In My Own Write: About keeping your balance

Let’s stay above ground, and not go down the rabbit hole with Alice.

Tweedledee Tweedledum 311 (photo credit: From Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland)
Tweedledee Tweedledum 311
(photo credit: From Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland)
Proportion: A part, share, or number considered in comparative relation to a whole.Perspective: The ability to perceive things in their actual interrelations or comparative importance.We Israelis can’t be blamed if we’ve become weary of hearing the word “disproportionate” flung at us by those who sit securely in far-off countries and judge our military operations from their lofty perch. Invariably these critics are comparing the number of Israeli casualties to casualties in the Arab civilian population among whom the enemy has cynically and successfully embedded itself.
Jerusalem Post columnist Jonathan Rosenblum, in last week’s Magazine, did an eloquent job of exposing the fallacy of the argument that self-defense should be carried out “proportionately,” meaning that “if the other guy comes at you with a stick, you can’t pull a knife; if he’s got a knife, you can’t pull a gun.”
A graduate of Yale Law School, he joined those experts who have given the matter much-needed perspective by pointing out that proportionality in international law is not symmetry; and “the relevant moral question is who initiated combat, and have they ceased their aggression.”
With this he relegated to their deserved place of dishonor those who, like Washington Post ombudsman Patrick B. Pexson, “dismiss the overwhelming majority of rockets fired from Gaza” on Israeli civilians as “‘bee stings on the Israeli bear’s behind.’” It occurs to me, in the broader human arena, how crucial proportion and perspective are, and how lost we would be without them – like being down the rabbit hole with Alice, or lurching through a hall of distorting mirrors where your head spins and you can’t rely on anything you see. In our world, we continually balance one thing against another in a way that “feels right.” It gives us a sense of being grounded and secure.
I wonder whether it is this eternal need for balance that has wedded outsiders to the simplistic notion that Israel’s actions in defense of its people are, as Rosenblum wrote, “like a feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys: If the Hatfields killed three McCoys, three Hatfields (and no more) must now perish.”
The often subconscious human drive for balance may also go some way in explaining the amoral “even-handedness” that plagues much of the international community’s treatment of Israel in its ongoing conflict with its enemies.
My father might have ended this part of the discussion with his characteristically wry summary of our enemies’ recurring plaint: “It all started when they hit us back.”
THE GREEKS believed that symmetry, proportion and harmony were the three elements comprising beauty. The human eye is encoded to seek balance, and objects that are in the correct proportion are perceived as pleasing or beautiful. No visitor to the Acropolis could disagree.
Classical art and architecture are based on proportion and perspective. Modern architects, interior designers and photographers balance dimensions, shapes and colors in proportion to each other to create a satisfying whole. Even flower arrangers emphasize scale and proportion as vital in getting successful results (“Relate the quality and size of the arrangement to its vase or container, and relate the arrangement as a whole to its setting.”) Faces that are considered the most beautiful – the Mona Lisa‘s, for example – are said to exhibit a perfect balance, sometimes called the Golden Ratio, that humans can subconsciously calculate.
Yet some years ago, a British Sunday newspaper carried out a fascinating experiment. It took portraits of actors and actresses, some legendary, who were regarded as supremely beautiful – Marilyn Monroe was one – and superimposed them on top of one other.
The premise was that the resulting two images, an amalgam of all those stunning features, would be a super-beautiful man and a super-beautiful woman.
The result was disappointing. In each case, the composite picture was an uninspiring visage that wouldn’t have stood out in a crowd. The individuality, the human particularity, had been obliterated. Think Barbie and Ken, then consider Meryl Streep and Daniel Day Lewis.
The English statesman-philosopher Francis Bacon perhaps said it best: “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.”
WHAT HAPPENS when our ability to keep things in proportion is absent, or imperfect? There is a London Music Hall song (writer unknown) called – somewhat alarmingly – “Your Baby Has Gone Down the Plughole.” Its lyrics might be amusing if very young children didn’t actually go through a stage in which their sense of physical proportion has yet to develop. Seeing the open plughole while they are still in the bath – if mother has started letting the water out – they can become terrified of getting sucked into it, impossible as we know this to be.
As to events occurring in our grown-up lives, and the feelings that arise out of them, it has to be a challenge, even for the most “adjusted” among us, to keep things in proportion and not allow disappointment, anger, hurt and a variety of other negative emotions to rule our lives long after the occasions that gave rise to them have passed.
If we didn’t already know this, it would be obvious from the frequency with which we admonish others, or ourselves, to stop “making a mountain out of a molehill,” or “creating a storm (or tempest) in a teacup.”
In this connection, a 97-year-old friend of mine says she never stays angry or bears a grudge for more than half an hour. “Life is too short,” she explains with a smile.
IMAGINE THAT you are strolling through one of the world’s major art museums and come into a gallery where huge and detailed paintings from previous centuries each occupy most of an entire wall.
If you stand up close to a painting, you will see only the section directly opposite your line of vision. To absorb the “big picture” and the significance of all its parts, both in themselves and in relation to each other, you have to step back.
It’s much like that with things that happen to us, but so deeply entwined are we with our feelings that it’s very much harder than in an art gallery to take that figurative step backwards and see things in perspective and more objectively.
Yet only in this way can we judge what is essential in our lives, what is less important, and what is, ultimately, irrelevant; and stop dwelling on it.
Is Jewish law reminding us to maintain a sense of proportion when, despite the Torah’s prohibition against cooking milk and meat together, if one part of milk accidentally spills into a pot of 60 parts meat, the one milky part is nullified and the dish may be eaten (batel beshishim)?
ONE BLOGGER, recalling inspiring people in her life, related that when she was a child, her mother baked some pies before Thanksgiving and placed them on the stairs to cool.
“My friend and I were running up and down the stairs, and she accidentally stepped in one of the pies. She said there was not even a hint of anger on my mother’s face, and it was something my friend always remembered when raising her own children.
“Whenever mishaps occurred, she would remind herself: It’s only a pie.”
IF WE’RE talking about inspiration – and a very different kind of pie – one can only stand in silent tribute to the utterance of a man who, from tragic experience, knew a thing or two about maintaining his sense of perspective and proportion.
Asked by Oprah Winfrey in an interview about how he felt when he heard that he had lost his life savings as well as the $15 million of his foundation to Bernie Madoff, Elie Wiesel answered: “[My wife and I] looked at each other, and our reaction was, ‘We have been through worse.’”