Recently, I came across a talk show whose topic of discussion was about managing personal finances. Several people asked the show’s guest, a financial expert, for advice. Most of them were financially in what my parents, a”h, referred to in Yiddish as gehakte tzurris (deep trouble). All were sinking in a quicksand of debt. Most had maxed out their credit cards and some faced the loss of their home.
A break from the litany of woe being expressed on the show came from a woman who stated that she had, over a period of several years, managed to repay over $40,000 of credit card debt. Members of the audience cheered and applauded her- but I couldn’t help wondering how this seemingly intelligent, well-spoken woman had allowed herself to get into such a mess in the first place.
The circumstances that led to her debt were not discussed. Perhaps it was due to circumstances beyond her control, like medical bills not covered by insurance. But based on the little that I heard, my impression was that she, like so many North Americans, just wanted it all – now.
Today’s society seems to be about immediate gratification with no regard for future consequences, a culture beset with a seemingly contagious lack of self-discipline or self-control. If there is something you want, you get it – regardless of affordability.
I feel this chronic self-indulgent behavior is fueled by two factors – low self-esteem and an absence of boundaries.
Most people don’t have what I call a personal “border control.” They have no boundaries. There are no “nos” in their life. Restrictions and limits that were the norm just a generation or two ago are viewed as old-fashioned and seemingly obsolete.
I remember a time when it was a booshah and a charpah (shame and embarrassment) for an unwed girl to have an intimate relationship, let alone be an unwed mother. Pregnant girls were sent out of town to have their babies, thrown out by their families or forced into “shotgun weddings.” Nowadays you are considered a freak and an object of ridicule if you exercise restraint until you’re married. As for single motherhood, it’s become quite fashionable and even respectable in many circles.
Behavioral “fences” have been removed, and I believe one of the reasons for this is the secularization of society. Religious practice for many, both in the Christian and Jewish worlds, has gone the way of the buggy whip.
I remember as a child in Toronto that on Sundays, the city was closed for business. Very few stores were allowed to be open on Sunday – a situation that caused a great deal of financial hardship for Shomer Shabbat businesses that had to remain closed the entire weekend.
Today, however, North America is buying and selling 365 days a year.
The beauty of religion, especially Orthodox Judaism with its myriad rules, prohibitions and regulations, is that it promotes self-discipline. From a young age, children raised in religious homes are taught they can do some things sometimes, but not everything every time. Immediate gratification is not on the agenda in religious homes. Children learn patience, self-discipline and self-control because they must. And eventually, it becomes second nature to wait for what they want.
The ingrained habit of holding off from getting what they want immediately can only serve to maximize their ability to avoid self-destructive behaviors like gambling, drinking or overspending.
For example, obesity in North America is becoming an epidemic – and it is no surprise. When you grow up without restrictions, when you eat what you want whenever you want day after day, you do it – and the consequences are dire. When you’ve never had to hold back or when you aren’t used to doing things you’d rather not do (like awaking early to daven) it is unlikely that you will have developed the discipline to, for instance, hold back on fattening foods or exercising daily.
Sadly, there are Jews who do not believe in a Divinely-given Torah and reject its rules and regulations. Of these Jews, most were never given the opportunity to experience Yiddishkeit. Some, however, were brought up religious, but for various reasons went off the path.
Yet by virtue of the borders that a Torah life provides – because of the boundaries and the resultant self-control that is the life-enhancing gift of a Torah lifestyle – they should reconsider their attitude and do themselves and their families a big chesed by embracing Torah for the magnificent blueprint to life that it is.
There are no guarantees of a perfect life. Torah-observant Jews are still human and subject to human weaknesses and frailties, and some – despite being raised in homes with Torah “borders” – still indulge in unfortunate destructive behaviors and activities. But living a Torah life with its promotion of self-discipline will greatly improve your odds.
In my next column, I will speak about the role negative self-esteem plays in and out of control behavior.