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Beyond Happiness

Ann Mellow
September 25, 2012
This evening is the start of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, a solemn time spent in prayerful reflection on the sins of the past year, petitions for forgiveness, and a fresh start for the new year ahead.

As Rabbi Eric Hoffie observes, sin and atonement are very old fashioned ideas.  We Americans tend to like our religion upbeat and inspirational. “Sin” feels so, well, negative.  But, as he notes, there’s a problem with all this focus on happiness:

Yes, we Americans are a religious people, and there is a theological revival of sorts going on. But a lot of what is happening is more about an obsession with self than an obsession with God or the demands that God makes of us. And while liberal religious groupings have a special responsibility here, more "traditional" denominations, Jewish and Christian, have not escaped these trends; there, too, there is a focus on making people happy in their religious faith, and on creating worship services that are fashionable and convivial rather than deeply spiritual… a lot of what is happening is more about an obsession with self than an obsession with God or the demands that God makes of us.

It strikes me that schools live with this same tension.  Making and keeping people happy can sometimes feel like our ultimate mission. We can spend increasing amounts of time and effort trying to meet everyone’s needs all the time; students, parents, faculty and staff, alumni, donors, volunteers, applicants…the list goes on.

It distances us from the deeply sacred. It leaves no room for imperfection, or for forgiveness.

The new school year has just started. In the spirit of Yom Kippur, it’s a perfect time to take stock and renew our own commitment to what matters most. Not to mere happiness, but to values that go much deeper.  Even though it’s hard, and even though we will undoubtedly fall short.


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