Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
A well-known teaching is attributed to Simcha Bunim of Peshischa (1765-1827), a leading Polish Hasidic rabbi. He recommended that everyone carry two strips of paper, one in each pocket. The paper in the right pocket should read, “For my sake the world was created.” The one in the left should state, “I am but dust and ashes.” The good rabbi devised these opposite phrases to temper one’s mood. Consult the right pocket when feeling diminished; visit the left pocket when feeling cocksure.
An updated version of Simcha’s pockets might have the arts on one side and science on the other. Artistic displays feed a perception of self-importance. They play to our senses, engage our imaginations, and bring meaning to our lives. Our capacity to make and appreciate art is conventionally seen as a benchmark separating us from other earthlings. And because the artistic experience is so personal, we can be led to think that “it’s all about me.” Art has the power to transform sights, sounds, and movements into signals of importance.
Science refutes all of this. While it, too, encourages self-fascination, it is a fascination that points in the opposite direction. The more scientists uncover, the less significant we appear. We are ever-shrinking beings in an ever-expanding universe. It is believed that 96 percent of the cosmos is made of dark matter—stuff astronomers cannot detect or comprehend. 99.9 percent of species that have existed on earth are now extinct. Humankind is an infinitesimal blip on the evolutionary radar. Even our thoughts can be reduced to neurochemical reactions. As Neil deGrasse Tyson once put it, we are “a speck on a speck on a speck on a speck.”
Too much time spent in either pocket can yield a harmful outlook. The arts offer a valuable antidote to the drudgery of existence, and provide much-needed motivation to carry on in a cold and complicated world. But total absorption in the artistic lie of self-importance can separate us from reality. Scientific discoveries offer a humbling perspective, and a much-needed challenge to the human ego. Yet absolute entanglement in its broad picture of reality can lead to an unhealthy appraisal of one’s self worth.
The best approach is to follow Rabbi Simcha Bunim’s advice. The arts can console us when we’re feeling low and helpless. Science can step in when we’re feeling high and mighty. The two spheres can serve as life regulators, bringing balance to our brief journeys on this tiny speck.
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