The Power of the Act


Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “The act teaches you the meaning of the act.”

This is pure wisdom, but we have mostly counseled its reverse. We have tried to teach people the meaning first to see if we might coax them into the act. If we taught people to believe that God calls us to love others, they might live generous and compassionate lives. That doesn’t work so well these days. In fact, when we require belief first as the prerequisite for right or “righteous” action, most simply turn away.

If we trusted, with A.J. Heschel, that “the act teaches you the meaning of the act,” we could simply invite people to try doing some loving act and see what it means.

The Dalai Lama often invites young people to try out some act of kindness. If someone tells a young man that being kind to others actually makes him happy, he is naturally skeptical. He doesn’t believe it. So, the Dalai Lama says, Just try it and see. (Reminds me of Jesus’ words to an inquiring disciple, “Come and see” (John 1: 39)).

What we inevitably discover is that belief follows experience. Once you actually feel the power of loving kindness, for example, you naturally believe. The act teaches you its meaning, and then you are a true believer.

It doesn’t work so well the other way around, where first we sit people down and tell them what they must believe. Parents and grandparents need to remember this, teachers and coaches and spiritual leaders need to remember this.

4 Responses to The Power of the Act
  1. Matt
    April 28, 2015 | 8:22 am

    I keep trying to sit my kids down on Sunday night to tell them how life works, but we have all been to busy. Sounds like the busy-ness is saving them from me!

  2. Dave Esty
    April 28, 2015 | 8:31 am

    Dunno who said it first, but my parents taught my three brothers and me this statement as an irrefutable fact:

    “The capacity to care is what gives life its deepest and most significant meaning”

    We four and our spouses raised 15 kids to believe and behave this way to live

    Wouldn’t it be spectacularly epic, right now, if we could infect all Americans with this notion

    And then the rest of the world

  3. Barbara Miley
    April 28, 2015 | 11:21 am

    Amen to Dave’s reply above!! Behavior comes first in order to teach good or not so good…:)) Babies are fed before they know where their food is!

  4. Michael Anderson
    April 28, 2015 | 12:35 pm

    Good post, David. We who rely heavily on the brain to navigate life–we know the limitations. Righteous action leads to righteous thinking but it doesn’t always work the other way.

    In Breakfast Epiphanies, you quote C. S. Lewis to the effect that we are more likely to act our way into a feeling than feel our way into an action.

    Thanks for the reminder again this morning, David.

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