Sunday, July 24, 2005
The Truth About Self-Nullification and Happiness
As a continuation of my conversation with my Rabbi, I wanted to know if what was written in Rabbi Dubov's "Jewish F.A.Q.'s" book [by AskMoses.com] was literally true, or was it hokey BS that religious people use to try to entice lost souls into becoming religious. Basically, in the summary section it says "A life of Torah and mitzvot is the surest path to a good life. It is the very best thing for a human being and will bring him to the greatest fulfillment in this world." [For my non-Jewish readers, note that it said "human being", and not "Jewish person". Keep this in mind when you learn about the 7 Noahide Laws to which non-Jews are obligated to keep.]
Furthermore, the text said:
"In short, if a person wants to have good relationships with his parents, spouse or children he should follow the directives of the Torah. If he wants to have a healthy body he should follow the laws of Kashrut. If he wants to create healthy children he should keep the laws of Taharat Hamishpachah (the laws of family purity). If he wants to have a healthy mind and heart he should lay Tefillin and study Torah. To create a healthy atmosphere at home he should create a home where Torah is studied and mitzvot are kept. If he wants family dialogue he should have a Friday night table upon which words of Torah are discussed. If he wishes to be protected he should have a mezuzah on his door. If he wishes for Divine benevolence he must dispense charity to the needs. These are the pathways, not only to bliss in the World to Come, but also to a meaningful and fulfilling life in this world."
After I read this simplistic paragraph, I was floored. I thought to myself, "is it this simple?? Do X, Y, then Z, and then your life will be taken care of?? Perhaps this is the secret of the Jewish People's survival over the years, and perhaps it could be my reality too if I did these things.
I spoke to the rabbi (my mashpia) about this and I wanted him to prove to me that this was objectively true using statistics and secular logic. What I wanted to know, and in truth, this is the question I have been asking myself this whole time on the blog, is "if I lead a religious life, will I find happiness and fulfillment?"
In short, the rabbi went through my achievements in my life and asked me how I felt about each one. College. Public Speaking. Law School. Grades. Relationships. Accomplishments, etc. From each achievement, I felt nice, but we came to the conclusion that my accomplishments are not making me a happy person because the pleasure I derive from my accomplishments are ego-based, and by its nature, ego (in Hebrew, ga'aiva) is never satisfied. When I become a patent attorney and I make $100,000, and I work and make the law firm millions of dollars, I will feel like I deserve a salary of $150,000. When I make $150,000, and I make the firm even more money, I will want $200,000. In other words, I will never be satisfied with my accomplishments, and I will always be hungering for more. Apply this to many life scenarios and you'll see my point. Counter to logic and modern-day self-help psychology, what you work for and achieve does not make you happy.
However, if I won $1 million dollars on a lotto ticket, we both know I would be jumping for joy! Why? Because I didn't deserve it, and it was given to me. Similarly with one's wife in the shidduch system. In a way, the woman is given to the man and vice versa. They didn't do anything to find the other person, yet the quality of both their lives are increased exponentially because they were introduced to each other. This is true in many areas of life. The general rule is when you think about benefits and good things that have come to you that you did not deserve, these are the things that cause you real happiness. Think of your children. Why is this so? Because most people are put in awe and are silenced when they think that something like this has come to them. The Hebrew word for this sort of experience is bitul, a Chassidic concept that many people don't understand. The point here is that true happiness comes not from what one does, but by focusing on what has been given to him or her in life.
This is why it says in Chassidic writings that one should be happy that one is given a soul. Why should I be happy that I have a soul? Because it was a gift to me, loaned to my body's use for the years on am on this planet. So too with the opportunities in life that have presented themselves to me, and the people that have come into my life, and my wife and my children (when they come). These are all things that I might not deserve, but nevertheless I pray will have come to me.
So the general distinction that I learned from our conversation was that happiness is not achieved by focusing on one's own self-worth or one's achievements. These are all temporary, and the pleasures felt by an accomplishment fade over time. Think about that "A+" you received in Art or Gym in the third grade of elementary school. Does this achievement still excite you? Rather, happiness is achieved by feeling awe and nullification (bitul) towards the things, people and experiences that have come into your life (your memories) that you did little or nothing to influence their entry into your life. Focusing on these things is what makes a person happy.
Of course I need to think about this and apply it to my own life, however intuitively, this sounds like it is emes (truth).