On שיקול הדעת/Shikul HaDa’at, Fair Thinking
“Shall I go? Do You advise it?”
“I advise!?- You know very well what is right.”
“Yes, when you give me your opinion I always know what is right. Your judgment is my rule of right.”
“Oh no!- Do not say so. We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.” (Chapter 42) (emphasis mine)
Austen’s wise words as expressed by the character Fanny Price, really point to two lessons about fair mindedness in making decisions. The first is that each of us has the innate ability to transcend our biases and prejudices, and secondly, that doing so can still be difficult. Part of the challenge is that our fair mindedness is not generally the first voice we hear when confronted with a situation that requires our judgment. In fact, we know that the part of our brain that reacts with prejudice, anger and the like does in fact kick in first owing to its earlier presence in our development as humans. It is only when one is able to wait through that reaction just a bit that another part of the brain kicks in, the part that is more even tempered and in perspective.
Judaism has powerful ways to remind us of these insights. In his book “Life in the Balance”, Dr. David Pelcovitz articulates that,
“breathing slowly…allows for utilization of the ‘long loop’, the longer neural circuitry
that lets the frontal cortex take over. This is the part of the brain that makes us ‘human’.
It regulates the right balance between arousal and calmness, and enables a mindset
that takes into account figuring out the situation and deciding how to proceed in
a more mindful manner. Interestingly, the part of the brain involved in this process is
located on the part of the head where men place the shel rosh, the tefillin of the head,
every weekday morning, perhaps symbolizing the central importance that calm thinking
and perspective taking has in our religion” (pgs. 168-169)
The daily reminder of tefillin and Jane Austen’s inspired words can help us remember that the voice we need to hear is always present as we seek to make fair, evenhanded decisions that are unencumbered by negative prejudices. The work we must continually engage in is training our ear to hear it.
Think about it/מחשבה– As you engage in challenging decisions this week, imagine what advice you’d give to someone in the same position you’re in. Your advice giving self might surprise you.
Try it/מעשה- In order to exercise “utilization of the ‘long loop’”, try a meditation practice like focusing on your out breath as you breathe or your body as you do stretching exercises, for five minutes a day. As distractions appear, gently bring your mind back to your breathing or your body. Pay attention to the quality of your mind as you do so and notice what it feels like to let your mind settle.