Friday, June 8, 2018

Parashat Shelah: Quitting

A Message for Parashat Shelah 2018
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Following God’s pronouncement of death upon the individuals alive during the sin of the meragelim, a significant group of people reacted:

And they rose early in the morning and went up to the mountaintop, saying, “Here we are, and we shall go up to the place that God said, for we have sinned.” (Bemidbar 14:40)

Moshe tried to deter them. He warned them that violating God’s word would not succeed (14:41). But the people ignored his warning and proceeded up the mountain, where they were swiftly met by their demise:

…And the Amalekite and the Canaanite…came down and struck them and shattered them… (14:44-5)

What were these people – “the ma’apilim” – thinking? What was their logic as they marched forward, in direct opposition of God’s will and Moshe’s warning?

When I imagine the ma’apilim climbing that mountain, I hear them chanting words similar to those of Vince Lombardi: “Quitters never win and winners never quit.” Unwilling to admit defeat and to accept the devastating reality of death in the midbar, they lowered their eyes and defiantly marched forward. Moshe’s warning that their actions were a direct afront to God could not stir their determination to never quit.

Former business executive Seth Goldin explained the mistake of the “never quit” mindset. He noted that “winners” quit all the time. They rise above the “losers,” however, by quitting the right stuff at the right time. “Winners” know how to recognize the situations where their current path and decisions won’t bring them closer to their goal. And right when they sense the dead end up ahead, they stop and turns around.[1]

The “never quit” mindset is driven by the fear of “missing out.” Instead of realizing the blockade that lies up ahead, we often trudge forward in an irrational effort to avoid the uncomfortable feeling of “walking away.”

Consider, for example, an experiment conducted by researchers from the University of Adelaide. Participants played a computer game that repeatedly asked them to choose one out of nine possible doors to enter. Each door that was chosen rewarded them with a variable amount of treasure. In some versions of the game, doors that were left unopen eventually disappeared. The researchers found that even under this condition, participants were sometimes willing to forgo the bigger reward just to keep all their options viable. Dreading the feeling of “missing out” drew them to the conscious decision of mistreating themselves.[2]

Philosopher Kieran Setiya provided a similar perspective regarding the dreary feelings of having “missed out” on life, experienced by many adults during their “midlife crises.” He explained that a life driven by this fear might increase its quantity of accomplishments and experiences but will suffer the necessarily sacrifice in quality. Setiya explained that life presents us with so many different things worth wanting, caring about, striving for or fighting to achieve. The impossible attempt to experience all of them will effectively remove the critical variety of emotional life. You cannot possibly experience the richness of an endeavor when your heart, mind and body are already focused on the next one. A life that bypasses moments and feelings of “missing out” is grey in color and shallow in depth.[3]

The fatal mistake of the ma’apilim teaches us the lesson of knowing when to quit. Driven by a fear of “missing out,” the ma’apilim trampled upon their own values and beliefs in their march toward death. Their error reminds us that “calling it quits” at the appropriate time and accepting the difficult reality of “missing out” are sometimes necessary for optimal growth and experience.

[1] Seth Goldin, The Dip: A Little Book that Teaches You When to Quit (And When to Stick) (New York, NY, 2007), pg. 3. See, as well, his related comments quoted in Stephanie Lee’s “Sometimes You Have to Quit to Get Ahead,” The New York Times, June 5, 2018.
[2] “When to Walk Away: The Effect of Variability on Keeping Options Viable,” Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society, 31. Cited by Stephanie Lee in “Sometimes You Have to Quit to Get Ahead.”
[3] Kieran Setiyah, Midlife: A Philosophical Guide (Princeton, NJ, 2017), pg. 60-2.