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When There are No Good Options: ACT

When I was younger, I used to believe that problems can have solutions which are perfect.

Life has been teaching me a lot of lessons.

In the real, empirically knowable world, there is no such thing as perfection. Any decision we make will lead to a host of outcomes – some positive, some negative. And this is true about decisions large and small. For example, there is no “perfect” spouse: every human choice leaves a trail of potential “what-ifs” in its wake.

The Torah makes this most clear in the story of Dinah. Dinah is seen promenading. She is taken by Shechem, who then falls in love with her, and petitions for marriage. Yaakov’s sons negotiate that, in return for Dinah, all the populace of the town will be circumcised – which the townsfolk do, openly speculating that they will assimilate Yaakov’s wealth in the process. Simeon and Levi then cold-bloodedly murder every would-be convert, after they are weak during the recovery from the sensitive surgery.

Nobody in this story looks good. Dinah should not have been available for capture. Shechem certainly could have asked for her hand before raping her. Yaakov’s sons are playing some kind of a game – and Shimon and Levi take the cake by killing everyone. And where is the patriarch, Yaakov? Not leading. He is silent until the end of the affair, at which point he expresses his strong rejection of the murdering brothers. And on what basis? Not that the townspeople didn’t deserve to die, but because it would make Yaakov’s family unpopular to the neighbors!

There are no heroes in this story.

And yet: G-d brings the Flood after men simply take women that they desire. Avraham – twice! – allows his wife to be taken by other men, under the guise that she is “merely” his sister and thus available. Yitzchak does precisely the same thing. It is Shimon and Levi who put a stop to it, who say that it is no longer acceptable to simply take a woman because you desire her. And after them, the Torah tells us no more incidences of Jewish women being raped. So, despite the murders, there was some good from the whole fiasco.

The underlying point, however, remains. Once Shechem had taken Dinah, there was no perfect solution, no way to satisfy the needs or desires of everyone involved. There was only making the best of a bad situation. And there is something really amazing about how it happens: Yaakov, the patriarch, the biggest figure in the entire story, is passive. He could have been more involved at any time before the end, but he did not act.

It is Shimon and Levi who act. And they are, despite Yaakov’s words (and later curses), not punished for it. The Torah is telling us something very, very important: action trumps inaction. Even when the action is wrong, even when it may involve violence, it is better to try to do something than to passively watch bad things happen.

Human nature, especially among intellectuals, is the opposite. Smart people believe that there are “perfect” answers, that despite all the historical evidence to the contrary, the world is in some way deterministic, that we can predict the future if we just think about it long enough. This is why smart people invariably end up working for stupider people – the foolish people who don’t know enough to hang back and wait and collect evidence and consider the best plan of action. The field of battle is always ultimately seized by those who march, not those who really like to think about it. Or as James Thurber put it: “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, and the angels are all in heaven, but few of the fools are dead.”

Historians are, in this respect, much like pathologists. They always know what went wrong and how disaster could have been avoided: but it is always too late. And that is because the “right” course of action is only clear in hindsight, and even then, this course is only “right” inasmuch as it was better than an alternative.

In terms of my personal life, I see all of this much more clearly. Prevaricating is an addictive intellectual disease that feeds on itself. Action leads to reactions, and both good and bad outcomes – but the actions are necessary in order to pass through the gate and be presented with the next set of options.

I heard it recently said that “decide” comes from “cide” – to murder – and “de” – idea. It is not correct, at least not etymologically. But the core notion is valuable nevertheless: when we make a decision, we excise all other options at that moment.

Think of facing a wall of doors, each its own option. If you choose a door – decide – then you pick one, and walk through it. All the rest of the doors vanish behind you. But once you go through one door, there will be another set of doors from which to choose, so on and so forth. People who make decisions move through a series of doors, trying to correct and learn as they go. People who do not readily make decisions can be paralyzed by the options, like a kid at the candy store. And so while they might be doing more thinking, the person who rapidly makes decisions is doing much more living. Not making a decision is also choosing a door – just a very static one. And in a world which is always in motion, staying in one place for very long means that life has passed you by.

People used to get married in their teens. Now they wait until they are 30 or 40, if then. It is such a big decision to get married that they somehow believe that if they delay it long enough, then life will somehow be better. Perhaps, perhaps not. For the procrastinator, life, as measured from marriage, will certainly be shorter.

There is no perfect. When in doubt, act. And then keep doing it.

In everything from love to politics to war, action trumps inaction.

Comments are welcome!