I’m Holding on to this Ox


With all apologies to my reduced blogging output this week, it is the year 5779 for us celebrating Rosh Hashana.  I’ve been spending some much needed time with my family and the wonderful  community at Temple Beth Abraham in Nashua, New Hampshire. We came to them as strangers, but were welcomed and felt a part of their community even in the brief moments we  spent together. Todah RabahTemple Beth Abraham!

An idea was  discussed by their Rabbi— a very thoughtful scholar and mensch, and I wish to share it with you. The idea was a particular mitzvah: keeping and returning to others their oxen and their lambs. Bear with me — like so many things in religion, it is metaphorical.

The oxen represent strength and the  things that are capable of carrying us forward. The lambs are to represent wool, and the comfort of warmth. The leaving things  behind/storing/returning part is the critical idea. People sometimes leave things behind. They forget their material goods, sure, but more importantly they sometimes change their in their personalities, belief systems, and capacities. Those parts of themselves that gave them strength or comfort, but have since been abandoned to give to others, because they were no longer important, because it was time to move on. Maybe like Dan Gilbert it was a disposition  to free love, and a free-wheelin’ life on the road. Maybe like David Barlow it was dreams of athletic stardom and heroics  on the baseball field  that helped his little league team advance to the world series. Those lambs and oxen were abandoned and now are kept with others. Those willing to keep those memories and artifacts from our lives.

The thing is we regularly leave behind the person we were and take on new roles, perspectives, responsibilities, and cognitive dispositions. Each time we revisit with family or old friends they have the capacity to remind us of who were. And return to us the pieces of ourselves and  themselves that we have left  behind. It’s such a beautiful idea: I keep your oxen for you, and you hold mine for me. When we next visit each other we are ourselves but also given access to those parts of ourselves left in safekeeping with our families, our friends.

This idea goes to a key issue in Elizabeth Spelke‘s research: core cognitive concepts. This idea that we have innate tendencies and dispositions for all of our cognitive abilities. During our lifespan our sensitivities change, adapting to the nuance of the world and the critical informational mechanisms we need to thrive. We carry a piece of ourselves forward, abandoning that which we no longer need, adding things that are critical for the journey ahead.

I hope that this Journey2Psychology can act as just such a mitzvah for Psychology: to help  return the oxen to these amazing  influential scholars and to  share/remind us all (new and experienced in Psychology) about the ideas,   perspectives, and dispositions we have held as a field. Where we have progressed since that time. What might await us in the journey ahead.

Here we are. A field that can trace small pieces of itself to ancient Greeks and Arab scholars, but our experimental history is barely 100 years old. Our modern history, so dramatically affected by the advent of computers, neuro imaging techniques, and so many other technologies and  ideas, is rapidly emerging.  In each moment we can evaluate  the nexus: who we are now, where we were,  where we are going. And at each nexus we have the opportunity to help each other with reminders of our lives and history together.

The project continues, as I venture back to Harvard and Boston University this week and will be sharing  conversations from an amazing cognitive developmental researcher   and clinical researcher, respectively!


(Pictured are the 4000+ year old stone structures at America’s Stonehenge. It’s a crazy cool bit of Americana  that is definitely old and interesting.  While it is a lot of good things, it probably is not appropriately classified an a “henge” – albeit henge-friendly. )



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