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.