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On the Importance, and Meaning, of Perspective

Originally published May/June 2007

Have you had this experience: you’re talking with a friend or colleague and learn that the person is dealing with a huge problem (life threatening illness, loss of a job, loss of a spouse or a marriage), and you walk away wondering how you can let seemingly trivial things get you down? The point, of course, is that such encounters give us a sense of perspective. That is what happens to me each time I volunteer with my favorite nonprofit, an Israeli organization called Shatil.

“Shatil” means seedling, in Hebrew. Over 20 years ago, it was established by its parent organization, The New Israel Fund, to work with other nonprofits and community groups that are working for peace and social justice in Israel. Shatil provides these groups consulting and technical assistance in a variety of areas: working with their boards, fund raising, advocating for their cause with the government, getting covered in the media, seeking change in the Israeli Knesset (its parliament). My role is to bring to Shatil’s consultants the latest thinking from the United States in these and related areas. And sometimes I have the wonderful opportunity of working with a Shatil client.

As noted, the experience of working with Shatil’s staff and clients is one that continually gives me a clearer perspective on life and issues in America. Why? Because the work of seeking peace and social justice in Israel is at once noble, necessary, and overwhelmingly difficult. Two examples from my most recent visit in May will explain:

  • We spent one day working with some leaders of the Reform Judaism movement in Israel. Judaism, like many religions, has different denominations, the three largest being Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. The Reform movement is threatening to many Orthodox Jews, because Reform Judaism doesn’t require strict observance of the various Jewish laws and customs that Orthodox does. Reform Jews are expected to rely on their own judgment about religious laws pertaining to food, observance of the Sabbath, and many other things. Orthodox Judaism teaches that these laws come from God, we’re not free to use our individual judgment, we must obey them.
  • Israeli society does not have the separation of church and state that exists here in the States; Orthodox Judaism governs many aspects of everyday life, and it has a huge influence on Israeli politics and law. Thus, Reform Judaism’s increasing popularity in Israel is a movement of potentially huge change, it’s a threat to the Orthodox, and some Orthodox leaders are pushing back.
  • I spent a day with the Reform leaders, working on strategies to expand their movement and deal with the Orthodox opposition. We made some progress, and I think the leaders left with a greater sense of hope and with some concrete actions to try. Then, barely three days later, the newspapers carried a story about a well respected Orthodox rabbi who was interviewed recently about the Holocaust. In his interview he was asked what caused the Holocaust. His reply: the rise of Reform Judaism.
  • It is difficult to describe the outrage that most Jews (and many others) feel when hearing such talk. The idea that a Jew (a rabbi at that) would blame the deaths of six million innocents on a type of Judaism that the rabbi despises is beneath contempt. It’s as though the Nazis weren’t the ones firing the guns and lighting the gas chambers. When I read the rabbi’s remarks, I thought about the Reform leaders I’d just worked with. I wondered about the hope and energy that they seemed to gain during our day together, about their desire to try some approaches we developed. How do you get up the next day with a sense of commitment and belief, when a leader of your own faith makes such inhuman comments?
  • Here’s a very different kind of example: On a trip to the north of Israel, I had dinner with a Shatil employee who is most impressive. After 20 years in the Israeli army, he embarked on a new chapter in his life: he started a program aimed at helping Arabs and Jews reduce their mutual fears and hatred of each other, in order to find common ground and work together. This program engages small groups of Jews and Arabs in a structured kind of dialogue that encourages them to speak freely and listen carefully to each other. As the stereotypes start to melt away, they identify specific projects that they want to do together, projects that will help both communities, and they go on to complete those projects.
  • This is an innovative way to help two peoples with so much pent up anger and resentment, to look toward the future and create a new history with each other. For Jews and Arabs, it is very difficult to engage in such dialogue; their friends and family may consider them traitors (or worse) for spending time with the “other side.” Tragically, more than a few people have lost their lives in the Middle East because they dared to seek understanding and common ground with the other group.
  • If it’s difficult for some of the participants to be part of this program, it’s much more so for the man who created it. A few years ago, after the new program was up and running, his son was killed in a terrorist attack in Israel. He and his wife buried their son, they mourned … and then he picked up and continued to run the program. Imagine; a man dedicated to peace and understanding, whose son is murdered by a member of the very group he’s trying to work with, and his main response is to continue on in the noble quest for reconciliation.

There are many other examples in Israel, too many to mention, of people trying to do truly heroic work and having to deal with horrific pressures, obstacles and threats. As I mentioned, one of my roles with Shatil is to bring its staff and clients some approaches and methods that work in the US, and I’ve done that on each of my four annual visits. The challenge is, how to bring American methods that are relevant to the Israeli experience, when the social and political conflicts and rhetoric in our country tend to be far less extreme than in Israel? (The same could be asked about exporting American ideas and methods to many other countries plagued with violence: Iraq, Somalia, the Darfur region of Sudan, etc.)

Yes, I bring to Shatil some examples of collaboration among leaders who have totally different ideologies—Ted Kennedy, for instance, teaming up with Orin Hatch, on an issue they both care about—and the methods they use to find common ground and build a political constituency for their approach. And such examples sometimes help. The difference, of course, is that the stakes involved for Kennedy and Hatch are nowhere near the stakes involved for people living in countries and cultures that are plagued with ongoing tribal violence.

Visits like these can give us a necessary sense of perspective. Most Americans feel very free to believe what we choose, to befriend whomever we like, without fear of retribution. Having a sense of perspective can help us avoid upset over life’s daily frustrations; will we actually be upset by some minor annoyance tomorrow (or even remember it)?

There’s a flip side to this perspective issue, however. Yes, perspective gives us a kind of balance, a needed reminder to let go of trivial slights, to forgive and move on. But many bad things happen in our land that are, in fact, not at all trivial. When outrageous things occur, it’s not perspective that’s needed—it’s a strong voice and sometimes united action. Here’s one recent example:

On April 17, the day after 32 students were gunned down at Virginia Tech, talk show host Neal Boortz ridiculed the slain students for not defending themselves. “This is just a great indication to me of how far advanced we are with the wussification of America,” Boortz told his radio audience. “What a nation of candy asses we have become. I mean, not only do they [the students] stand there, in terror, waiting to be executed without doing a damn thing to protect themselves, except maybe hiding behind a desk.” When a caller objected, and told Boortz he should apologize to the Tech students, Boortz responded with a comment not fit to print.

Yes, perspective is a wonderful thing. A healthy does of it will probably help us live longer. But real perspective isn’t about letting everything go; perspective is about separating the trivial from the important. “Don’t sweat the small stuff” is a great saying, but there is some “big stuff” going on in our wonderful country, stuff that requires us to speak out and act. We each need to decide what the big stuff is, of course. When I hear of well known people whose words and actions threaten the civility and decency we need in our society (as Boortz’s comments did), that crosses the line for me. Where is the line for you?


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Russ Linden is the principal of Russ Linden & Associates, a management consultancy based in Charlottesville, VA. He is a management educator and consultant, specializing in organizational peformance and change methods for those in the public and nonprofit sectors.

He has written four books; the most recent is Working Across Boundaries, which you may order by clicking here .