Can This Life Really Last?

Can This Life Really Last?

BY RABBI SHMUEL GLUCK

Part 1: Can this life really last?

In the past two weeks, Areivim mentors have intervened in five police arrests, in five patient admissions to health facilities, two attempted suicides, and countless other forms of extreme negative behavior in teenagers.

The vast majority of these teenagers had several things in common. Their present behavior was preceded by typical bad decisions, such as a lack of concern for others, made years ago, that was left unchecked and became extreme, even psychological. Most of these decisions were the results of what began as small errors on the part of the teens and/or parents.

More and more of the people I speak with have issues that, at an alarming rate, go beyond a weak character or a lack of social skills. (Today’s Mechanchim needs to know more than Chinuch; they must be social workers and psychologists. However, since they aren’t trained in these fields, I feel the criticisms against the staff of many schools are unfair.) These may have been the original issues, but after years of neglect, the child evolved into a more complex teen. The number of cases of abuse in the Frum community is scary. The extreme levels of selfish behaviors are turning people into narcissists, and the extreme levels of unhappiness have resulted in numerous cases of depression.

In a few cases, the original issue was chemical, something beyond the child’s control. However, in most cases, it was negative behavior that was allowed to continue for many years. If we realize that most problems stem from unchecked negative behaviors, then we should understand that with attention, the majority of children could lead happy lives as teens and adults.

At some point the children’s negative behaviors become addictive. They are willing to “pay” dramatically more for the behavior than it’s worth. The word “pay” is not limited to money. It can mean friends, time, self-respect, or anything else that is otherwise precious to them. Frequently they are unaware of this. They feel that by “keeping things inside”, by letting others “clean up” for them or by stepping back, the problems created by their negative behaviors will also pass.

Such children (who become today’s teens) ignore two realities. The first is the happy factor. Although they’re still unhappy, they continue their lifestyle. Is this irrational or an addiction? They insist on doing things that won’t bring them happiness. Isn’t it all about being happy? We only do Aveiros because we hope that they’ll make us feel good. We only act selfishly because we believe it’ll make us feel good. What usually happens is that the good feeling is short-lived. If the negative behavior does not offer a continuous good feeling, is it worth it?

The second thing is their moral obligation to themselves and to others. Many teenagers and adults are unable to “act with regret”. In their minds, they may regret many of the things that they have done, but their inability to verbalize it and, even more, to act on it, makes the regret more of a concept than practicality.

I just spoke to a girl who moved in with a non-Jewish friend. I told her the following. “If you feel that you’ll live with your friend for the rest of your life than your decision process is somewhat simple. First, you need to choose between your community, which will alienate you, and your friend. Then you need to choose between Olam Hazeh (this world) and Olam Haboh (next world). If you really want to live with your friend and are willing to sacrifice everything for it, although I disagree with your decision, I understand it.”

Don’t make a decision now that’ll put your life on hold and, when you come back to your life, find it to be more complex than before.

“But, I continued, there’s another factor. What if, deep down, you know that you’ll eventually leave your friend? Whether it’ll be in a month, six months or even a few years? Now your decision becomes more complicated. Actually there’s no decision needed. It doesn’t make much sense to make a decision that will offer you some pleasure, some frustration, and then when you stop, it sets your life back a few years. When you leave your friend you’ll be exactly where you are now, only several years older. You’ll be single, lonely, confused, and looking to settle down. Don’t make a decision now that’ll put your life on hold and, when you come back to your life, find it to be more complex than before.”

This is, with different variations, the story of many people’s lives. If people believe that they can ignore their real feelings, chase after immediate pleasure that makes them feel worthless afterward, and do this for the rest of their lives, then I understand that they’ve chosen a lifestyle that, although I disagree with, I can understand. However, the problem is that most people will not be doing this for the rest of their lives. In a year, or maybe twenty, they’ll regret these past years and then, where will they be? They’ll be exactly where they are now, years older, and carrying much more baggage.

Some people may not have the inner strength, or intellectual honesty, to react to this article. Some people may take the points of this article to heart and will feel guilty for a short period of time. Feeling bad for a few days may even make them feel like good people, but unless they act on it afterward, it’s worthless.

So what am I asking individuals who’ve let their negative lifestyles continue unchecked for years to do? They must allow others into their lives.  However, many people take pride in not letting anyone into their lives. They seem to take particular pride in knowing that others mistakenly think they understand them. Although letting someone into their lives may cause them great embarrassment, and may even shock them when they admit how they’ve lived, it’s still the first step.

“Opening” one’s life to someone else may be painful in the beginning, but in the long run, it will be liberating. After only a few days they will feel like free people. Although it may be unimaginable, opening up to someone else may not be as bad as they thought, and it will certainly be immensely better than their present life.

Part 2: Can this life really last?

Last week’s article, I asked readers who believed that they’d lived unsuccessfully during previous months or years, to commit to opening their lives to others and undertaking a balanced lifestyle. Many people attempt to change, sometimes repeatedly, throughout their lives. They become excited and think that they’ll wake up every morning at the same time, have the same job, control their moods, and become one of the perfect people. However, two days after their commitment they find that it’s not as easy as they thought. They simply can’t make the change.

Then they begin to believe that they’re failures and that their commitments to change are actually weak. This may not be true. Their commitments may be strong, but their lack of experience in how to live successfully is what needs improvement. In the next few articles, we’ll discuss techniques that should prove useful as steps beyond the commitment; but these require specific skills. Self analysis, time management, decision making, and prioritizing are the most common ones. Change requires more than good intentions. It requires a practical, thought through, approach.

I mistakenly believed that if I explained to them, that in order to succeed, they simply needed to learn some additional skills, that they would be relieved. They could, again, believe in themselves. However, I found that there was tremendous resistance to learning new techniques. Instead, they insisted on trying harder their old way, without a plan to succeed.

I believe that the fact that they lived for years in a reactionary manner, and never thought things through, led them to overlook what was required to “do things right”. They couldn’t imagine that successful people have thought things through and that there’s a process required to succeed. They thought that successful people are born that way and in order for them to become successful, they must also have been “born” successful.

They thought that successful people are born that way and in order for them to become successful, they must also have been “born” successful.

It’s also possible that their commitment to change was done to make them feel good about themselves, but having to follow detailed and difficult instructions reverses these positive feelings about themselves. Hard work never feels good until it’s been accomplished.  Many individuals that commit to change, do it only to feel good, but they aren’t ready to be realistic about the steps it’ll take to succeed.

The first step is to be able to decide what needs to be fixed. Most people like to simplify things and begin “solving” the problem before they’ve thought the problem through. If the first step is incomplete it will be impossible to succeed in the second step. Be honest with yourself, ask others, and finally speak to those experienced in the area, preferably with someone that knows you.

The second step is to accept the fact that true improvement involves a process. The problem is that our subjectivity doesn’t allow us to see all of our faults. We often focus on conceptual issues, ignoring the process required to achieve the conceptual goals. Sometimes this process is a structured and rigid one and we find ourselves unwilling to commit to the necessary steps.

For instance, part of healthy living may be to go to bed, early, at the same time every night. Going to bed early is not glamorous and may not seem to be a part of becoming successful. However, if the issue is acting responsibly at the job and home, then going to bed early may be the first step.

In addition to focusing on the many details needed to succeed, they must also restrict what they shouldn’t do. Assuring themselves that they’ll be ready in the morning requires their not staying up late at night. This means that not only must they work during the day, but they must also restrict their fun at night. People committed to change must acknowledge that their life, as they know it, is over. This doesn’t mean that they can’t enjoy life. It means that the things that they’ve relied on for pleasure may not be available to them anymore.

In summary, an effective plan must include these three points: 1) Understand the root of the issue; 2) Emphasize the process and all its necessary details; 3) Determine which behaviors to discontinue.

In summary, an effective plan must include these three points: 1) Understand the root of the issue; 2) Emphasize the process and all its necessary details; 3) Determine which behaviors to discontinue.

Attention to detail is not natural and is often overlooked. The commitment to change is often a two-stage process: The first, the naïve commitment, and the second, the real one that follows. Regrettably, some people don’t make it to the second stage. Their naive commitment was the result of a personal incident such as losing a job, losing a good friend, or being arrested. It was fueled by emotion, but emotion “wears off”. The first commitment, which was destined for failure, took several days. However, it was enough time to forget about the incident and to let them continue their lives as before.

In the second stage, the individuals think about their lives and realize that their perception of who they are, is different from how others see them. However, through unbiased self-reflection, they become unhappy with who they are and what they have, or haven’t, done in their lives. They’re now ready for real change.

Even when their commitment is sincere, their process of change is constantly at risk of being sabotaged by others who also aren’t perfect, such as their imperfect spouse, their difficult children, and their daily responsibilities. These complications offer the “changing persons” an opportunity to ignore their own goals and become convinced that it’s the others who need to change. Our minds are trained to think that if the other person is wrong then we’re right, without considering alternatives to that conclusion. We may both be wrong or we may both be right. Life is not as exact as is math, and the solution to a problem may not always be neat.

Part 3: Can this life really last?

The last article discussed committing to change with the understanding that a commitment requires a practical strategy. Continuing on this theme, the coming articles will offer ideas on improving a person’s skill in decision making, time management and prioritizing. I’ll begin with decision making and have “broken down” the process into four misconceptions and steps. However, before I begin I need to mention two points.

The first is that making decisions offers many advantages to the person making them. The obvious one is that the person will act effectively; getting more positive things done in life. There’s a second advantage and that’s in taking control of one’s life. The ability to make effective decisions is empowering, and its advantages extend into many other areas of need. An increase in self-esteem, belonging, success in working with people, and problem-solving, are some of them. Individuals who have weak decision-making skills can’t imagine that improvements in this area will, positively, change their lives.

The second is that one may make the right decision but the situation still will not end positively, or one may make the wrong decision and the situation will still end positively. For instance, a person may leave 2 hours early for an airport because of a fear of traffic. The fact that he ends up waiting in the airport for two extra hours because there was no traffic does not mean that the decision was wrong. Similarly, leaving for the airport irresponsibly late does not become the right decision because the plane was delayed. It was the wrong decision, but it turned out right.

People should understand that if they think a situation through, and plan it as methodically as possible based on the amount of available information and options, they’ll end up having positioned themselves as best as they could. As these articles will explain, even when things don’t “work out” in the end, proper problem-solving techniques will also help them adapt when things aren’t working out in the beginning.

Even when things don’t “work out” in the end, proper problem-solving techniques will also help them adapt when things aren’t working out in the beginning.

Although it may not be directly related, the following thought is very relevant. When things go wrong, some people have an urge to blame someone, anyone. If a parent dies, Chas V’shalom, the child may need to blame the doctor, nurse, or siblings. Someone must be blamed.  The concept that things should be perfect and, when they aren’t, can be attributed to someone/thing doesn’t allow one the confidence to make decisions.

1) Many people have a misconception about decision making. They believe that the decision-making process is supposed to ensure clarity and offer no risk. Since most situations that require decision making aren’t risk-free, many people freeze, unable to make the decisions.

For instance, an individual has to decide whether s/he is going to go shopping or visit a sick friend. The reality is that’s a “which one” decision. Many individuals will delay making any decision hoping that another choice will come; one that’ll solve everything. Since they can’t think of that other choice, they’ll choose to do nothing, and wait for someone else or for some other change in the situation that will make the decision for them.

2) The need to make a decision implies that the present situation has within it an area of unknown and risk, otherwise the situation would be obvious and wouldn’t require a decision. Instead, people must realize, that the decision which is chosen is intended to offer the more acceptable risk. Nevertheless, the decision will most probably still have some form of inconvenience and sacrifice. The decision should offer the individuals the maximum inconvenience that they consider acceptable.  

People get frustrated when incidents take place that they believe are a surprise or unfair. If they admit to themselves that it was their decision that assured that it would take place, it should remove these two causes of frustrations.

3) People must accept the inconvenience graciously since they chose it. When it comes they should think that” This is manageable since this is exactly what was planned”. People get frustrated when incidents take place that they believe are a surprise or unfair. If they admit to themselves that it was their decision that assured that it would take place, it should remove these two causes of frustrations.

For instance, someone may borrow a car knowing that in the morning it’ll have to be returned and s/he will have to walk home in the cold. That person decided that borrowing the car was important enough to accept the cold walk. Although walking home in the cold may be upsetting, the intensity of that feeling will be tempered by the reality that having the use of the car was enough to make the walk in the cold worthwhile.

4) The previous point highlighted that an important part of decision making is being realistic about one’s options and complications. An extension of this is accepting that things may “work out”. When they don’t, as when unknown factors come into play, one must begin damage control.

One should give thought to damage control in the initial planning stages. When deciding on a plan it’s helpful to consider what happens “if”. One doesn’t have to finalize alternative plans, but one needs to at least familiarize oneself with possible options, so that if things do go wrong, one isn’t surprised or shocked, and “falls apart”. People who anticipate problems are people who, when confronted by a crisis, are able to say, “I thought this might happen. What do I do about it?” It’s true that some people are natural “doomsayers”, but many of us can realistically think about potential problems without becoming depressed or fearful in a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Part 4: Can this life really last?

Last week I began discussing the topic of problem-solving. Continuing that theme, I will discuss the factors that are necessary for the problem-solving process. The approach is simple: collect the necessary information, break the problem down into its relevant components, consider those components and come up with a system to prioritize. Once a decision has been made as to which concerns are more important or urgent than others, the decision will be easy.

Before one begins any of these three steps, the person must stay, or become, calm. Problem-solving goes out of the window once the person becomes enveloped by a feeling of urgency. Instead, the person must believe that the problem, with thought, is manageable. As a prerequisite to effective problem solving, people must transfer their energies from their emotional side to their intellectual side.

This should become easier after one has succeeded in applying problem-solving techniques a few times. Interestingly, this isn’t true for everyone. Some people forget during a crisis, that in the past, a similar situation “worked out”.

1) The person must collect as much information as possible. Many people attempt to make decisions before, or during, what I refer to as the “information gathering stage”. Frequently people ask me to help them decide something. I then ask them a basic question regarding what my options are. They respond with “I don’t know”. I explain to them that unless one knows as much as one can (some unknowns will always exist), it would be irresponsible to make any decisions.  This is true regardless of how urgent the issue is. It’s better to make the right decision at a later time than the wrong decision on time.

The example I give is of a friend whose car broke down ten minutes from the airport. His flight was in an hour. As the car was pushed off the road, my friend began figuring out the three problems that need resolutions: 1) Getting to the airport on time for the flight; 2) Putting the car somewhere until the next day; 3) Getting the car repaired. The first thing he did was collect all the information which, in this case, meant ensuring that the plane was leaving on time. He called the airline and it was. Getting to the airport was dependent on finding a taxi, which he did. He then looked for a parking place, helped push the car there, and considered alternative street parking before leaving it. The third problem was now somewhat easier as he had 45 minutes until his flight left and, if he needed it, the rest of the day after he landed. In the end, everything “worked out”. He found a Chaveirim member and when he came back to New York he had a taxi take him to the mechanic to get his car.

In hindsight, the incident seems to be an uneventful one, but it involves all the necessary steps to effective problem-solving. These include:

  • Staying calm
  • Collecting information
  • Breaking the situation down to specific needs
  • Deciding on which needs are more urgent
  • Deciding on which ones are the simplest to accomplish
  • Following through with a plan

One could argue that my friend was lucky that everything “fell into place”. However, proper problem solving, would’ve also taken him to the next step. Calling for alternative flights would not necessarily have meant failure. It would’ve meant coming later than desired. (It’ll take a certain amount of composure to think about looking for alternative flights.)  Even if a later flight would have been useless, a person must remember that problem solving has three goals: 1) Take care of the problem; (If that can’t happen then) 2) Create alternatives; (If that can’t happen then) 3) Work towards making it easier for everyone involved to accept the inevitable.

For instance, “a teenager home for Chanukah indicates that he also doesn’t want to go back to school. To make life more complicated he’s also fighting with his siblings. Lastly, his parents promised him that when he came home they would do something together. What should, or shouldn’t, the parents do in this situation?

The first question is what’s the priority of the three issues above. If we assume it’s ensuring that the teen goes back to school willingly after Chanukah, then all the other decisions must lead to this.

There are certainly many unknowns in this example and all centers on knowing how the teen will react to his parents’ decisions. One can never know for certain how individuals will react. This unknown requires making a thought through assumption. The parents should be thinking, “knowing our son, he will probably………”

Based on what you think the probable reaction will be, create a plan.
Decision making requires patience and not reacting hastily. The first decision, to ignore his negative behavior, creates a problem. How does one deal with his siblings? The decision to that question must be for the short term, one that calms the siblings offers them some reward, and creates distractions from what they’re going through.

This is an important part of decision making. Sometimes a person’s approach should be broad, other times it should be narrow. The decision to give the teen space is a broad one. He must go back to school. The decision required for his siblings is limited to their not getting upset today. In general, the rule is that whenever possible, a decision should be based on long term advantages. However, people must realize that this is not always possible, and they must adjust whenever it’s necessary.

Since the goal is getting the teen to go back to school willingly, the parents should give the teen what they promised, a trip, or some other activity. The activity is not intended as a reward but as a distraction, to allow the primary goal, his going back to school, easier to achieve.

Phito Credit: HAPEKLA from rgbstock.com

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