Why is self-improvement so difficult to achieve?
This week, for the fourth consecutive year, I am conducting Jewish High Holiday services. Though not a rabbi, I spent 12 years studying in yeshivas and 35 years teaching and writing on Judaism. The following is a summary of the Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) sermon that I gave this past Wednesday night.
The purpose of the High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) is moral introspection: What kind of person am I, and what kind of person can I become? So, every year, Jews meditate on the issue of becoming a better person.
But how many of us do become better people the next year?
This question has bothered me for many years, and I have decided to finally address it. Why is it so hard to become a better person?
I have — unfortunately — come up with 13 reasons.
1. Most people don't particularly want to be good.
The biggest obstacle to people becoming better is that you have to really want to be a good person in order to be a better person, and most people would rather be other things. People devote far more effort to being happy (not knowing that goodness leads to increased happiness), successful, smart, attractive and healthy, to cite the most prominent examples.
2. Confusion exists about what goodness is.
Goodness is about character — integrity, honesty, kindness, generosity, moral courage and the like. More than anything else, it is about how we treat other people.
Not everyone agrees.
For thousands of years, more than a few religious individuals have regarded goodness as being more about sexual behavior and religious piety than about character and the decent treatment of others. And while sexual behavior and religious piety are important, they are not as important as simply acting decently toward other human beings. That is what God wants most (see Micah 6:8, for example) and what we should want most.
At the other end of the spectrum, to modern progressives, goodness is all too often about having the correct political positions, not about character development.
3. Goodness is not about intentions.
Very few people have bad intentions. Even many people who commit real evil — such as true-believing Nazis, Communists, and Islamists — have good intentions. But as an ancient Jewish dictum put it, "It is not the thought that counts but the action." Good intentions alone produce good people about as often as good intentions alone produce good surgeons.
4. We don't learn how to be good.
Even if you want to be a good person, where is the instruction manual? Where are the teachers, the coaches and the schools? People spend years studying how to be good at everything — from sports to medicine to plumbing — except how to be good people.
5. We think too highly of ourselves.
Self-esteem frequently runs counter to goodness. Raising children with self-esteem sounds great, but when unearned — which it usually is — it leads to bad results. In fact, it is people who do not have particularly high self-esteem, people who feel that they constantly have to prove their worth, who are more likely to act good. And it is violent criminals who have the highest self-esteem — 'I am better than others and can therefore do whatever I want.'
6. We think we will be taken advantage of.
Many parents have told me that they fear raising their children to be "too" good, lest they be taken advantage of.
People confuse goodness with weakness. It is weak people, not good people (goodness demands strength), who are taken advantage of.
Yes, bad people take advantage of others. This is why it is so important that good people surround themselves with good people. They allow us to be good and they make us better.
7. There are few personal models.
It is very difficult to grow into a good person without good models — whether a parent, a sibling, a friend, a clergyman, or even good characters in literature and film.
That is why it is so important for all adults to try to be good models — not necessarily friends — to all young people.
8. We don't believe that there are rewards for being good.
In general, people do things well if they believe they will eventually be rewarded. That's the major reason people work hard. But many people don't believe that goodness is rewarded.
In fact, however, there are rewards:
— Good people have far more inner peace.
— You will trust other people. The cheater never trusts anyone because he thinks that everyone is like him — out to cheat everyone. Not being able to trust is not a pleasant way to go through life.
— People will like — and even more importantly, respect — you more, just as you like and respect good people more.
— You will make more friends. And life is incomparably better with good friends.
— And finally, God will reward you in the afterlife. It isn't fashionable in our hyper-sophisticated and secular age to speak of the afterlife, let alone about ultimate reward and punishment. But if there is a just God, there is ultimate justice.
9. We have to battle our nature.
To be a good person, most of us have to battle our nature. Among many other things, we are naturally preoccupied with ourselves. Yet, to be good, we have to constantly think about others and how we are treating them.
For many people, there is an additional battle they have to wage — with their natural tendency to be angry. One prevalent example is the angry mother or father who poisons his/her children against the other parent after a divorce, thereby often irreparably damaging both the children and the other parent.
10. "I'm a victim."
I suspect that more people than ever before, in our society and in many others, walk around thinking of themselves as victims. Victimhood status is actually cultivated.
Now, the truth is that most people are victims. Very few of us have been entirely fairly treated by life. The problem, however, is that people who see themselves primarily as victims will rarely do any good, and many will do evil: "I've been mistreated by others," the thinking goes, "so I don't owe anybody anything."
11. Few people were raised to be good people.
Parents raise children to be good students, good athletes, to have high self-esteem and with myriad other goals. But few parents put character first. For decades, I have asked parents whether they would be angrier at their teenager for smoking cigarettes or for cheating on tests. You can guess the overwhelming response.
12. In our formative years, the least impressive are rewarded.
In our high-school years, which kids seem to be the most rewarded? The ones with the best character? The kindest? Of course not.
During some of our most formative years, we see the best-looking, the most athletic and the coolest kids get the rewards. We see unimpressive guys getting the prettiest girls, and the prettiest girls getting the most attention — irrespective of their character. And the kids in cliques seem to have the most fun.
Little do we know that these traits won't be rewarded forever. But it leaves a lasting impression.
13. We have psychological blocks.
As if the first dozen obstacles were not enough, there is an additional one that seems insurmountable for many individuals — psychological issues.
But the operative word here is "seems." Even those with psychological problems (and who doesn't have at least one or two?) can and must try to be better people. And the way to begin doing so is purely behavioral: Act better toward others even before you solve your psychological problems. Otherwise, you will never be a better person, since those problems may never disappear. And here's the good news: The better you act, the better your chances of also improving yourself psychologically.
The sad irony is that while goodness is the thing that everyone wants most from everyone else, few people want it most for themselves.