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.
Second is the us of identity. Let me give you a thought experiment.
Have you been to Washington? Have you seen the memorials? Absolutely fascinating. There’s the Lincoln Memorial: Gettysburg Address on one side, Second Inaugural on the other. You go to the Jefferson Memorial, screeds of text. Martin Luther King Memorial, more than a dozen quotes from his speeches.
I didn’t realize, in America you read memorials.
Now go to the equivalent in London in Parliament Square and you will see that the monument to David Lloyd George contains three words: David Lloyd George. Nelson Mandela gets two. Churchill gets just one: Churchill.
Why the difference?
I’ll tell you why the difference. Because America was from the outset a nation of wave after wave of immigrants, so it had to create an identity which it did by telling a story which you learned at school, you read on memorials and you heard repeated in presidential inaugural addresses.
Britain until recently wasn’t a nation of immigrants, so it could take identity for granted. The trouble is now that two things have happened which shouldn’t have happened together.
The first thing is in the West we’ve stopped telling this story of who we are and why, even in America. And at the same time, immigration is higher than it’s ever been before.
So when you tell a story and your identity is strong, you can welcome the stranger, but when you stop telling the story, your identity gets weak and you feel threatened by the stranger. And that’s bad.
I tell you, Jews have been scattered and dispersed and exiled for 2,000 years. We never lost our identity. Why? Because at least once a year, on the festival of Passover, we told our story and we taught it to our children and we ate the unleavened bread of affliction and tasted the bitter herbs of slavery. So we never lost our identity.
I think collectively we’ve got to get back to telling our story, who we are, where we came from, what ideals by which we live. And if that happens, we will become strong enough to welcome the stranger and say, “Come and share our lives, share our stories, share our aspirations and dreams.”
That is the us of identity.
And finally, the us of responsibility. Do you know something? My favorite phrase in all of politics, very American phrase, is: “We the people.”
Why “we the people?” Because it says that we all share collective responsibility for our collective future. And that’s how things really are and should be.
Have you noticed how magical thinking has taken over our politics?
So we say, all you’ve got to do is elect this strong leader and he or she will solve all our problems for us. Believe me, that is magical thinking.
And then we get the extremes: the far right, the far left, the extreme religious and the extreme anti-religious, the far right dreaming of a golden age that never was, the far left dreaming of a utopia that never will be and the religious and anti-religious equally convinced that all it takes is God or the absence of God to save us from ourselves.
That, too, is magical thinking, because the only people who will save us from ourselves is we the people, all of us together.
And when we do that, and when we move from the politics of me to the politics of all of us together, we rediscover those beautiful, counterintuitive truths: that a nation is strong when it cares for the weak, that it becomes rich when it cares for the poor, it becomes invulnerable when it cares about the vulnerable.
That is what makes great nations.
So here is my simple suggestion. It might just change your life, and it might just help to begin to change the world.
Do a search and replace operation on the text of your mind, and wherever you encounter the word “self,” substitute the word “other.”
So instead of self-help, other-help; instead of self-esteem, other-esteem. And if you do that, you will begin to feel the power of what for me is one of the most moving sentences in all of religious literature.
“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
We can face any future without fear so long as we know we will not face it alone.
So for the sake of the future “you,” together let us strengthen the future “us.”