Exceptionalism: The Mantra Of Generation F

Friday, October 7, 2011   Kol Nidre 5772

Rabbi Stephen S. Pearce, PhD    

Congregation Emanu-El

In James A. Mitchener’s The Source (1965), fictional archaeologist, Dr. John Cullinane, worked with Israeli Ilan Eliav, modeled after famed Masada excavation archaeologist Yigael Yadin. Trying to better understand the nature of the people whose artifacts he uncovered, Cullinane asked Eliav for reading material about the Jews, the only ancient people to have maintained continuity to the present day.

Eliav replied, “Read Deuteronomy five times . . . It’s the great central book of the Jews, and if you master it, you’ll understand us.”

Eliav attributed this success to words found in the Torah: “: ki am kadosh ata ladonai elochecha ouvcha bachar Adonai leheeyot am segulah—“For you are a consecrated and treasured people who God chose from among all others on earth to be His people“ (Deuteronomy 14:2, also see: Deuteronomy 7:6; 14:2; 26:18-19; 28:1; 28:9-10; Exodus 19:5).

“Consecrated” and “treasured” are titles Jews ought to be proud of, but instead they promote anxiety. William Norman Ewer’s pithy verse, “How odd/ Of God/ To choose/ The Jews!” illustrates the ambivalence the concept of chosenness evokes, often because it is interpreted as conceit and superiority, forming the basis for racist ideologies. An ambivalent twentieth century philosopher Mordecai Kaplan removed all references to chosenness, including the words, asher bachar banu mi kol haamim—“who has chosen us from among all peoples,” from the blessing recited before the reading of the Torah in the (1945) Reconstructionist Movement Prayer Book.

In a riposte that shifts responsibility to us, Jews counter the aforementioned rhyme, “How odd/ Of God/ To choose/ The Jews!” with “It’s not so odd./ The Jews/ Chose God,” thereby providing a better understanding the concept of chosenness.
Tradition holds that the Jews were the last group to accept the offer to take on the responsibility of the Covenant. After all, the author of Deuteronomy (7:7) portrayed Israelites as insignificant: “It is not because you are the most exceptional of peoples that the Lord set His heart on you and chose you—in fact, you are the smallest of people.” Rather than an act of hubris, the Covenant is understood as a special assignment, a burden, that my teacher, Henry Slonimsky (1967) describes it these words:

The chosenness, the special love God bears for Israel, seems beyond reason. For are the Jews better than the others? Surely, both are sinners . . . God, so far from playing favorites, imposes special burdens and special responsibilities on Israel. The prophet’s stern reminder that special rights bring special duties (“You alone have I singled out of all the families of the earth, therefore I will visit upon you all your iniquities” (Amos 3:2) holds with equal force . . . that the protagonist must bear burdens commensurate with a protagonist’s role.

Jews live a paradox. We wish to be seen as equal to all other human beings and therefore eschew the concept of being God’s chosen people, but on a personal level, we devote endless energy to teaching our children that they are chosen and special, fueled in part by living in the United States that has long framed its place on the world stage as being more powerful and better than any other nation, even though we face a new reality today.

Nevertheless, at a time of waning national exceptionalism, individual exceptionalism is on the rise, fueled by the belief that everyone is extraordinary and entitled to the same opportunities, whether gifted or lacking in skill or intellectual and physical endowment. No matter how untrained or ignorant they might be, they believe that they have the knowledge, wisdom and the right to tell doctors how to treat illness, clergy how to minister, elected officials how to govern, educators and coaches how to instruct. They feel entitled to speak about everything. Even though sometimes they are wrong, they are never uncertain!

Legendary helicopter or velcro parents who swoop in to save their children from poor results or defeat are emblematic of our age in which every child is a winner, gets inflated grades, shiny “good try” trophies and is protected from any anxiety, disappointment or unhappiness. In the extreme, the mother in John O’Farrell’s novel May Contain Nuts (2005), poses as her daughter in order to take her upper school entrance exams because she doesn’t trust her to do well enough on the examinations herself—the paradox of a parent wishing to help her child to achieve success while simultaneously undermining the child’s self-esteem by preventing the child from either achieving independence or experiencing personal consequences.

Children who never have had to deal with defeat because parents ensure success are deprived of coping skills. They cannot assess their own abilities and as a result, fall victim to egocentrism, omnipotence, and invincibility as they exaggerate their self worth. In adulthood, they are often delivered a harsh reality check dispensed by demanding professors, bosses, colleagues, spouses, and there is no parent about to make it all all right.

Child psychologist Dan Kindlon (2003), author of Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age, warns that our “discomfort with discomfort” will not inoculate children with “psychological immunity.” In this comparison, he avows:

You have to be exposed to pathogens, or your body won’t know how to respond to an attack. Kids also need exposure to discomfort, failure, and struggle. I know parents who call up the school to complain if their kid doesn’t get to be in the school play or make the cut for the baseball team. I know of one kid who said that he didn’t like another kid in the carpool, so instead of having their child learn to tolerate the other kid, they offered to drive him to school themselves. By the time they’re teenagers, they have no experience with hardship. Civilization is about adapting to less-than-perfect situations, yet parents often have this instantaneous reaction to unpleasantness, which is “I can fix this.”

The role of parents is not always to make things right by preventing personal hardship but rather teaching children how to deal with failure and its attendant disquiet, and still land on their feet.

College deans call delicate in-coming freshman with undeveloped coping skills “teacups” because they are fragile and breakdown whenever things do not go their way. Some schools appoint unofficial “deans of parents” to deal with parents who hover over their children. So chronic is this problem that the University of Vermont hired “parent bouncers” to keep meddling parents at bay. Parents so stuck to their children thwart their efforts at individuation, giving a different meaning to the Latin term in loco parentis, not the literal translation “in place of parents,” but rather a more apt translation, “crazy like parents.” No wonder the products of such intense parental overinvestment have difficulty navigating the shoals of adult life.

David Elkind’s The Hurried Child: Growing up Too Fast and Too Soon (1981) and his companion volume, Ties That Stress (1994) were harbingers of increasing overindulgence and over scheduling, along with itinerant symptoms—physical and emotional issues, eating disorders, irritability, sleep problems, somatic illnesses, drug problems and worse. In 1981, he cautioned:

Today’s child has become the unwilling, unintended victim of overwhelming stress—the stress borne of rapid, bewildering social change and constantly rising expectations.

The change in the programs of summer camps reflects the new attitude that the years of childhood are not to be frittered away by engaging in activities merely for fun. Rather, the years are to be used to perfect skills and abilities that are the same as those of adults. . . We expect them to adapt more adult life programs than we adapt to their child life programs.
No wonder hurried children enter the adult world believing that they are better than anyone else. When they emerge from the cauldron of an overindulged and protected childhood, they often are entitled, self-absorbed, neurotically aggressive, narcissistic adults who believe that they can accomplish anything they set out to do— an attitude embedded in the popular lyrics of “It’s All About Me” by the Braytz:

Who will walk the red carpet? Who will be the star with her name in lights? . . . Who will be the runway queen?
I’m heading for the big time, yeaah (sic), I’ve got just what it takes, I’m the star who’s gonna shine so bright, Everyone in the world will know my naame (sic). It’s all about me and what I can do,
… I’m gonna win cause I can’tlose… It’s all about me!!!
Rabbi Harold Kushner (1996) in How Good Do We Have To Be emphasizes that when we try to be perfect, we pressure our children to be perfect. Kushner uses the example of the National Spelling Bee to make his point:
Every year at (spelling bee) finals, the organizers have to provide a “comfort room” where children who have spelled hundreds of words perfectly can go to cry, throw things, and be comforted by their parents when they finally make one mistake. The hundreds of correct words are forgotten as they feel like failures for having gotten one word wrong. . . Life is not a spelling bee where one mistake wipes out all the things we have done right. . . Life is like the baseball season, where even the best team loses at least a third of its games and even the worst team has its days of brilliance. . .

I believe in a God who knows how complicated human life is, how difficult it is to be a good person at all times, and who expects not a perfect life but an honest effort at a good one.

We search for perfection in ourselves and in our children and when they are anything less, we register our disappointment because the best grades propel children into the most prestigious schools, significant careers and security and status. “You are special” haunts many who wind up on the psychoanalytic couch where they complain that they cannot find joy or happiness because they are unable to deal with failure, although constantly reaching for the prize that they cannot enjoy, even if they attain it.

The irony is that children with happy childhoods, who feel that they are the center of the universe, can wind up as dissatisfied and lost adults. Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell (2009), authors of The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in an Age of Entitlement point out that narcissistic traits are on the rise. From 2002 to 2007, college students’ scores on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) rose twice as fast as in the previous two decades. Parents who regularly tell kids “You are special,” in an attempt to boost self-esteem, might be interested to know that a positive response to, “I think I am a special person,” on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory is an indicator of narcissism. Furthermore, in 1950, the Gallup organization asked high school students: “Are you a very important person?” and 12 percent said “yes.” In 2006, the proportion was 80 percent!

In his forthcoming book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman (2011) calls the inability to objectively evaluate our own talents and abilities a “planning fallacy,” characteristic of this generation dubbed “Generation F”, the “fluid generation”, the “facebook generation” and even indelicately called the “f-ed up generation” because its constituents always feel special and operate by a new set of rules: “I desire it, deserve it, buy it, flaunt it, toss it, all because I am worth it.”    Unfortunately, we are now all feeling the economic impact a generation without the ability to defer gratification that spent with abandon, incurred unprecedented debts without a notion of how it would be repaid, consumed resources without a hint of what happens when they are exhausted. Entitled individuals hooked on high self-esteem took greater risks and considered fewer consequences of their behavior as demonstrated in the financial world.
Given that most of us do not subscribe to the Jewish notion of chosenness but rather to individual chosenness, what can Judaism teach us to help our children avoid that path that can lead to a lifetime of personal unhappiness? How will today’s kids deal with defeat or hardship if they grow up in the equivalent of Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon where “all the children are above average”?

Psychologist Wendy Mogel, author of The Blessing of the Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children (2008) suggests that overindulgent parents who give their children perfect lives are creating a “handicapped royalty.” Mogel notes in her most recent book, The Blessing of a B Minus: Using Jewish Tradition to Raise Resilient Teenagers (2010) that not offering children every possible opportunity “feels like bad parenting,” even though it is really a gift! Mogel’s Jewish approach includes: accepting that children are both unique and ordinary and teaching them the value of work, resiliency, self-reliance and courage, and to be grateful for blessings.

Jewish life has always been related, not to success, but to a super-ordinate moral standard. A Jewish child is born with a purpose—on the eighth day, a child takes on the responsibility of the Covenant, a partnership with God to repair the broken world—the true meaning of chosenness; anything else is ancillary to that primary task. Children should not be worshipped because they are the reflection of our parenting and success, but revered because they are created b’tzelem Elohim—“in God’s image,” and know that even if they fail at a task, they are not failures.

Driving home on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, psychologist Daniel Gottlieb’s car was struck by a loosened tractor-trailer wheel moving at sixty-five miles an hour in the opposite direction. Careening across the highway, the wheel crushed the roof of his car, breaking his neck. Rendered a quadriplegic at the age of thirty-three, it was the beginning of additional disasters: the end of his marriage and subsequent death of his ex-wife, raising his children alone as a profoundly disabled parent, and the birth of his grandchild diagnosed with autism. Dr. Gottlieb rebuilt his shattered life and then published Letters to Sam: A Grandfather’s Lessons on Love, Loss, and the Gifts of Life (2008). Gottlieb recounts advice to a man who did good work in his field but considered himself a failure by not achieving anything important and rising to the top of his profession:

You’re right—you’re not important. In the larger scheme of things, none of us is important. But that doesn’t mean you’re a failure. You’re not a failure—you’ve done a faithful job at what was yours to do.

Quoting Ben Zoma’s rabbinic dictum, Ayzehho ashir? Hasamech bechelko—“Who is rich? He who is satisfied with his lot in life” (Avot 4:1) is one thing, but living it is quite another. Judaism provides rich examples of those who lived this as well as other examples of those who could not come to terms with not reaching their goals. In spite of years of struggle and yearning, Moses, for example, did not achieve his objective of entering the Promised Land and felt like a failure, but that did not negate his life-time of accomplishment.

Toward the end of his life, Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol, a 19th century Hasidic rabbi, was questioned why he trembled with fear:
When I am called to give a final account of my life before the heavenly throne, I am not afraid of being asked; “Why were you not like Abraham?” “Because I can answer that “I am not Abraham”. And if I am asked, “Why were you not like Moses?” I can answer “because I am not Moses.” But if I am asked, “Why were you not like Zusya?” What will I say then?
The goal of Jewish parenting should not be pressing our children to seek perfection, but rather to utilize their God-given gifts to maximize their abilities and to lead satisfying and upstanding ethical lives so that they can honestly say why they were themselves and not someone else! Good yontif!

Braytz “It’s All About Me”: http://www.elyrics.net/read/b/bratz-lyrics/it_s-all- about-me-lyrics.html
Elkind, David, (1981). The Hurried Child: Growing up Too Fast and Too Soon. Reading, MA : Addison-Wesley.
Elkind, David (1994). Ties That Stress. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Gottleib, Daniel, (2008).    Letters to Sam: A Grandfather’s Lessons on Love, Loss, and
the Gifts of Life. New York: Sterling Publishing.
Gottleib, Lori (2011). “How The Cult of Self-Esteem is Ruining Our Kids (How to Land Your Kid in Therapy): Why The Obsession With Our Kids’ Happiness May be Dooming Them to Unhappy Adulthoods.” In The Atlantic, vol. 308, no. 1, July/August 2011.
Kahneman, Daniel, (2011). Thinking Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux Kindlon, Dan, (2003). Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age. New York: Miramax.
Mitchener, James A., (1965). The Source. New York: Random House. Mogel, Wendy, (2008). The Blessing of the Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to
Raise Self-Reliant Children. New York: Simon & Schuster. Mogel, Wendy, (2010). The Blessing of a B Minus: Using Jewish Tradition to Raise
Resilient Teenagers. New York: Scribners. O’Farrell, John (2005). May Contain Nuts. London: Doubleday.
Slonimsky, H. (1967). “The Philosophy Implicit in the Midrash” in Essays. Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press.
Twenge, Jean and Campbell, W. Keith (2009), The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in an Age of Entitlement. New York: Crown.

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