How I Programmed My Life

By Sarah R. Heilbronner


I once took a computer science course, one which was particularly difficult for me, having had no experience in programming. I vividly remember spending many a frustrating night working out bugs, attempting to move through the seemingly unsolvable puzzle of the task at hand. One night, a teaching assistant in the computer lab helped me as I worked through a piece of code. As I made slow progress and became increasingly aggravated, he remarked calmly, “This is good. The more frustrated you are right now, the better you’ll feel when you finally figure out the answer.”

At the time, this response struck me as delusional, perhaps even masochistic: it is not the case that pleasure is only what we feel when pain subsides (“Why are you hitting your head on that wall?” “Because it feels so good when I stop”). Nevertheless, in the end, he was right. When I finally completed that assignment, my satisfaction was far greater than it would have been had I encountered no difficulties in the process.

Why bring up this tale of computing woe and elation? I think it speaks to the nature of human motivation toward complex and uncertain tasks. Had the assignment been an exceptionally simple one (“Turn your computer on.”) or an obviously meaningless one (“Learn to quickly type the alphabet in reverse order.”), my response at completion would surely have been different. My task was neither. I knew that completing the assignment would both teach me something and yield a (mildly amusing) functional finished product, something worth having. That type of goal justifies the intimidating amount of effort that must go into achieving it.

Surely few goals are more “worth the effort” than a coherent moral and religious philosophy. Understanding which things in life are most important, knowing where to turn for moral or ethical help, feeling connected with one’s fellow human beings and perhaps even with the divine, these are our universal strivings, our deliberate aims. Given their importance, why would I not be willing, even eager, to struggle for them? I labored diligently in the pursuit of a computer programming goal–why would the same not be the case for my faith and ideals?

Most people, religious and secular alike, probably grapple with their worldview at various points in life. However, the strivings of a young person who has grown up inside a particular ideological community will have a flavor different from my own. Throughout my childhood, I encountered competing ideologies, Jewish and Christian (and the many strains within each), all of which claimed truth for their own. With a Jewish father and a Christian mother, my extended family represented a broad swath of America’s religions. Moreover, though in late childhood our household accepted a generally Reform Jewish practice, we lived in an overwhelmingly Christian community. With a church on nearly every street corner, the community took Christianity as a given. People were curious about Judaism (I was often asked whether Jews believe in God), but saw it as distinctly foreign.

Emerging from this environment, I take no practice or ideology for granted; my religious life is not routinized. Every year, I fast on Yom Kippur. It is a conscious choice. Likewise, each week, attending Shabbat services is a conscious choice, and each day, acknowledging that I am Jewish is a conscious choice. Sometimes repetition leads to a certain degree of ease, but never yet to the point of unconscious habit.

Complicating observances and acceptance of Jewish ideology even further is the fact that, with each addition, I risk distancing myself from portions of my family and my community. For example, if I cannot eat in my family’s home or in the homes of those I grew up with because I observe strict kosher laws, have I made myself a better person? Thus, the inevitable conclusion: more observance is not necessarily better, and the ideal probably exists somewhere in the balance.

As for the case of the dietary laws, I do not keep kosher, though I follow the Passover restrictions and feel a little funny when I occasionally eat pork. I want to be able to fully interact with my family and the (non-Jewish) community, and that will mean eating with them. The subtlety of this viewpoint likely offends the halakhically observant (those who strictly observe Jewish law) and the stridently secular alike. Without question, strict adherence to a single ideology has its appeal. While committing oneself to that ideology may not be an easy decision, the coherence to be found within the single framework, the already-present answers to questions you have yet to ask, these are comforting and even useful thoughts. Nevertheless, they are not the only viable routes. I personally relish the struggle for balance that comes with the pull of multiple religious traditions within my own life. Surely there is also something beautiful about the conscious deliberation before each act, about the internal struggle that accompanies each religious decision. Then, when some kind of harmony is reached, the rewards are abundant.

After all, the satisfaction felt at the successful completion of a programming assignment pales in comparison to this, my knowledge that I am building, piece-by-piece, a religious framework for life.


About Sarah R. Heilbronner

Sarah R. Heilbronner is a student at Harvard University.