June 14, 2010
Posted: 05:33 PM ET
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is founder of This World: The Values Network. He has just published “Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life." The opinions expressed below are his own, and we welcome your comments.
If I hear one more public fight about gay marriage or abortion I’m going to eat my yarmulke. Why does it irk me? Because it distracts us from the real conversation this country has to have on values. We need to start talking about materialism and greed. It’s not enough to survive a potentially catastrophic economic meltdown by the skin of our teeth. We need to focus on how we became so materially insatiable in the first place that we borrowed money up the wazoo until there was almost nothing left.
Americans are rightly terrified of a national deficit that is expected to hit $20 trillion within a decade. But can we really fix the problem without first addressing our addiction to public and personal spending and how enough is never enough? This isn’t politics. It’s primarily about values. The more purposeful people feel on the inside about a life that has meaning and spiritual import, the less they rely on buying junk on the outside to fill them up. That’s why I advocate, in my new book Renewal, that Americans replace their chosen value of ‘sacred space,’ meaning a love for property and objects, with ‘sacred time,’ an appreciation for human relationships and intimate moments.
And just look at how dumb we’re all becoming. How can a generation of Americans, sixty percent of whom have College degrees, ruminate endlessly over such earth-shattering issues like Lindsay Lohan wearing an ankle bracelet while we pay almost no attention to brave soldiers dying in Afghanistan? Simple. We value an education over enlightenment. The former is about getting a degree and then you’re done. The latter is a lifelong thirst for knowledge. Unless we rediscover the value of Enlightenment, as I discuss in ‘Renewal,’ we risk leading lives characterized by endless boredom because we lack true intellectual inquisitiveness. We also risk having stultifying relationships because, unable to penetrate the deeper layers of the people we love; we quickly tire of them as well.
Finally, why are we Americans so miserable? We’re the richest country in the world, but we consume three quarters of the earth’s anti-depressants. There are many reasons but one of the most important is that Americans try too hard to be perfect. From the question of ‘What would Jesus do,’ in which we compare ourselves to a perfect being, to seeing magazine covers of women’s bodies airbrushed into perfection, to constantly reading about guys like Steve Jobs and Warren Buffet who never put a financial foot wrong, all of our heroes seem to be nearly flawless. We absorb the stories and images of these outsize personalities and then look in the mirrors at our flabby thighs or our dead-end jobs and we feel like failures by comparison.
In Renewal, I reject perfection in favor of struggle. Jesus was a Jew, and the Jews don’t have a single model of perfection in their entire Bible. All are people who struggled to the right thing and had imperfect families. All tried to do right before G-d even as they often messed up. Perfect people are boring, predictable, and monolithic. But those who struggle through life and embrace the full range of their humanity – from struggling to be happily married to struggling to raise good kids to struggling to pay bills – end up much more colorful, alive, vibrant, and deep. Let’s start forgiving ourselves for being human.
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