It was an amazing moment. When I glanced at Twitter that night, I saw the hashtag #nobillnobreak was trending, and leading everything else. I clicked on it and saw something about House Democrats holding a sit-in to force a vote to stop gun violence.
I flipped on the TV and on MSNBC, they made reference to something historic. I could tell by their tone that they were not exaggerating. I called upstairs to my teen daughter that something was happening, and she had to “get down here” to watch with me. She ran downstairs. She must have heard something in my voice; she’s a good kid but leaving behind whatever she was doing (probably involving her phone) to join dad is not a priority for her. She arrived just as they cut to video of the Democrats singing “We Shall Overcome.” It’s a song she’s heard me sing, albeit in much less earthshaking circumstances.
We sat together, two generations bonded by a historic moment … and watched. In the middle of it all was John Lewis. What an amazing man he is!! I was filled with admiration for him, not just because he is a civil rights icon, or because he inspired and led the Democratic Party to take a risky stand. Rather, I admire John Lewis because he is a Mensch, a person of impeccable character. Listening to him speak, I could see how he was motivated by a sacred respect for the Divine that exists within everyone.
I’m not sure those are the words he would use, but his reverence for human life, the dignified, respectful way that he addressed the reporters, was awe inspiring. He did not attack the Republicans, but spoke of the lives lost … and the imperative to take action.
Earlier in the week, it appeared that the House Democrats felt helpless and perhaps hopeless about the gun situation. Every attempt to pass even small steps to decrease the number of gun deaths have been met with staunch and unflinching opposition from a legion of Republicans walking in lockstep. It took a filibuster in the Senate even to get a vote scheduled, and the House, without filibuster rules, was left with no choice but to break the rules in order to be heard.
In an instant, by calling for the sit-in, the Democrats in Congress became human, powerless individuals who came together to make their voices heard. Think about this, for it is a profound teaching: If powerful individuals like members of Congress can be made to feel powerless yet still come together to effect change, it gives hope to the rest of us.
When we see actions like those of Representative Lewis, it is easy to forget the strong spiritual grounding that underlies strong social action. For example, Muhammad Ali’s decision not to serve in Vietnam stemmed from a strong spiritual morality that that did not start the moment he was drafted. The draft was the test and his spiritual practice fortified him to do the right thing, no matter the cost.
Now, more than ever, we should not neglect our opportunity to spiritually fortify ourselves for righteous action by becoming better people. Mussar is exactly what we need, a practical spirituality grounded in action.
Look around – what if the world was filled with men and women like John Lewis, true Mensches? It can be. We all have what it takes to be a Mensch, and the Jewish spiritual practice of Mussar can teach you how to unlock that potential.
Chances are, you probably haven’t heard of Mussar.
What is it?
Mussar is a thousand-year-old Jewish spiritual practice that teaches how to look inside and identify those things that cause us to get stuck in the same situation again and again. It is like an internal, personal GPS device that is especially skilled at finding those issues that hold us back from being our best selves.
Mussar was almost lost in the Holocaust, which is why so few people, Jews or otherwise, have ever heard of it. Thankfully, there has been a great resurgence of interest over the past 15 years, due to the tireless work of people like Alan Morinis and Ira Stone of the Mussar Institute and Mussar Leadership program respectively.
Mussar teaches that we all have the same soul traits, but have different amounts of each. Soul Traits are character traits like Humility, Honor, Trust, Loving-Kindness, and Order. Having too much of a Soul Trait is just as bad as having not enough. For example, too little Patience leads to anger and frustration; too much Patience might lead one to wait forever for a vote to restrict access make it harder for terrorists to buy military weapons.
Allow me to analyze the events in Washington, DC through the lens of Mussar: Representative Jan Schakowsky had enough with Patience when she yelled, “Now let’s do something” after a moment of silence for shooting victims in Roseburg, Oregon. Representative Katherine Clark had enough of moments of silence too. She walked out of the Orlando moment of silence, and approached Rep. John Lewis and asked him what they could do. Rep. Lewis suggested a sit-in, and the planning started. Rep. Lewis is a Mensch, but he isn’t the only one. It took Mensches coming together to move the needle. It hasn’t moved much, and if we do nothing, common sense efforts to prevent terrorists from legally buying military weapons are doomed.
Representative Lewis was demonstrating the Soul Trait of Honor because his focus was on other people’s needs. When asked by Rachel Maddow what he wanted, Lewis said, “Let us vote. Vote for the American people; a vote for the little children. Vote for mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers. Vote for the people who died, who were hurt in Orlando. That is all we are asking for, nothing more, nothing less.” It was disheartening to turn the channel to CNN and see the pundits poo-poo the whole effort as a fundraising stunt, and “playing politics.” Belittling the actions of others and impugning “impure motives” demonstrates Honor out of balance.
The voices of cynicism are strong and widespread in American today. We need a Movement of Mensches to come together to effect change. The change starts with each one of us doing our part to become better people.
Here is piece of advice based on a core Mussar teaching: Don’t waste your breath talking about what a bad person Donald Trump is. Your job is to make yourself a better person and in so doing, you’ll find yourself taking action to stop people like Donald Trump from having power.
We all have our issues; we all have baggage that holds us back and prevents us from being our best. We all have competing priorities. We all are pulled in a million directions.
Mussar teaches that every moment is a Mussar moment. We can’t afford to ignore the work of being a better person today, NOW, based on a rationalization that we have something more important to do, or that “when it matters, I’ll do the right thing."
We often know the right thing to do but silence our inner Mensch when it comes time to do it.
The world needs more Mensches, indeed, the world needs a global movement of Mensches. Today. Right now. Gandhi was famous for saying, “Be the change you want to see.” He was a Mensch every day, in large ways and small and his spiritual quest for personal goodness changed a nation and the world.
We live in powerful times, extraordinary times. Mussar is an opportunity we all have —Jewish, not-Jewish, men, and women from every corner of the world — to show up in a new way. You can make the world a better place right now, today, by being a better person. Join me on this journey, step into this practice, dare to be your best self.
Greg Marcus, PhD, is an innovative Mussar maven and the creator of American Mussar, a 21st century spiritual practice for an authentic and meaningful life. He is a graduate of the Mussar Institute’s facilitator training program, and has been practicing and teaching for five years. As “The Mussar Man,” Greg offers guidance on how to lead a life of mindful harmony and spiritual integrity, drawing upon timeless Jewish teachings and contemporary wisdom alike. Join him in his Mussar journey at www.AmericanMussar.com.
Photo credit: Official White House photo by Lawrence Jackson