My May column for the Voice and Herald
When our son Sam was little, he played a game called ‘Eggy Palmer.” “Eggy Palmer” is an impish children’s book character who turns milk sour. My husband would pour himself a before-dinner drink, and Sam would sidle over and wave his hand over the glass, saying, “I’m Eggy Palmer!” David would sip his drink and twist his face in disgust. Hilarity would ensue – except for David, who discovered that when he made a sour face, his martini really did taste terrible.
Psychologists confirm a similar phenomenon. In one study, subjects who thought they were testing headphones’ durability were told to move their heads up-and-down or side-to-side while they listened to an opinion piece. When they were asked afterwards to evaluate the argument they’d heard, those who had nodded felt much more certain of their judgments than those who had shaken their heads. Action influences attitude.
The Eggy Palmer effect plays out in religion, too. Judaism distinguishes keva, ritual’s predetermined form, from kavanah, the mindset we bring to the ritual. Without mindful intention, we’re often reminded, religious ritual becomes a hollow exercise. The Talmud says we shouldn’t even stand up to pray unless we’re already in a “reverent frame of mind.” And when we do pray, unless our hearts are directed to Heaven, we’re not really getting the job done. If you’re thinking about your next Scrabble move while you light the Shabbat candles, you’re just playing with matches.
In fact, the keva-kavanah connection also operates in the other direction. Start going through the motions, and motivation often follows. That’s how it works for me, more often than not. The effect is usually too subtle to really notice. But it can also be dramatic. Shaking the lulav on Sukkot, for example, strikes me as silly, archaic, even alienating. I hesitate to participate. But when I force myself to engage, the ritual reveals its meaning. The point of the practice isn’t in the thinking, but the doing.
How does this work? Philosopher Howard Wettstein proposes one explanation in his 1997 paper, “Awe and the Religious Life.” Wettstein quotes Abraham Joshua Heschel, who, in “God in Search of Man” writes, “There is no faith at first sight.” Faith doesn’t come “as an unearned surprise,” says Heschel. Rather, it is “preceded by awe, by acts of amazement at things that we apprehend but cannot comprehend.”
The birth of a child, a spectacular sunset and a great work of art all inspire awe. And the Jewish system of blessings gives these moments their due, insuring they’re not lost in the press of daily life, Wettstein suggests.
But great jazz solos and postcard skies only come around now and then. And that’s the other reason we need ritual, according to Wettstein. All those scheduled prayers and candle-lightings and so on create opportunities for what Rabbi Elliot Dorff describes as the dual experience of being “humbled but elevated” – of recognizing simultaneously a sense of one’s human limitation and of having been created in the divine image.
The experience doesn’t just feel good. As Wettstein suggests, it can also do good, by inspiring generosity of spirit, lack of pettiness, increased ability to forgive and to contain anger and disappointment. These are godly attributes – worthy aspirations no matter what your view of God.
Is the Eggy Palmer effect a form of self-deception? You could call it that. Or you could see it as a useful tool for attitude adjustment. It doesn’t succeed for everyone or in all situations, but it can be surprisingly effective.
Years after he pretended to sour David’s martini, our son started college, and found himself assigned to the roommate from hell. It could have been the worst year of his life, but Sam was determined not to let it be. Since he couldn’t change his roommate, he decided to change himself. Rather than dwelling on the parts of his life that annoyed him, he concentrated on those that made him happy.
“I pretended to be more excited than I really was,” he later explained to us. “I figured if I acted excited, I would start to feel excited, and then I wouldn’t care as much about the other stuff.” The ploy worked.
Sam didn’t know it, but he was confirming the claim of the early 19th-century Hasidic rabbi, Nachman of Breslov. “If you don’t feel happy, pretend to be,” Rabbi Nachman advised. “Act happy. Genuine joy will follow.”