It’s kind of incongruous to be the world’s most prosperous nation but also its most depressed. According to the Washington Post America consumes three quarters of the earth’s anti-depressants, with one out of three women popping Prozac, Zoloft, and Paxil. What makes the phenomenon even more curious is the recent study, published as a Newsweek cover story, which suggested that anti-depressants are no more effective than a placebo, which means that Americans take these pills in the belief that it is always something outside of them that will make them happy.
How could a nation of such wealth foster such unhappiness? The question is compounded by the fact that this republic was founded, as articulated by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, as a place where ‘the pursuit of happiness’ was paramount. And by that count America, for all its other successes, has ultimately failed.
I believe that two are intertwined, that the very mechanism that has made America so rich has also made Americans so miserable.
What everyone most wants in life is to be special. No one is born feeling ordinary. We all believe that there is something about us that distinguishes us, that makes us different, that makes us irreplaceable and unique. Most of our lives are dedicated to proving that uniqueness. Whether it’s through getting A’s in Algebra or winning a race at the swim meet, or getting into Harvard or being hired by a top law firm, our pursuits in life are designed to substantiate our uniqueness. We all want to be a success because success proves we are not, and never have been, ordinary. Our successes make us stand out from the crowd.
But specialness-through-success must always be balanced by specialness-through-being-an-object-of-love. In other words, when you’re born your parents don’t think you’re special because you aced the SAT. They think you’re special because you’re their child. And you don’t have to work at being extraordinary. In their eyes you were born singular and exceptional. No matter how unsightly you’re doodling with crayons, your parents will still put them up on the refrigerator door. And no matter how disruptive the math teachers says you are in class, your parents will still tuck you in at night, read you a story, and tell you how much they love you. The message you get is that there is no one in the world like you. You are given love as a free gift.
Later this feeling of acceptance and specialness will continue as you are slowly embraced by friends and community. It constitutes the principal reason why we Jews make a big deal of a bar and bat mitzvah. We’re telling an adolescent that there is a community of which they are a part that embraces them by simply and passively coming of age. This corroboration of specialness-through-love will culminate when a complete stranger chooses to devote themselves to you unconditionally as their spouse.
This past weekend I had a gall bladder attack and had to be rushed to hospital for emergency surgery. My wife had to witness me in all my ugliness, from screeching in pain to losing any vestige of basic hygiene. Yet, there she was, comforting me and doing her best to make the pain go away.
The message behind all of these actions is that you are special. There’s nothing you have to do to become that way. It’s your birthright. No person is ordinary.
But in America, prosperity was bought through precisely the opposite message. You’re not born special but only become unique through achievement and acquisition. Hard work, financial rewards, big house, elected office – these are what really make you count. Love is not something given freely. Rather, it is something earned.
Michael Jackson summed it up best when he told me, as recorded in our conversations for publication, “I think all my success and fame, I have wanted it because I wanted to be loved. That’s all. That’s the real truth. I wanted people to love me, truly love me, because I never really felt loved. I said, maybe if I sharpened my craft, maybe people will love me more.”
As an engine for material success, making people who feel unworthy work had to prove themselves is unimaginably successful. Just look at how many Olympic athletes were quoted in Vancouver as saying that they won gold because they were told they were washed up, passed it, ordinary. But as an engine of human happiness, I can’t think of anything more depressing that the feeling that you are a big zero until proven otherwise.
This is what led Tiger Woods to feel, as he confessed, that success and a feeling of specialness was always outside him. He had to devour, first championships, and later women, in order to prove himself worthy. It’s also what led Vyacheslav Bykov, the Russian hockey coach, to respond to President Medvedev’s rebuke, when his team left Vancouver without a medal, to say, “Let’s put up a bunch of guillotines and gallows. We have 35 people on the hockey team. Let’s go to Red Square and dispatch with them all.” Because in this Pax Americana world we inhabit, where people are distinguished only when they win, if you lose, you’re dead.
Parents these days withhold their approval in order to motivate their children to do better. The thinking has become that too much validation will give the child nothing to strive for. Friendships today are likewise highly selective. We have ‘contacts’ rather than friends. As for community, well, the more fame you acquire the more love you’ll get. Just look at how Canada highlighted, in the closing Olympic ceremony, a parade of Canadians who actually abandoned their country to live in the United States. The message: they’re famous, so we’re proud of them even if they’re not proud of us.
America, and now the rest of the Western world, has become successful by playing on people’s insecurities. Contrary to the Biblical message that every person is born with a spark of the divine, we’ve instilled within them the belief that they are ordinary until proven otherwise. The result is millions of people who are ambitious not because they believe they are born with an innate gift for singing that can bring others joy but rather that they are faceless unless they win American Idol.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has just published ‘The Blessing of Enough,’ a book that seeks to remedy Western materialism and greed. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley or on his websitewww.shmuley.com