Moving on to new ways of doing things is not easy. Habit and routine are comfortable and allow us to know what to expect. Since there is so much that we can’t foresee in our lives, predictable work allows us some measure of the stability that we commonly prefer.
It is true that too much routine can be smothering and create tremendous ennui, but almost no one would want to live a life completely devoid of schedule, where each meal would be eaten at a different time and every day would bring an expectation to perform a completely unfamiliar task. At the same time, too much of our lives are determined by inertia. We do things because we have done them in the past and they have provided us some measure of satisfaction. There is wisdom to the idea of not fixing something that is not broken, but there is even more wisdom in continuing to think about new possibilities.
Those who, like myself, question the political order of Western democracies are often met with the supposedly irrefutable question, “Isn’t it better than anything else we have had up until now?” I usually respond, “Does that mean that nothing better can ever exist in the future?” Perhaps perfection will one day come but, until that time, mankind owes it to itself to keep thinking.
Indeed, this is the gist of R. Baruch haLevi Epstein’s comment about the importance of death, saying that leaving the same people around eternally would lead to stagnation. People are comfortable with what they have known for a long time and at some point stop thinking creatively. At that point, there is a need for a new generation, less used to that situation, and, hence, more willing to think about new ways of doing things.
Even creative writing can become not so creative. In commercial terms, a writer who has found receptivity to a certain work will often reproduce the same thing many times over simply because he knows that it will meet with success. In one of rock music’s most brutally honest lyrics, The Who sang, “I write the same old song with a few new lines and everybody wants to cheer it” – commercial success often comes at the price of creative waste.
Indeed, one of the key lessons of this time of year is actually to know when to move on. We are bidden to not get overly comfortable even with the patterns that bring us reasonable success. For we too often forget that the season of repentance is not only about things we have done wrong – sins of commission – but perhaps even more about coming to terms with not having done things better – sins of omission. We are willing to stick with “good enough,” especially if it is better than the past. According to the insight of R. Epstein above, this is a sure way to be slated for death. And should God choose to spare us, hoping that we still have something new and better to give, that opportunity is not granted forever.
In the past, I have written that creativity – that is to say, the willingness to chart a new path – is the very essence of man. These new paths, however, need not be so dramatic – it is sometimes the question of a broader smile, a warmer greeting or a new way of relating to a particular problem or opportunity. Neither do we need to improve everything all at once. But too often, we pass over the very things that we have the greatest chance of successfully improving, claiming that in this area of my life, things are good enough.
As we approach Yom Kippur, it is time for us to think creatively about what we can do better. It may literally be a choice between life and death.Rabbi Francis Nataf