Friday, November 17, 2006

A Generation Without Sacrifices

We are the blessed generations. We, the Boomer and Gen Xers of North America, have had it better than any other generation in history. No Holocaust, no Communism, no World Wars, and no Great Depression. We can take for granted exceptional wealth as well as unprecedented luxuries and technologies. 21st century North America appears to be a contemporary Garden of Eden.

At the center of this Garden of Eden stands the consumer. A culture of consumerism worships the individual, catering to every possible appetite. Advertising campaigns feature taglines like “because you’re worth it” and “for me, myself and I”. The service sector keeps growing economically, and the customer is king. Consumers are entertained and pampered, and offered exotic pleasures. It’s a great time to be alive.

Yet there is trouble in this new paradise. People simply aren’t happy. Remarkably, even though life has vastly improved in the past century, research shows that people actually feel less happy than previous generations. (Greg Easterbrook has called this “The Progress Paradox”). Apparently, happy lives require more than “me, myself and I”.

I was considering this “progress paradox” while reading the Biblical narrative of Akeidat Yitzchak, the binding of Isaac. In this narrative, Abraham is told by God to sacrifice his son Isaac; and Abraham is immediately ready to comply with God’s command.

Most people are extremely disturbed by this narrative. It is of course disturbing on a moral level: How could God command Abraham to commit murder? But the text also disturbs us because it is so foreign. Abraham’s selflessness is out of place in a self centered culture of consumerism. And that’s precisely our problem.

I believe the Akeidah holds the answer to the “progress paradox”. Without character, material comfort is meaningless. The extreme self-sacrifice of the Akeidah will hopefully never be necessary; yet the selflessness Abraham displayed is a basic ingredient to living a good life. Overindulgence is a series of empty comforts, but an altruistic sacrifice is not only meaningful, but actually makes you happier.

The Akeidah’s message needs to be heard more clearly. Wendy Mogel, a psychologist working with an affluent clientele, felt frustrated by problems that seemed to transcend her therapeutic techniques. She realized that her clients were not suffering from psychological problems, but rather from parental overindulgence and overprotection. What they really needed was solid values to anchor their families. In response to their problems, she wrote a book entitled “The Blessings of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self Reliant Children”. Genuine happiness requires serious values, values that include antiquated notions like self control and selflessness.

Yet these values are usually ignored. Some couples will refuse to have an additional child because it’ll dent their standard of living. They assume this will make them happy, yet this is a tragic mistake. By trading in their baby for a BMW, they have performed a bizarre 21st century Akeidah, sacrificing children for material goods. This faux Akeidah is a recipe for a meaningless, materialistic life.

It’s time to unravel the “progress paradox”. We must learn that values are more important than vanity, and noble sacrifices actually pay dividends.

1 comment:

Ralph Perlberger said...

Beautifully made point.