“When you walk through the city in the morning, what do you think about?” Alessandro asked his father.
“Do you think of the city itself?”
“No. I used to, but I’ve had a profession for a number of years, and it has mastered me. A profession is like a great snake that wraps itself around you. Once you are enwrapped, you are in a slow fight for the rest of your life, and the lightness of youth leaves you. You don’t have time, for example, to think about the city even as you are walking through it.” (Mark Helprin, A Soldier of the Great War, 119)
Helprin’s lament is not only for the time – those countless hours of precious time! – that we invest in our careers. He is concerned, also, about the way our professions, and the anxieties and stress that accompany them, come to dominate our thoughts. For when our thoughts are preoccupied by to-do lists that are never completed, we no longer notice the sights and sounds that surround us.
Nachmanides writes that “a person exists where his thoughts are.” (Ramban, Iggeret HaKodesh, ch. 5). This truism, though oft repeated, is far from obvious. Suppose a person lives in London, but thinks about New York. If you would interrupt his reverie about the city that never sleeps, and ask him – “where have you been for the last few minutes?” – he would tell you, almost certainly, that he has been in London, and was ‘only thinking’ of New York. His assumption is that, in reality, he is actuallyin London, and that his thoughts of New York were not as real.
But this attitude, according to Rabbi Itamar Schwartz, assigns too much importance to […]