BETWEEN ORDER AND CHAOS
Gordon Allport, one of the most well-respected and influential psychologists of the 20th century, sifted through a dictionary and compiled a list of 4,504 possible personality traits. Based on various statistical analysis, the most common approach in personality psychology today is that all of these traits fit within five main categories, appropriately termed “The Big Five.” Of the five, the one that is consistently held up as being valuable for success across many important areas of life is conscientiousness. People high in conscientiousness are efficient, organized, disciplined, planned, and orderly. They tend to do well in school and at work, make more money, live emotionally healthier, happier, and longer lives than those who are low on this trait.
Religious people also tend to be conscientious. It isn’t hard to see why being efficient, organized, disciplined, planned, and orderly could help with the religious routine. Take Pesach for example, where conscientiousness takes center stage. The Seder literally means “Order”; we follow a distinctly regimented fifteen-part process, with the Haggadah as our guide. Strict rules regulate behavior with specific measurements of how much matzah and wine is consumed. Not to mention the cleanliness and orderliness necessary to rid the house of Chametz. Pesach is a celebration of conscientiousness.
Yet, there can be a dark side to conscientiousness. Too much conscientiousness is linked to obsessive-compulsiveness. Orderly can turn into rigid, disciplined into perfectionism, and hard-working into workaholism. One interesting manifestation of this downside was reported in a study concluding that conscientious people were more prone to negative mental health outcomes following unemployment. The lack of goals and routine, difficulty being flexible, along with the loss of a system that was so core to their identity, posed significant challenges. And as much as we can laud Pesach as a positive expression of conscientiousness, I am sure everyone has a personal experience where orderliness was taken just too far.
In truth, like with most traits, balance, moderation, and wise application is key. As much as the Seder is regimented, embedded in the order is a break from routine. We purposely do things that are out of order to spark the curiosity of the children. While the core text of the Haggadah is essential, we are also encouraged to personalize and dramatize the experience. Imagination and creativity, two facets of a different Big Five category (“openness to experience”) that are often seen as being negatively associated with conscientiousness, are also integral. An immersive Seder with singing, acting, and vivid mental imagery allows us to really envision ourselves as leaving Egypt. The Hallel that we sing is not supposed to be a trite repetition of an ancient text, but a spontaneous outburst of songs of praise to God for saving us from the depths of despair.
The Seder experience is supposed to be a fine blend of predictability and spontaneity, rigidity and flexibility, orderliness and chaos. Too much in either extreme and we miss the point. From this perspective, the Seder stands as a paradigm for our lives in general. Finding a balance between extreme traits and providing opportunities for utilizing different aspects of our personalities in various settings is a fine recipe for psychological and religious growth. May we merit having a healthily conscientious Seder fused with an added dose of creativity and imagination.