A kid wishes to be popular in high school; indeed the greatest desire of an adolescent is to please others. But this yearning does not terminate with the conclusion of adolescence unless somewhere along the way there was abrupt enrollment in the School of Hard Knocks or other enlightenment.
Lucky is the kid who was not popular in high school, the best athlete, or the cutest – for they may have learned at an early age to develop one’s character rather than an image to impress others. In the process they have become more autonomous, which enhances their chances for happiness.
So goes the story about a man in the silly town of Chelm who visited a public bathhouse and found himself in a terrible predicament. Without the distinction of clothing, everyone looked alike. “Among all these men who look alike,” he said to himself, “how will I ever know which one is me?” He solved his dilemma by tying a red string around his big toe.
However, as he was showering, the red string dislodged and ended up on someone else’s toe.
When the Chelmite discovered the string on the foot of a different bather, he approached him and inquired, “I know who you are, but who am I?”
This quaint folktale conveys the consequence of focusing on others and neglecting your true self. Thus one can be subject to enslavement that is totally internal. This is a novel concept to a world that thinks primarily in terms of external liberation. Be it Women’s Liberation, Third World Liberation or Palestinian Liberation, none of these liberation movements will ever bring about happiness to the individual protestor who suffers from a lack of internal freedom.
Russian dissident Anatoly Sharansky was imprisoned in solitary confinement in a Gulag concentration camp. Yet he would not succumb to the tortures his imprisoners inflicted in order to break him. He was locked in a freeze box, but internally he remained free to the point that he had more emotional equilibrium and inner peace than many Americans in the lap of luxury. Sharansky’s body was in prison but his mind remained autonomous.
Autonomy spares one from being miserable over the happiness of others. A contented person does not compare herself to others, nor demands to know why the Jones’s are so happy? Think back to my daughter who was awash in a sea of misery composed of siblings bellyaching over why (they believe) they have been deprived cornflakes akin to what their neighbor received.
Dennis Prager related hearing an interview with pitching great Dwight Gooden, who excoriated about receiving only a $6 million contract when the same year another pitching great, Orel Hershiser, received $7.9 million.
Six million dollars is a lot of money to use and be proud of, yet for Gooden it was tainted and spoiled by the fact that his eyes were on Hershiser’s salary.
“What then,” thundered Prager, “is a rookie baseball player to think, [one] who is earning the minimum $60,000?” The fact that this salary is well over 200 percent more than the full-time salary based on the U.S. federal minimum wage is immaterial to one whose eyes are focused on his teammates.
An autonomous individual would exult over the fact that he has graduated from the minor leagues. One who is unfree cannot relish his fortune.
Had Gooden – and most everyone else – established a “point of contentment” (meaning a salary, or work position, or neighborhood of choice that would make them content), then achieving anything above that would be a source of tremendous, nay, overwhelming satisfaction, not frustration. A point of contentment enables one to enjoy a bowl of cornflakes without having a meltdown over the sogginess or powderiness of the surrounding bowls. It also enables satisfaction over what we are blessed with and deflates ruinous inflammation over what we do not have.