsche and Schopenhauer and Sartre and Camus. I was full of ontological uncertainty and existential angst. It was terrific.
I was self-obsessed and thoroughly unpleasant to know, until one day I saw across the courtyard a girl who was everything that I wasn’t. She radiated sunshine. She emanated joy. I found out her name was Elaine. We met. We talked. We married.
And 47 years, three children and eight grandchildren later, I can safely say it was the best decision I ever took in my life, because it’s the people not like us that make us grow.
And that is why I think we have to do just that. The trouble with Google filters, Facebook friends and reading the news by narrowcasting rather than broadcasting means that we’re surrounded almost entirely by people like us whose views, whose opinions, whose prejudices, even, are just like ours.
And Cass Sunstein of Harvard has shown that if we surround ourselves with people with the same views as us, we get more extreme.
I think we need to renew those face-to-face encounters with the people not like us. I think we need to do that in order to realize that we can disagree strongly and yet still stay friends.
It’s in those face-to-face encounters that we discover that the people not like us are just people, like us. And actually, every time we hold out the hand of friendship to somebody not like us, whose class or creed or color are different from ours, we heal one of the fractures of our wounded world. That is the us of relationship.