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Know Your Limits

An Old Prayer

Lord, grant me strength to change what I can change,

courage to accept what I cannot change,

and the wisdom to discern between them.


But we are not the only ones who suffer when our freedom is taken. There isn’t a single creature that can be captured without a struggle. It is an inherent, natural trait to object to any form of subjugation. Nevertheless, even if we understand that all creatures deserve to be free, it doesn’t guarantee that we understand what being free really means or if, and how, it is connected to the process of correcting humanity’s egoism.

If we honestly ask ourselves about the meaning of freedom, we’re likely to discover that very little of our present thoughts about it will still hold when we’re finished asking. So before we can talk about freedom, we must know what it really means to be free.

To see if we understand freedom, we must look within ourselves to see if we are capable of even one free and voluntary act. Because our will to receive constantly grows, we are always urged to find better and more rewarding ways to live. But because we are locked in a rat race, we have no choice in this matter.

On the other hand, if our will to receive is the cause of all this trouble, maybe there’s a way to control it. If we could do so, perhaps we could control the whole race. Otherwise, without this control, the game would appear to be lost before it’s even been played.

But if we are the losers, then who’s the winner? With whom (or what) are we competing? We go about our business as though events depend on our decisions. But do they really? Wouldn’t it be better to give up trying to change our lives and just go with the flow?

On the one hand, we’ve just said that Nature objects to any subjugation. But on the other hand, Nature doesn’t show us which, if any of our actions is free, and where we are lured by an invisible Puppet Master into thinking we are free.

Moreover, if Nature works according to a Master Plan, could these questions and uncertainties be part of the scheme? Perhaps there’s an ulterior reason that makes us feel lost and confused. Maybe confusion and disillusionment are the Puppet Master’s way of telling us, “Hey, take another look at where you’re all going, because if you’re looking for Me, you’re looking in the wrong direction.”

Few will deny that we are, indeed, disoriented. However, to determine our direction, we have to know where to start looking. This can save us years of futile efforts. The first thing we want to find is where we have free and independent choice, and where we don’t. Once we realize this, we will know where we should concentrate our efforts.

The Reins of Life

The whole of Nature obeys only one law: “The Law of P leasure and Pain.” If the only substance in Creation is the will to receive pleasure, then only one rule of behavior is required: attraction to pleasure and rejection from pain.

We humans are no exception to the rule. We follow a preinstalled design that entirely dictates our every move: we want to receive the most, and work the least. And if possible, we want it all for free! Therefore, in everything we do, even when we are not aware of it, we always try to choose pleasure and avoid pain.

Even when it seems as if we’re sacrificing ourselves, we’re actually receiving more pleasure from the “sacrifice” than from any other option we can think of at that moment. And the reason we deceive ourselves into thinking we have altruistic motives is because deceiving ourselves is more fun than telling ourselves the truth. As Agnes Repplier once put it, “There are few nudities so objectionable as the naked truth.”

In Chapter Three we said that Phase Two gives, even though it is actually motivated by the same will to receive as in Phase One. This is the root of every “altruistic” action we “bestow” upon each other.

We see how everything we do follows a “calculation of profitability.” For example, I calculate the price of a commodity compared to the prospective benefit from getting it. If I think that the pleasure (or lack of pain) from having the commodity will be greater than the price I must pay, I will tell my “inner broker”: “Buy! Buy! Buy!” turning the lights green across my mental Wall Street board.

We can change our priorities, adopt different values of good and bad, and even “train” ourselves to become fearless. Moreover, we can make a goal so important in our eyes that any hardship on the way to achieving it would become meaningless, intangible.

If, for example, I want the social status and good wages associated with being a famous physician, I will strain, sweat, and toil for years in medical school and live through several more years of sleep deprivation during internship, hoping it will eventually pay off in fame and fortune.

Sometimes the calculation of immediate pain for future gain is so natural, we don’t even notice we’re doing it. For example, if I became terribly ill and discovered that only a specific surgery could save my life, I would gladly have the operation. Because even though the operation itself might be very unpleasant and could pose risks of its own, it is not as threatening as my illness. In some cases I would even pay considerable sums to put myself through the ordeal.

Changing Society to Change Myself

Nature didn’t only “sentence” us to a constant escape from suffering, and a continual pursuit of pleasure, it also denied us the ability to determine the kind of pleasure we want. In other words, we can’t control what we want, and desires pop up within us without forewarning and without asking our opinion in the matter.

Yet, Nature not only created our desires, it also provided us with a way to control them. If we remember that we are all parts of the same soul, that of Adam ha Rishon, it will be easy for us to see that the way to control our own desires is by affecting the whole soul, meaning humanity, or at least a part of it.

Let’s look at it this way: If a single cell wanted to go left, but the rest of the body wanted to go right, the cell would have to go right, too. That is, unless it convinced the whole body, or an overwhelming majority of the cells, or the body’s “government,” that it was better to go left.

So even though we can’t control our own desires, society can and does control them. And because we can control our choice of society, we can choose the kind of society that will affect us in the way we think is best. Put simply, we can use social influences to control our own desires. And by controlling our desires, we’ll control our thoughts and ultimately, our actions.

The Book of Zohar, almost two thousand years ago, had already described the importance of society. But since the 20th century, when it became obvious that we are dependent on each other for survival, effectively utilizing our societal dependency has become vital for spiritual progress. The paramount importance of society is a message that Kabbalist Yehuda Ashlag makes very clear in many of his essays, and if we follow his line of thought we will understand why.

Ashlag says that everyone’s greatest wish, whether one admits it or not, is to be liked by others and to win their approval. It not only gives us a sense of confidence, but affirms our most precious possession—our ego. Without society’s approval, we feel that our very existence is ignored, and no ego can tolerate denial. This is why people often go to extremes to win others’ attention.

And because our greatest wish is to win society’s approval, we are compelled to adapt to (and adopt) the laws of our environment. These laws determine not only our behavior, but design our attitude and approach to everything we do and think.

This situation makes us unable to choose anything—from the way we live, to our interests, to how we spend our free time, and even to the food we eat and the clothes we wear. Moreover, even when we choose to dress contrary to fashion or regardless of it, we are still (trying to be) indifferent to a certain social code that we have chosen to ignore. In other words, if the fashion we’ve chosen to ignore hadn’t existed, we wouldn’t have had to ignore it and would probably have chosen a different dress code. Ultimately, the only way to change ourselves is to change the social norms of our environment.

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