On 24th April 2017, Rabbi Sacks delivered his first TED Talk at the main TED Conference in Vancouver. You can watch the video or read a transcript of his talk below. The video is also available with subtitles in: Arabic, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Russian, Spanish, Turkish and Urdo.
“These are the times,” said Thomas Paine, “that try men’s souls,” and they’re trying ours now. This is a fateful moment in the history of the West. We’ve seen divisive elections and divided societies. We’ve seen a growth of extremism in politics and religion, all of it fuelled by anxiety, uncertainty, and fear of a world that’s changing almost faster than we can bear and the sure knowledge that it’s going to change faster still. I have a friend in Washington. I asked him what it was like being in America during the recent presidential election. He said to me, “Well, it was like the man sitting on the deck of the Titanic with a glass of whiskey in his hand and he’s saying, ‘I know I asked for ice, but this is ridiculous.'”
Is there something we can do, each of us, to be able to face the future without fear? I think there is. One way into it is to see that perhaps the most simple way into a culture and into an age is to ask, what do people worship? People have worshipped so many different things, the sun, the stars, the storm. Some people worship many gods, some one, some none. In the 19th and 20th centuries, people worshipped the nation, the Arian race, the communist state. What do we worship? I think future anthropologists will take a look at the books we read on self-help, self-realisation, self-esteem. They’ll look at the way we talk about morality as being true to one’s self, the way we talk about politics as a matter of individual rights, and they’ll look at this wonderful new religious ritual we have created, you know the one called the selfie. I think they’ll conclude that what we worship in our time is the self, the me, the I.
This is great. It’s liberating. It’s empowering. It’s wonderful. But don’t forget that biologically we’re social animals. We spent most of our evolutionary history in small groups. We need those face to face interactions where we learn the choreography of altruism and where we create those spiritual goods like friendship, and trust, and loyalty, and love that redeem our solitude. When we have too much of the I and too little of the we, we can find ourselves vulnerable, fearful, and alone. It was no accident that Sherry Turkle of MIT called the book she wrote on the impact of social media Alone Together.
I think the simplest way of safeguarding the future you is to strengthen the future us in three dimensions, the us of relationship, the us of identity, and the us of responsibility. Let me first take the us of relationship. Here, forgive me if I get personal. Once upon a time, a very long time ago, I was a 20 year-old undergraduate studying philosophy. I was into Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer, and Sartre, and Camus. I was full of ontological uncertainty and existential angst. It was terrific. I was self-obsessed and thoroughly unpleasant to know until one day I saw across the courtyard a girl who was everything that I wasn’t. She radiated sunshine. She emanated joy. I found out her name was Elaine. We met, we talked, we married, and 47 years, three children, and eight grandchildren later, I can safely say it was the best decision I ever took in my life because it’s the people not like us that make us grow.
That is why I think we have to do just that. The trouble with Google filters, Facebook friends, and reading the news by narrowcasting rather than broadcasting means that we’re surrounded almost entirely by people like us whose views, whose opinions, whose prejudices even are just like ours. Cass Sunstein of Harvard has shown that if we surround ourselves with people with the same views as us, we get more extreme. I think we need to renew those face to face encounters with the people not like us. I think we need to do that in order to realise that we can disagree strongly and yet still stay friends. It’s in those face to face encounters that we discover that the people not like us are just people like us. Actually, every time we hold out the hand of friendship to somebody not like us whose colour, or class, or creed, or colour are different from ours, we heal one of the fractures of our wounded world. That is the us of relationship.
Second is the us of identity. Let me give you a thought experiment. Have you been to Washington? Have you seen the memorials? Absolutely fascinating. There’s the Lincoln Memorial, Gettysburg Address on one side, second inaugural on the other. You go to the Jefferson Memorial, screeds of text. Martin Luther King Memorial, more than a dozen quotes from his speeches. I didn’t realise in America you read memorials. Now go to the equivalent in London in Parliament Square and you will see that the monument to David Lloyd George contains three words, David Lloyd George. Nelson Mandela gets two, Churchill gets just one, Churchill. Why the difference? I’ll tell you why the difference, because America was from the outset a nation of wave after wave of immigrants, so it had to create an identify, which it did by telling a story which you learned at school, you read on memorials, and you heard repeated in presidential inaugural addresses. Britain, until recently, wasn’t a nation of immigrants, so it could take identity for granted.
The trouble is now the two things have happened which shouldn’t have happened together. The first thing is in the West we’ve stopped telling the story of who we are and why, even in America. At the same time, immigration is higher than it’s ever been before. When you tell the story and your identity is strong, you can welcome the stranger, but when you stop telling the story, your identity gets weak and you feel threatened by the stranger. That’s bad. I tell you, Jews have been scattered, and dispersed, and exiled for 2,000 years. We never lost our identity? Why? Because at least once a year on the festival of Passover we told our story, and we taught it to our children, and we ate the unleavened bread of affliction, and tasted the bitter herbs of slavery, so we never lost our identity. I think collectively we’ve got to get back to telling our story, who we are, where we came from, what ideals by which we live. If that happens, we’ll become strong enough to welcome the stranger and say, “Come and share our lives, share our stories, share our aspirations and dreams.” That is the us of identity.
Finally, the us of responsibility. Do you know something? My favourite phrase in all of politics, very American phrase, is we the people. Why we the people? Because it says that we all share collective responsibility for our collective future. That’s how things really are and should be. Have you noticed how magical thinking has taken over our politics? We say, “All you’ve got to do is elect this strong leader, and he or she will solve all our problems for us.” Believe me, that is magical thinking.
Then we get the extremes, the far right, the far left, extreme religious, and the extreme anti-religious, the far right dreaming of a golden age that never was, the far left dreaming of a utopia that never will be, and the religious and anti-religious equally convinced that all it takes is God or the absence of God to save us from ourselves. That too is magical thinking because the only people who will save us from ourselves is we the people, all of us together. When we do that, and when we move from the politics of me to the politics of all of us together, we rediscover those beautiful counterintuitive truths that a nation is strong when it cares for the weak, that it becomes rich when it cares for the poor, it becomes invulnerable when it cares about the vulnerable. That is what makes great nations.
Here is my simple suggestion. It might just change your life, and it might just help to begin to change the world. Do a search and replace operation on the text of your mind. Wherever you encounter the word self, substitute the word other. Instead of self-help, other-help. Instead of self-esteem, other-esteem. If you do that, you will begin to feel the power of what for me is one of the most moving sentences in all of religious literature, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with me.”
We can face any future without fear so long as we know we will not face it alone. For the sake of the future you, together, let us strengthen the future us.