The only thing I remember learning from my tenth-grade geometry teacher (who also happened to be in the Coast Guard) had nothing to do with math. Instead, it was this expression: LLSS – Loose Lips Sink Ships. It’s 40 years later and I still use this maxim often. When I was contemplating the idea of writing this piece, I had to lean into my very real fear of being canceled for whatever I might have to say on this controversial topic. I try to be a decent role model for my (now adult) children, and I always encourage them to do things that scare them, so I decided to go for it, even though it truly terrifies me.
The first soul trait we work on in the practice of Mussar is Humility. After more than 11 years of weekly practice with my Wexner Mussar-mates, this trait remains the one that I return to most often, whether or not we are actively working on it. In his book Everyday Holiness, Alan Morinis, the Founder of the Mussar Institute, creates his own definition of humility within the context of Mussar, and it has become somewhat of a mantra for me as I navigate through every aspect of my life. For Morinis, humility is “limiting oneself to an appropriate space while leaving room for others.” I’ve always struggled with the concept and reality of determining how much space I should occupy in a meeting, a conversation, or a relationship. My personal leadership style is one of an active, engaged listener. I tend to be quiet in most settings, until I feel the need or desire to add my voice to the discussion.
As an introvert, I’m typically content to let others do the talking; I don’t need to simply echo what someone else already said, or to insert myself into conversations to demonstrate my intellect. However, I am also a very authentic person and I typically say what I mean. People who know me understand this, and for better or worse, they know I’m going to be honest and often blunt. When I do speak up, I try to concisely convey my opinion or thoughts, and this sometimes includes pushing back on, or strongly disagreeing with another person. I try to do this respectfully, but that doesn’t mean my words won’t anger, upset, or even offend someone in that meeting, at that table, or in that Zoom room.
As a white, cisgender, admittedly privileged woman, I struggle with conflicted feelings over how much space I should claim. My female friends and colleagues discuss this dilemma often, because we’ve all experienced the very real construct of “mansplaining.” Sitting in a meeting and listening to someone repeat what you’ve just said, while acting as if it’s a new idea is maddening, but it happens often, and mainly to women or other marginalized people. Women walk a very fine line between being perceived as strong versus aggressive, or worse. Most of the time, I silently seethe, wondering if anyone else saw what just transpired. And then I have to make a choice: do I call out the behavior or let it go? I’m slowly starting to speak up in some instances, even though it is really uncomfortable and I worry how I’ll be judged. I constantly struggle to remind myself of my obligation and right to take up enough space.
Most of us are painfully aware of the negative effects of increasing polarization in our communities – locally, nationally, and globally. This issue is not new, but the election in 2016 definitely dragged our conflicts onto the center of the communal stage. In the years that followed, we’ve witnessed the consistent and sustained erosion of civil discourse. One example surfaced in the summer of 2020, when our Jewish community began to address systemic racism and our role in it. This difficult and painful reckoning requires a serious and sustained commitment to learning, listening, and ultimately, action. I’ve immersed myself in this work, and it is really challenging and hard. There have been many times over the last several months when I’ve been so uncomfortable in these spaces that I wanted to check out.
If I’m really being honest, it’s been a relief to disengage from many difficult communal conversations. For the past 18 months, I haven’t had to sit in a room with people whose beliefs are diametrically opposed to mine. On Zoom, I can turn off my camera and roll my eyes, mute myself and scream, or text a friend who shares my feelings. I’ve learned that a “direct” message on Zoom is not a “private” message, and that sometimes people accidentally send a message to everyone that is embarrassing or even hurtful. I’ve also seen how the chat box can be used as a space for bullying, especially when someone is being called-out for expressing what is deemed by another as “not woke enough” or simply wrong. All of these experiences evoke fear and distrust, rather than inspiring me to participate in discordant conversations. I find myself wondering often if some of these discussions are simply communal exercises in proving who is the most woke. It is unfortunate, because I know that many people are sincerely committed to social justice work and want to learn and grow, but we need to make space for mistakes and missteps, or people will be afraid to engage. I push myself to return to these virtual learning spaces because I want to help reimagine and rebuild our Jewish community, even if I often have to resist the urge to just hit the “leave meeting” button.
The process of re-entry into the real world as we slowly emerge from the surreal experience of a global pandemic is strange and fraught. Many times over the last few months, I’ve felt uncomfortable or unsure of how to act in social, professional, or communal settings. I have to re-learn how to behave in “polite society,” and maybe that’s not such a bad thing. I hope that in this process, I am brave enough to move beyond where I left off when we collectively retreated from the world in March of 2020.