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The Psychology Series


By Chana Mark L.C.S.W.

This article is the first of a short series whose goal is to acquaint the readership with an understanding of current psychological difficulties. In subsequent articles I will endeavor to present a number of different disorders from two points of view: that of the person suffering from the disorder and that of the family that must help the person suffering with the disorder and also, cope themselves.

The great Rabbi Moshe Feinstein once commented: “In Europe we had pogroms. And still you did not see the kind of anxiety that we see here.” Rabbi Moshe passed away in March, 1986, 34 years ago. Today the problem is much worse. We observe far more anxiety in this country today and far more depression. Our material situation has never been better at any time in history. We live in relative security. Is there something about American culture that makes people vulnerable to experiencing anxiety or depression? I think so.

The notion of “The American Dream” is a set of aspirations which compel a person to strive for goals which in reality, are completely out of his control. A person feels that he has “made it” if he can make enough money to buy a house; to provide his children with the “good things” in life such as expensive trips and other forms of entertainment. Americans certainly believe that being able to provide their children with a good education is important, but only as a means to making more money – not for enlightenment or personal enrichment.

Accompanying the “success” of realizing The American Dream which always includes a house (with a hefty mortgage), comes the delusional idea of “social status”. This has seeped into our Torah society in a number of ways. One way is the subtle assumption that a person is somehow “less than” in the scale of things if he lives in an apartment. (“But rent is just throwing away money! A home is an investment!”) It may be true that a home is a good investment, but there is always the subtle assumption included that a homeowner is more “successful” and “knows better”. Another example of status in is the notion of the “best” institutions or workplaces – Ivy League colleges are the “best” places to go to college: Morgan Stanley or Google are the “best” places to work. The “other” places are somehow second-tier. They don’t have the same status.

What exactly is status?

Status is a shared delusion: I have a delusion that I am of greater social importance for some external reason or other – Wealth confers status. Or, only the “best and brightest” go to a particular college, or work at a particular company.  You share the delusion by agreeing with this.  By so doing you will then partake of the greater “status” conferred upon you when you are part of these “elite” institutions and companies. These places may have a great deal to offer their members. However there is the additional idea of their “status” that becomes so fraught with anxiety.

As we all know, material success is a gift. Of course we have to work hard to be successful, and when we are successful it is a great thing. However if we look around us we will observe that the wise words of Ecclesiastes ring so true: “The wise are not guaranteed sustenance, those of understanding are not guaranteed wealth, and those with knowledge and discernment cannot expect others to find favor with them. Rather [these successes] are due fortuitous to time and circumstance.” Having wealth is a blessing, not a goal. Status is solely dependent on how others perceive us, and how can anyone control these things? If they become our life goals, this will set us up for anxiety. 

We know all this, of course.  But in our day-to-day lives alas, how quickly we forget! When our social surroundings compel us to compare ourselves to others and to conform, when our aspirations lead us to focus on the external, this is when we put ourselves in an impossible situation.  We are now doomed to “accomplish” in order to meet goals which are external to us and not in our control. The tragedy of being caught this way is that, even if we “succeed” we can never feel totally secure; anxiety is forever simmering just beneath the surface. Deep down, we know that in having “succeeded” in acquiring something external, we are never on solid ground. And then, what if an unexpected blow falls? What if the market sours? What if the institution closes? What if there is a pandemic and our “dreams” cannot be realized, or are put on hold?  For many, it feels like the end. There is nothing beyond our shattered dreams. We worked for this and hoped for it and now it will not be. It’s over. When it feels as if happiness depends solely on getting what we desire, depression is not far away when it doesn’t happen. 

In this state of mind are we grounded enough pay attention to our children and to what they need? Do we have a clear understanding of what values we want to impart to them, and do we know how to go about doing that? If we are too distracted, too anxious or too disappointed to be able to do these things our children will suffer too. We certainly don’t want our children to be anxious or depressed. 

We may not be able to change the world but at least we can try to understand it.

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