Conscious Living, or The Need for Tikkun Olam

by Stuart Portman

The sunshine was misleading. The warmth of the rays could barely break through the cold air ensconcing the snow-covered ground. As I walked to the bus stop, I quickly stepped over the snow piled 10 inches high on the side of the road, deep in thought. I need to find a job. I need pick up a bag from my friend’s house. I need to finish a project for work, and I have a friend visiting, so I should probably clean my apartment. So much to worry about, and I only had 6 hours to get everything done.

As I waited for the bus, I noticed a woman doing the same. She was swaying and stepping from side to side rather than standing still. It wasn’t the cold; it seemed liked a neurological condition that made it difficult to move; she had all of the signs of a regular tick or medical treatment. Soon, the bus arrived and I quickly stepped on to get out of the cold.

Behind me, the woman waited. The bus was her sole source of transportation, and the driver knew her. He lowered the bus lift to assist her getting onto the bus. The lift whirred, slowly creaking into place…then stopped. Due to the snow banks, the lift could not lower properly; the platform was at an angle from the ground.

The woman muttered that she was unable to get on board.  The driver reversed the lift, and tried moving the bus closer to the snow embankment. She could not lift her legs high enough to overcome the mound of snow. I offered a hand, but it wasn’t enough. The woman stepped back, frustrated, realizing she would have to wait to conduct her business until the snow was cleared or had melted. Her entire day, ruined by snow plowed to make the streets a safer place.

This was jarring. This woman had some form of disability, and because she had a limited range of motion, was unable to ride the bus. My heart burned, and I felt diminished, unable to assist this woman who had intended to carry about her day like any other person. How did something that felt so wrong have no person at fault? Why was I, a person with many privileges, unable to assist? Suddenly, my problems were less important. Suddenly, I was aware of my own physical abilities.

With my Jewish faith and my public health Master’s degree, I felt that there was something that I could do. In fact, it felt like I was required to act. Tikkum olam, the practice of repairing the world, requires us to root out injustice to make the world a better place. But where was the injustice? There was no singular party at fault, and no intentional malice was portrayed.  

How do we balance concern for the independence of others, individual autonomy, and a desire to create a society that values each person? Tikkun olam has guided my personal development for 24 years, and how I struggle to address the world around me will further my understanding of the interconnectedness of all people. This process will be painful at times, but in seeking justice, sometimes pain provokes the most powerful results.


Justice isn’t a uniquely Jewish belief. We live in a world that prioritizes the here and now, and always seeks to differentiate “us” and “them”. But our humanity exists outside of this. We forget that suffering surrounds us in ways that we cannot imagine, and we often don’t see it. Everyone has problems, but what do they mean? We can rationalize our own as being of utmost importance, but really, what matters? Who we choose to be and how we choose to help others matters far more than whether my apartment is clean or if something happened to a bag. We rush through life from priority to priority, refusing to acknowledge the world around us. It is time to stop and think. It is time to be consciously alive.

Stuart Portman will graduate in May 2015 with his Master of Public Health degree from the Milken Institute School of Public Health at The George Washington University. A native of St. Louis, he was active in his synagogue youth group and the St. Louis Jewish community at large. He completed his undergraduate coursework at the University of Denver, earning degrees in Biological Sciences and Political Science. A social justice advocate, he constantly seeks to initiate dialogue between differing parties to encourage positive change.