November 2013 Features

Recipes for a Sacred Life

Excerpt from a new book by Rivvy Neshama ’63.

While writing Recipes for a Sacred Life: True Stories and a Few Miracles, Rivvy Neshama ’63 found herself drawing on her time at Bryn Mawr. Released in November by Divine Arts, an imprint of Michael Wiese Productions, this collection of short essays—excerpted here—highlights the people and experiences that taught her how to live a good life; one, she says, that is “touched with sacredness.” Neshama is a writer and community organizer who has written for Ms., Glamour, and The New York Times. You can learn more about her work at rivvyneshama.com.

Rivvy Neshama '63

Rivvy Neshama ’63

Do the Right Thing

I was a beatnik in college. I wore black tights, smoked French cigarettes, and majored in philosophy. The boys I dated also majored in “phil.” It felt very Jean Paul Sartre/Simone de Beauvoir. But, as my mother noted, it didn’t put me on a career track. It didn’t even have staying power. I read umpteen books, yet all I remember now are a few sound bites (“God is dead”—Nietzsche), or some motif, like the caves in Plato’s Republic. Worse still, I recall endless discussions on What is Real and little guidance on What is Right or how to do the right thing. With one exception, Kant’s categorical imperative. It goes like this:

“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”

RecipesRight. In poor-man’s English that means: Before doing anything, you need to imagine everyone else doing the same thing and it still being okay. Kant called this the ultimate moral dictum, and I call it brilliant. I could no longer tell “just one person” a piece of gossip or not speak out if our government did something grievously wrong. It was Kant’s categorical imperative that helped me explain to my second-grade students why littering “just one candy wrapper” could lead to an environmental disaster. And it was Kant’s C.I. that let me tell my own young children that they couldn’t pick “just one flower” from Central Park because if everyone did it, there’d be no flowers left.

“But …” Tony protested, “not everyone is going to do it.”

“Tony,” I answered, “don’t be a smartass.”

Still, there are conflicts that require a more subtle measure than Kant proposed. For those, I go to my heart or gut. Deepak Chopra says that sensations in our body can help us make the right choice. I find it’s true. As I prepare to heal a friendship or share something I’ve repressed, I imagine what I’m about to say or do and check how it feels inside. If it feels bad, I drop it; if it feels good, I move ahead.

And then, in those times when I’m truly confused—or know what to do but feel too angry to do it—I reflect on a picture on my office wall. A sepia print from the 1920s, it shows a Native American man looking up at the mountains, and the words below it say, “When in doubt, go higher.” So I do. I go higher and reach for my spirit. And the view from there is clear enough to help me find my way.

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