KAVOD: The Hidden Lurking Menace Among Us
I am writing this as I am watching a marriage unravel. Suffice it to say that I am close enough to both the husband and the wife to know all the details. A shattered marriage is very rarely a simple matter, but for the purpose of this letter I will address one particular aspect of its demise that I believe might be beneficial to your readers.
Many of us are familiar with the famous verse in Pirkei Avos that decries honor as one of three things (the other two being envy and lust) that remove a person from the world. I am writing about the desire for kavod as I am currently overwhelmed by the destruction I have seen it wreak. The very worst part is that a person can be a slave to this vice and see it destroy everything in his path, yet still have no idea that he has the problem at all.
There is rehab for drug addicts and alcoholics, but for people who covet honor excessively there is no known cure and/or even diagnostic criteria. The desire for honor often masquerades as a host of other problems or even no problem at all, while inflicting at least as much damage as a full-fledged clinical disorder.
This couple is divorcing after many, many years together. The frazzled wife has taken her husband to every mental health professional within 100 miles and then some. He has emerged each time with one or another assessment or diagnosis. Somehow none of these seasoned professionals were able to put a finger on the fact that perhaps what appeared to be “social awkwardness” and an “inability to empathize” was in fact more like “so full of himself that he cannot deign to make room for others even in basic conversation” and “considers himself too important to discuss anything trivial enough to actually interest another person.” Somehow it escaped every last one of these professionals that the husband’s endless monologues about his grand theories on subjects he has no objective expertise in – a habit that has alienated everyone around him over the years – stems from something as simple as a desire to self-aggrandize.
There is much arrogance at the root of the seemingly innocent and eccentric act of talking about grand theories. A person vehemently insisting he knows the answers to America’s problems is really saying that s/he should have been elected its president. Subjects more commonly discussed in typical social settings are dismissed as the petty prattle of the menial classes.
I should mention that this particular husband has not held down a job in almost a decade. No one is giving him the honor of running after him with a job, and no job that would consider him is good enough for him. When an employment agent (that his wife schlepped him to) told him about a job opening that seemed promising, the man replied, “But what about my ten o’clock breakfast?”
Of course there were the professionals who saw the husband’s obvious lack of motivation as a form of depression or an eccentric dissociation from the real world. Absolutely none of them saw what I saw and continue to see: a man refusing to take one step without the red carpet being rolled out for him.
Years and years of professional intervention have completely failed to zero in on this man’s real problem, and subsequently that of his family’s: an insatiable desire for kavod. I am writing this because I am convinced there are more people where he came from, many who are beyond help because their problem is not outwardly identifiable.
People who covet honor look and act “normal” and often show no outward signs of imbalance; to the contrary, they often dress and act to attract the honor they so badly crave. But as Pirkei Avos teaches us, the more you run after honor, the more it runs away from you. Hence, these outwardly normal and even likable people are trapped in vicious cycles of failure and disappointment, cycles that will inevitably be explained away by professionals as sourcing from any number of causes – rarely the actual one.
Some of us may know an absolutely incredible single man or woman who just can’t find the right person or a dedicated mother whose kids are all in various stages of rebellion. Maybe we have a wonderful friend who has just emerged from a third marriage, and we can’t for the life of us figure out why. Can the hidden lurking menace perhaps be the desire for honor?
One thing that makes the desire for kavod so formidable a foe is that to so many of us it is “normal.” Most of us would agree that it is “better” to be a doctor than a nurse, or to drive a BMW rather than a Honda. These are normal, even acceptable beliefs. To some people, pursuing honor is almost a religious imperative, since so many of us consider it “wrong” to be working at a menial job at age 30 or to be – and subsequently to marry someone – overweight. Overcoming the desire for honor (which is hard enough to identify in the first place) involves imagining a way to be happy without the things our materialistic society tells us are important. This takes a large amount of applied creativity and introspection, perhaps even a lifetime of it.
There is no simple formula for a single man to undo years of conditioning that has him believe an acceptable relationship requires a perfect woman with a perfect body whose hair is never out of place, even when she is mopping the floor. Many men – even those believed to be a “great catch” – are single for precisely this reason. They are trapped in a doomed race for honor because they have somehow been conditioned to believe that what is honored is “right” and what is not honored is “wrong.”
I am hoping that by writing this article I can bring us as a community just a little bit closer to finding a solution as we grapple with it together.
See No Easy CureRachel
About the Author: We encourage women and men of all ages to send in their personal stories via email to firstname.lastname@example.org or by mail to Rachel/Chronicles, c/o The Jewish Press, 4915 16th Ave., Brooklyn, N.Y. 11204. If you wish to make a contribution and help agunot, your tax-deductible donation should be sent to The Jewish Press Foundation. Please make sure to specify that it is to help agunot, as the foundation supports many worthwhile causes.
If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.