No Growth Allowed

On April 29, 1986, a catastrophic fire erupted in the main downtown Los Angeles Public Library. By the time the fire was under control, tens of  thousands of books had been destroyed, including irreplaceable historical documents. Many firefighters were injured fighting the blaze, and it remains the worst library fire in United States history.

Last week, in December 2019, I saw a video of a respected community leader pontificating foolishly and revealing that he had no idea of the seriousness of the question he was asked.  Watching the clip made me feel embarrassed for him and for the community he represents (of which I am a member).

What does a giant library fire have in common with a dignified leader slipping on a verbal banana peel? 

When the Los Angeles library burned in April 1986, my husband and I had five children under the age of five. The 29th of the month fell out during Passover when family and communal demands rocket sky-high. In addition to leading our flourishing Jewish congregation near the Los Angeles beachfront, my husband was running a business. We were busy.

Along with everything going on in our own lives, the frenzied 24-hour news cycle was not yet in existence. Since we did not watch television in our home, we would not have seen the library fire on the news.  Internet news sites were not to come into existence for nearly another decade, so while personal computers were around, they were not delivering a constant stream of information. Surely, we must have heard about the fire via radio or newspaper? Surely it had to have been a topic of conversation after synagogue services? Neither my husband nor I have any recollection of this inferno.

A well-known saying claims that a picture is worth a thousand words. That is certainly true, not only in conveying ideas but also in influencing how memorable those ideas are. This is true whether what is caught visually is profoundly true or misleading, representative of a greater reality or an inconsequential outlier. Video is pictures on steroids.

The ease with which every step and word today is caught on video magnifies the impact enormously. There is not one of us who has not said foolish, hurtful or false words. Sometimes we realize our mistakes ourselves, sometimes others point them out to us. We have an opportunity to grow from our blunders and, if we are fortunate, we can undo some of the damage we may have wrought.

Yet, today, our missteps remain frozen in time. If reporters and activists bent on malice and mischief comb through old yearbooks looking to destroy political opponents, what hope do those growing up today have? Anyone and everyone around them can capture their lives on ubiquitous cell phones. Privacy is increasingly non-existent both as a concept and as an actuality.

Perhaps the day after the community leader’s ill-conceived remarks, his wife, colleagues or even some of his students offered differing views to him. Maybe he will take steps to be more careful in the future or even to apologize and speak publicly on the same topic in a more thoughtful way.  In the “olden days,” we would have called that maturation, repentance and moving forward. Yet, because of the existing video clip that was distributed around the world almost instantaneously, words at an event that I did not attend will most likely stay in my memory in a way that a raging blaze did not.  The damage from a misspoken or mistaken word—even an uncharacteristically malicious one— can set aflame far more than stacks of books in a treasured building.

33 thoughts on “No Growth Allowed”

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  2. My son and daughter in law also have 5 in 6 years. They have their own businesses and are trying to home school.
    How did you keep your relationship healthy when the kids were little? What books helped you with organizing and learning how to spin all those “plates” (self care, finances, relationships within the family, social life, … life balance)?

    1. Wow, Kim, not exactly a simple question. I think this may have to become a Practical Parenting column. Not that I have all the answers, but perhaps thinking it through.

      1. My respect for you and your family tells me there are many that could use this topic. It may be a new book!

  3. Point taken. But wouldn’t it be nice to be able to disagree with someone and still be able to have them call you freind?

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Hello Brian–
      I know you were talking with Mrs Lapin but your last post inspired me to make more friendly my earlier response to John who was upset that my office didn’t put me on the line when he phoned

  4. ” -everybody needs a rabbi”-how about a rabbi who can answer questions from common people- he knows how to get televised-he loves the limelight-is this how rabbis are to act? i called your office about a statement he made on a youtube video only to be given a bunch of doubletalk /hes to busy to answer -anyone… /you need to dismount your supposed high horses and remember from whence you came and before whom you will stand ….

    1. Is it any coincidence there is a perfect example of the case in point offered by John there?

      A study topic offered by a recent weekly Torah reading focused on Jacob’s wrestling for his blessing. After having been asked his name when he refused to let go in spite of suffering a strike in the socket of his hip caused dislocation, Jacob ‘admitted’ it and was given a new name Israel by which an entire nation and I might daresay the world would be blessed. Perhaps it is time we quit grappling with ourselves and admit who we are. (Is it ‘Lulay’?) , we would be likewise blessed.

    2. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      I am sorry that you felt inadequately served by my loyal and excellent office staff, John,
      Part of their responsibility is making sure that my limited time is assigned to the ministry’s most urgent needs. I wish there was time to talk to every one of the hundreds of people that call to talk to me each week but of course that is not possible. I don’t work for the public, I work for the ministry and for those who support it. Did you by any chance mention to the professional at my office that you were offering any value in return for my time which you wished to use? Whose time would you expect to use for free? One of money’s functions is to prevent us from exploiting one another. So, although I think your tone and language toward me were unnecessarily harsh, I acknowledge your frustration, am sorry you felt it, and would like to think of you as a friend.
      Thank you for your advice with which you closed your letter,

  5. If you are waiting to pounce on every little mistake I make then I will take steps to mitigate the risk. Maybe I won’t talk, or maybe I’ll lie. Isn’t that how we got Trump? I know I lied multiple times about my support for Trump.

    1. Matt, in Socialist countries people are afraid to talk to each other, to make new friends and to be honest. This is not a good direction in which to be going.

  6. Susan, thank you for the wisdom you share. Your insights have become valuable tools I put in my “satchel” to remember. My husband and I watch Ancient Jewish Wisdom, listen to Rabbi’s podcasts, and subscribe to thought tools. We have also read your books.
    Many blessings to you

  7. There is no person who has lived life who does not have something in their past or present that can’t be weaponized against them. Humans hopefully grow in wisdom, kindness, and understanding. Fewer and fewer people will be willing to put themselves in the public arena to serve knowing that their past will be exposed to create a false narrative. I hope that the pendulum is swinging back to forgiveness vs. banishment. I believe people see how this tactic is overused to silence opposition. There are people however whose words are not a slip, and whose track record confirms their worldview.

    1. Well said, Pat. I think that part of the plan of attacking anyone associated with President Trump is to discourage people from doing so. And there are many willing to even make up things about people’s pasts, so one doesn’t even have to have the ‘skeleton in the closet’ to suspect that one will be there.

  8. Susan, thank you for this “clarity in thought” towards our never ending pursuit for understanding of our world today. I was 4 years old when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. A horrible world event with everlasting impact. I do not want to diminish the impact or importance of that event. I have wondered all my life, however, if there would have been so much fascination/TV news specials/documentaries/movies or cultural references if we didn’t have all the films and pictures and audio recordings from the tragedy? The PBS Series on The Civil War was really a very close look at the photographs that survive today from that period. I’m thinking there are other events in history we should better understand, but we do not give them the needed emphasis because there are no pictures or video.

    Thank you for your Musings! I am enriched each time I dive into your writings and those of RDL!

    1. David, photos and videos can serve a wonderful purpose in helping us to look at the past and remember it. Of course, it is a double-edged sword as we may only have a recorded record of part of the story.

  9. There’s nobody more qualified than you and the rabbi to write a book or extended article regarding an accepted cellphone etiquette. Perhaps a blog could capture the work in progress. Just suggestions =:-> I would really enjoy deep thoughts on the subject of technology changing society. I’d even like to help but I’m not really on the streets or in the schools where the action is (though I’ve recently seen examples of screen addiction). Very thought provoking. Thank you for what you do!

    1. Brad, there are a lot of people researching and writing about the impact of technology. It is so new and developing so rapidly that we actually will not be able to know who or what is right until years down the road. We have to make our decisions now, for us and our families, based on our own research and wisdom. It is not an easy topic.

  10. Carl August Schleg

    As ALWAYS, U2 inspire me and enjoy learning more of a ‘GOD’ philosophy. In our society today when I can have a quality discussion with someone on physics and/or philosophy I thank them because it is so challenging today.
    I use the internet as a tool and my public library often.

    1. Carl, that’s a wonderful attitude. Knowing that your words might be shared virally rather than seen as part of a conversation puts a muzzle on people. That isn’t healthy.

    2. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Thanks Carl,
      And right back at you. Tell that wife of yours that we think you’re a lucky man!

  11. It’s a true and valid point and a scary one. Where it seems to be going though is it is making people skeptical and then ultimately tone deaf to issues. If every day is breaking news and a major scandal it becomes like the boy who cried wolf. Eventually it’s unheeded and when real evil starts happening the general population can’t be called to rally off the couch.

    1. Absolutely, Tony. If we expect people to be perfect we are going to be constantly disappointed in people. The human experience should be one of growth. If we cut off that ability, we will be left at our lowest levels.

      1. When I was in the service someone came up with a saying. ” do not let your alligator mouth get ahead of your humming bird brain”. May if enough of us get caught in this trap we might all learn to be more careful how we speak.
        God bless and happy channica ,

        1. What a great saying, Brian! And it is good advice. However, there is a point at which being more careful with our speech, which is a good thing, becomes refusing to speak out of fear which is a bad thing.

  12. Thank you Susan for your commentary..We love watching you and Rabbi Daniel on TCT also.. Blessing

    1. We’re so glad you watch Ancient Jewish Wisdom on TCT, Patrick. Thanks for letting me know you appreciate the Musings. It means a lot to hear that.

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