Last Sabbath, I was not present at services on account of being at the Men’s Weekend not far from Corvallis , so I was unable to do my customary sermon review as is my fashion. That said, one of my friends in the local congregation figured I needed to hear the message enough to send the cd to me in the mail, and so I was able to listen to it yesterday evening. A great deal of the message discussed the issue of boundaries, a frequent if often unsatisfactory area of personal concern , and the message was introduced with a discussion of something known as the eruv, which is a characteristically Jewish public-private space that allows for the carrying of burdens in public as if one were in a private space, but which also involves a certain collective treatment of space that turns the private public. While the speaker brought up the concept of the eruv, his analysis of it was more an examination of one particular manifestation of it in New York, and with a somewhat critical attitude of the way in which Orthodox Jews seek to find clever and legalistic ways around the strict boundaries of the law in order to live lives that are both godly and practical. It is not my intent to merely recapitulate the message, nor is it my intent to comment on any supposed but potentially ominous personal references in the message, but rather I would like to focus on the way in which the difficulty of boundaries in contemporary society springs from the fact that so many of our own lives, including my own, have come to be lived in an eruv, rather than in a world where there is a sharp divide between the public and the private. Much personal difficulty to myself, and to many others, has resulted from the failure of this essential boundary. It is therefore to the larger context of public and private space, and to the eruv as being symbolic of our contemporary semi-public, semi-private space, that I wish to discuss, as its relevance to the message is something that was perhaps not even recognized by the speaker himself.
Over the last few months, I have written a little bit  about the difficulties that have come to a particularly well-known and very large family who acquired a certain amount of fame due to a reality television show. Normally speaking, we would assume that decent and upright people, even those with abnormally large families, would be fairly private people. We would expect them to, if they homeschooled their children, exist at peace with their neighbors, involved in a local congregation and in their local community, but not be people of particularly obnoxious fame. Yet the contemporary phenomenon of the reality television show has allowed many people who would ordinarily have been of perhaps local curiosity to receive national, if not global, fame, with money and other benefits as a result of that increased visibility. To be sure, many of the people who have engaged in such matters have sought or at least welcomed this increased reach and the economic and social benefits that have resulted from this increase in status. Yet something has been lost with all that has been gained. Reality television show, as it relates to families, puts television cameras, editing, the creation of some kind of narrative out of what are often disparate events, into what is normally a private space, namely one’s own home. If such shows allow for reputation management, and the turning of what was normally left to the judgment of others into something that at least was possible to influence privately, they also turn one’s private life into a public spectacle, and make previously private people into public figures whose private life becomes the fodder for public gossip consumption. This is not an unmixed blessing.
Yet this phenomenon is by no means limited to those who parade themselves on television, or who receive any kind of economic benefit whatsoever as a result of their visibility. Rather, we must freely admit that inasmuch as many of us have privatized the public space by creating a space for our own private judgments and opinions and experiences and expression, so too many of us have in the process made ourselves uncomfortably private figures, and what we have gained in the reach of our voice we have lost in the reduction of privacy and in the acquisition of at times unwanted personal notoriety as a result of that obvious public reputation. Whether we are taking endless selfies of ourselves and posting them online, basking in the glow of flattering comments of our attractiveness but frustrated by the resulting damage done by acquiring a reputation as being too attention-hungry or flirtatious, or whether we post Youtube videos promoting recreational drug use and share them on social media when we have taken sick leave from work, or whether we turn our complicated and often difficult personal life into the fodder for thoughtful and reflective but often provocative blog posts, using the resulting views as an easy way to gain a seemingly endless supply of free books, we are all part of this uncomfortable tension between the public and the private, engaging in private personal behavior that is nonetheless in the public sphere and that acquires public hostility and benefit or harm to our public reputation.
Part of the problem has been that there has always been a sharp divide between public reputation and private honor. Presidents and kings, for example, were known to be scoundrels in their personal lives, squabbling with their children, deeply disloyal to their wives, and engaged in all kinds of moral and economic and political corruption. That corruption was always kept behind closed doors, though, and it was necessary for people to maintain a reputation for probity by being discreet where they lacked honor in their personal lives by being decent. Generations of people, especially men, grew up with this standard being displayed, and the double standard that resulted was one of the elements that led to the rise of early feminism. While properly decrying the double standard that existed between sordid personal lives totally lacking in honor and the reputation of upright and even sanctimonious moral probity, many of the social trends of the past century have resulted in the decline of behavior to match its most sordid elements, rather than any attempt to behave in such a way that we may be worthy of the reputations we seek. This is not to say that such work is easy—it is particularly unpleasant and difficult work consisting of frequent and pervasive restraint, and a great deal of personal discomfort, but it is honorable work nonetheless. What recent changes in media, whether in the proliferation of amateur digital photography, blogging, or amateur videography, or reality television for that matter, have done is to remove the wall that formerly protected the outside world from seeing the private world inside our minds, inside our hearts, and inside our homes. Quite honestly, this is a world that many are compelled and horrified by at the same time, as this growing candor, without any corresponding growth in decency, has shown everyone just how screwed up everyone else is. And once we have seen that, we cannot ever forget it.
Again, this comes with a price. Part of that price is paid in a loss of respect for people in offices. We may have always known that various powerful and influential people were corrupt, but when we have the evidence in reading their e-mails, listening to them on audio, or seeing them in video, our respect for such people necessarily is reduced. Since people regularly seek honor and dignity from offices to bolster their personal reputation, when the people who hold offices are shown to be unworthy of that honor, our natural and human tendency is to lower our respect in those offices. It is entirely to be expected that people, like the gentleman who gave the sermon message last week in my local congregation, should wish to bolster respect in institutional authorities in an age where contempt for authority of all kinds is a serious menace. The message is necessary, and even those of us who struggle deeply and openly to respect authorities  must admit that insofar as we respect the moral position of the Bible, we must accept that it consistently requires a respect for authority in all spheres of life, to be done as much as possible without murmur and complaint, regardless of the justice and honor of the people who hold such offices. That said, at times it seems as if the arguments are too self-serving, and that oftentimes what is in fact an often unconscious mimicry of a declining social standard of deference and respect for authority, or the result of deeply scarring and horrible personal trauma, is taken as a personal attack. In such a realm, the distress of those who are alarmed by insecure authorities is read and interpreted as seditious and rebellious, with the full attention and hostility of the institutions they govern falling on such unfortunate blunt speakers of truth and strong personal opinions.
The problem is larger than any of ourselves. The problem is, how do we behave in the absence of trust in others, a concern for the sensitivities of others, or honest and open communication with other people about where their lines exist and where ours exist and what is the best sort of behavior for all of us to engage in to both graciously accept the freedom of others to live so that they do not continually offend us, and also to live in such a way that we do not continually offend others by being rude and insensitive? Our public lives and private lives used to be separated by very high walls and hedges, so that it was possible, even normal, for people to live different (albeit hypocritical ) lives on different sides of those walls. Those walls have been torn down, mostly in ignorance of the full ramifications of that decision by those who have sought increased control of their public image and the profits that have come to making one’s private life more public. Having torn those boundaries down, with growing hostility to public standards of restrictive decorum that hid certain more unsavory aspects of private life from public scrutiny, and with a growing desire to be respected and honored for who we are, warts and scars and all, we do not know how to live. People see aspects of our private life that would have made previous generations shudder in absolute horror, but without having earned that access through goodwill and through building up trustworthiness. We disrespect any public proclamation of virtuous standards in the knowledge of widespread private vice, evil that in different ways cuts through everyone’s personal life. Yet the only way we have of arresting our moral decline is to make the restraint and polite graciousness that has in times past been accepted public decorum the exacting standard of our private lives, which are no longer private. We cannot do this alone—we will need all of our own strength, all of the encouragement we can get from trustworthy friends and family members, and all of the aid possible we can get from our Heavenly Father and our Elder Brother, Jesus Christ. If we cannot rebuild the walls that once protected our private lives from public scrutiny, we must live our lives in the fishbowl with as much honor and dignity as we can summon, in the knowledge of the horrific stress it places on us all, even as it makes our lives a more public example for others to follow, if they wish. Welcome to my eruv—and may I be paid in coin in this world or in the world to come for the vulnerability that comes from welcoming you inside. May you prove yourself worthy of my trust.
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