by Rabbi Shais Taub
As a recovery rabbi, I often attend seminars for addiction professionals. At one such conference, self-help guru John Bradshaw made a point about recovery from addiction by recalling a favorite scene from an old movie, “The African Queen.”
In the movie, Katherine Hepburn plays a missionary in a village in 1914 German East Africa and Humphrey Bogart plays the gruff, gin-swilling riverboat captain who delivers supplies to the mission. In one scene, Bogie’s character is horrified to discover that Hepburn has tossed all of his bottles of gin into the river. He proceeds to argue with her that it is “only human nature to drink” to which she replies, “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we were put in this world to rise above!”
Bradshaw went on to explore this idea in terms of what he’s lately been calling “moral intelligence” and I found the subject compelling. Yet I had hoped he would have taken his point a bit further and spoken openly of the mystical side of overcoming human nature. You see, to me there is something literally miraculous in personal self-transcendence and transformation. And I don’t use the word “miraculous” here frivolously or even metaphorically. Indeed, I can’t think of a more technically precise or more edifying illustration of what a miracle is than to point out what happens when human beings really change.
So, while a discussion of what it means to rise above human nature can be had in a purely secular and scientific context, or, as Bradshaw did, in a more abstractly moral context, I prefer to treat the phenomenon of self-transcendence as a unique opportunity to behold the very essence of spirituality, like a little window into the supernatural.
Let me explain.
Have well-meaning people ever tried to inspire you by saying that the sun rising each morning is a miracle? It’s a nice thought. But kind of insipid. The sunrise is marvelous, but once we start calling something like that a miracle, the word loses meaning.
Perhaps what they mean is that the sun rising each morning is so awesome that it certainly would be a miracle if it weren’t so tediously predictable. But imagine if one morning the sun were to rise in the west. Now that would be a miracle. What defines a miracle and sets it apart from other phenomena is that it constitutes a break from the natural order. Indeed, that’s why one of the words used to describe a miracle is supernatural – literally, something that circumvents or surpasses nature.
So we have two modalities for reality: that which is natural and that which is supernatural, the only hard and fast distinction between the two being that the supernatural is a break from the norm and the natural is the norm.
So what does this have to do with personal self-transcendence and transformation?
Just as the word “nature” describes the regular way the universe behaves with all the laws of physics it obeys, so does “nature” describe us human beings. Every person has a nature. That nature is our “default setting.” When we operate on instinct or give in to our impulses, we are being natural; when we do what comes easy, we are being natural; when we are predictable, we are natural. With all apologies to those psychotherapists who worry about our being repressed and encourage us to act on our real feelings, it doesn’t seem to be such a virtue to always be natural. Not for a human being, at least.
To wax philosophical for a moment: when a tree is a tree and a mountain is a mountain and a stream is a stream, each one of them is fulfilling its God-given purpose. They’re being what they’re supposed to be. For the tree, the mountain and the stream, natural is good. But we human beings are different. We fulfill our divine purpose not by being natural but by striving for something supernatural; because, unlike the tree, the mountain and the stream, we were given the free choice to decide not to perform our God-given purpose.
So if you would like to see a miracle, I would say that in very down-to-earth terms it means a person who has come to think, feel or behave in a way that is uncharacteristic of themselves. It is a re-setting of the default personality. And that is literally supernatural.
Take for instance the person who has for his whole life reacted to any threat to his material security with anxiety and dread. For him to come to a point where he can answer a phone call from the collection agency and say calmly, “Yes, I do owe that debt. I fully intend to pay it just as soon as I can,” is like the sun rising in the west. Or consider the person who has been emotionally needy, seeking validation through the love of others for as long as he can remember. For him to walk away gracefully from an abusive relationship is like gravity reversing itself. For the workaholic to shut down the computer at 5 o’clock and head home for family dinnertime is like the splitting of the sea.
Do you wish to glimpse a world beyond our own? To the believers and skeptics alike I ask: Why do we need to see whether the clouds will part and light will beam down and a heavenly voice will be heard? Go behold a man or a woman who has risen above nature’s steely grip and now lives life on a higher plane where the laws of human nature no longer hold irrevocable sway. To meet such people is to begin to understand what a miracle really is.