One of the things we wrestle with is the resistance we encounter from people when they are tasked with the performance of a particular responsibility. And yes, I’m speaking in vague generalities. This thought was inspired by very specific realities but I’m trying to allow my argument to take root all over the place.
So what is it that breeds such reluctance and how can it be addressed and remediated? It dawned on me that one approach would be to isolate the source of refusal. Why do things stop being appealing? The fact is, the biggest drain on someone’s zeal is obligation. Tell a 15 year old that he “gets” to drive the car on errands and he’ll do whatever you ask. Tell a seventeen year old who has had his license that he “has” to drive those errands and the eyes will roll. Talk to an 8 year old about the privilege of voting and compare that to the conversation with the 38 year old – the sense you get will be different. In the world of Jewish education, we struggle with getting students to focus on prayer. When they are 10, they seem excited but by 14, many have started to drift away. What changed? The idea that they are getting to pray becomes the notion that they are obligated to pray. Yes, there are intervening pressures, influences and variables but that same 14 year old will still sparkle with anticipation if he is told that he “gets” to sit at the adult table. The unusual, the unexpected and the unique are enticing and attractive.
So how can we make those things that develop into obligation remain as interesting and worth the effort as they were when they were perks? One way, historically, has been when external pressures threatened to take the ability to perform the responsibility away. The possible loss of an earned right has inspired people to stop taking what they have for granted and return to the level of appreciation which they had. Existential threats work wonders against the specter of apathy or assimilation. Take a child’s access to a car away and when he is again allowed to drive (and knows that the potential for loss continues to exist) he will be more excited at the opportunities afforded. Refuse to grant tenure and no professor can rest on his laurels (I am not necessarily advocating an abandoning of the tenure system, just a recognition of one of the dimensions which might be negative) – the fear of loss will keep him sharp, theoretically.
Can we aim to live in a world inspired by fear? If we told people that they will lose the right to vote if they don’t exercise that right to a specific degree, would that make them better citizens? Would the threat of expulsion based on non-engagement with prayer make students more connected to prayer? Wouldn’t these fears fail to encourage an honest sense of investment? Maybe we should rely on the negative consequences as a catch-all and supplement with the other ideas to try and catch the fancy of those who are at least committed for other reasons. But none of these will necessarily bring about excitement along with the engagement. In fact, might they instead breed resentment and foment rebellion even in the face of dire consequences? Do we need to find a way to progressively add on those perks that continue to make the activity constantly the milieu of the select, thus making participants feel special at every stage? Would some sort of concurrent, required continuing education reinvigorate people or would it, too, be an imposition unappreciated by the masses? Maybe we just need the repeated reminder that what we can do is different from what others are allowed, and should be appreciated not as a given, but as an accomplishment, though I don’t know how this would be communicated. No answers right now, but I’m hoping that if we recontextualize the discussion and consider the real source of tension, we might be able to brainstorm alternatives which might lead to more positive results than any of the approaches which we are relying on now have thus far engendered.