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All Fun and No Joy: The Paradox of Life in the Postmodern Era

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By Yossi Grossbaum 
MyLife Essay Contest 2017 
We have more conveniences today than ever before. Forgot to buy some household supply or ingredient? You can have it delivered to your doorstep in less than an hour. Looking for information about any obscure subject? The answer is instantly accessible using a device that almost everyone carries in their pocket. There are more options for entertainment and recreation than ever before.

Yet we are, as a society, deficient in joy.

People feel bound by technology. They feel constrained by their lives and they are more anxious than ever.

Why is this and what can be done about it?

This essay will explore the foundation of the Chassidic approach to joy and how it can provide the antidote to our fun-filled, but often joyless, postmodern experience.

The Pitfalls of Modern Life
Imagine if you could communicate with your great-great-grandparents and you would tell them all about your life today. In all likelihood they would never be able to comprehend your lifestyle; the comforts that you enjoy were not even heard of in their days. Cars? Planes? Computers? Smartphones? Unimaginable! Even “simple” things like a home with central heating and air conditioning. Who would have considered the ability to store food in a fridge or freezer for days or even months? And at a moment’s notice to be able to heat it up almost instantly using a microwave? Imagine clean clothes without having to make the trek to the river?

The famous joke about the relative who finally joined his family in the “new world” is instructive. This individual was used to having to labor to make food and was amazed by all the instant things that he found in the grocery store.
He saw dehydrated potatoes reduced to a powder and was amazed to discover that one simply adds water and it transforms into mashed potatoes. He saw instant coffee and was doubly amazed that simply adding hot water to the powder would instantly provide a steaming cup of coffee. His surprise grew when he found powder that created instant soups; but he literally fainted when read one particular label: ​Baby Powder. This may be a joke, but our reality would be no less ludicrous to our ancestors – had they been able to see it.

Yet, with all the advantages today; with all the amenities, conveniences – and fun – associated with modern life, never in history have people felt so depressed [1].

Could it be that the benefits of modern life also result in some major pitfalls? Why is society so joyless ? [2]

This is not simply a minor detail; a lack of joy affects one’s relationships and career. Someone who is deficient in joy faces more obstacles accomplishing their goals and finds it more difficult to succeed spiritually as well.

Could it be that the very advances of modern life – that we certainly appreciate – are also the cause of diminished joy? It seems that the convenience and ease of modern life itself can actually lead to a lack of happiness, satisfaction and joy in life. In other words, the more affluence – the less joy. Why is this so and what is the solution?

Self-Centeredness Directly Diminishes Joy
Previous generations had to fight for survival; they had to work hard all day and every day just to have food to eat – let alone a roof over their head. They were so consumed with subsisting, they literally didn’t have time to think about themselves, let alone to consider if they were happy.
In more recent times however, the ease, convenience and access to everything needed – and more – has led people to expect things instantly. After a short while, this expectation has morphed into a self-centered mindset of instant self-gratification. And today, when most people in the Western world are raised with unprecedented affluence and unparalleled consumerism, most without ever lacking their basic needs and often with every comfort possible, society as a whole has become very self-centered [3]. This directly diminishes one’s experience of joy [4].
There are two reasons for this [5]:
1) Expectation breeds unhappiness.​ Think of your reaction when you receive a gift compared to when you receive a paycheck. Although you certainly appreciate the paycheck, there’s no joy per se – after all, you simply got what you deserved. An unexpected gift, on the other hand, is a source of great joy. The more self-absorbed one becomes, the more one begins to expect the things that one has. Eventually one starts to feel entitled, directly diminishing the joy one experiences.
2) Self-absorption leads to dissatisfaction.​ When one expects everything, not only are they not satisfied with what they have – the very fact that they have something causes them disappointment that they don’t have something bigger or better. Instead of being satisfied with the new house or car that they purchased, they’re disappointed that they couldn’t afford a larger house or a fancier car.

The more one desires, the more one wants. Therefore our Sages [6] tell us that a person will not have achieved half of their desires by the time they die. Modern society maintains the notion that external stimuli will lead to happiness and joy. This is not only wrong, it leads to greater frustration. Because the very thing that was supposed to engender happiness (i.e. the new achievement or possession) is in fact the cause of unhappiness.
To make matters even worse, self-centeredness causes significant character flaws which hamper one’s ability to experience joy. Although we typically would associate self-centeredness with a narcissistic and haughty personality, a self-centered person can also be someone with low self esteem. Both narcissists and those with low self esteem share something in common, they are entirely consumed with themselves. And in either extreme, a self-centered person has less capacity to experience joy.
All this leads us to the point where we are at today. Notwithstanding all the fun, amenities and convenience modern life provides, a significant lack of joy pervades society. Does this mean that we must reverse the advances of modern life in order to achieve joy? Is it possible to be joyous even while enjoying the benefits of the modern world? If it is possible, how can it be attained?

 
“Be Very, Very Humble”
The solution is humility. Our Sages exhort us to be humble; in fact in Pirkei Avos we’re told “Be very, very humble [7]”. Not just humble, or even very humble. Only very, very humble will do.
Is this telling us that we should look down on ourselves? Is this saying that we should not be aware of our talents and abilities? Should we not feel satisfaction in our accomplishments? Does humility mean that one should wear tattered clothing and shuffle one’s feet, with their head bowed, while walking in the street?
As a matter of fact, Chassidus teaches us that humility does not mean any of that [8]. It doesn’t mean 8 looking down on one’s self or ignoring one’s abilities. Rather humility is a focused recognition of one’s inherent value and purpose; and true humility actually provides the individual with a deep sense of meaning and confidence.

 
Moshe Rabbeinu as the Paradigm of Humility
The greatest leader of the Jewish people was Moshe Rabbeinu; he was the one who took us out of Egypt, received the Torah and taught it to each individual. He was a strong leader who more than once quelled dissent from within the ranks of the Jewish people. He was a strong military leader too, leading the people in battles against their enemies and soundly defeating them.
Yet, when the Torah seeks to describe Moshe’s greatness, he is not mentioned for any of these things [9] . Rather he is highlighted for being “​exceedingly humble, more so than any person on the face of the earth [10].” The Torah is not being facetious. In fact, this one quality was the secret to his success in every facet of his leadership role.
True humility is the ability to recognize the talents with which one has been blessed and to acknowledge the responsibility that they entail. Moshe was well aware of his talents, but he was also well aware that he wasn’t the source of those talents, rather they were a gift from G-d [11]. He understood that G-d had given him these talents and he had the responsibility to use them correctly [12].
A truly humble individual recognizes the conveniences and amenities that they enjoy; but they don’t become self-centered and self-important as a result. They are deeply aware that all that they enjoy comes from G-d and when they remind themselves of this reality they are enveloped by an intense sense of gratitude. This is truly the antidote to the self-centered mindset that afflicts many in our modern era. And it is integral to ensuring that one maintain a joyous attitude.

 
Modeh Ani as the Key to Humility
It sounds simple; avoid the lack-of-joy-pitfall that could result from the convenience and accessibility available today by having humility. But how does one gain humility if one doesn’t have it?
Modeh Ani is the answer. Begin each morning with Modeh Ani, the prayer thanking G-d for returning our soul and giving us a new day. Take a few moments, pause and reflect on the profound nature of the words: “I offer thanks to You, living and eternal King, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great.”
Modeh Ani is the key to gaining a sense of humility, enabling us to properly manage the positive aspects of modern life while maintaining our balance and joyous attitude.

 
Empowering and Energizing Humility
On a deeper level Modeh Ani expresses the deepest connection that exists; the essence of G-d at the core of all existence. Meditating on the meaning of Modeh Ani in the morning brings us to an appreciation of the purpose of the universe – and our place in it. Modeh Ani enables us to experience deep gratitude for all the blessings we enjoy and most importantly, Modeh Ani brings us to a state of utter humility in the face of this recognition [13].
Modeh Ani reflects how the universe and all it contains, even the spiritual worlds and all they include, come together in a single point – the essence of G-d. Chassidus highlights the nondual nature of

existence, i.e. that in reality all that exists – whether in the physical plane or the spiritual realm – is all one with G-d. In truth, there is no dichotomy [14].
Chassidus teaches that all of existence is to create a dwelling place for G-d in this lower world, i.e. this physical world which we inhabit [15]. And that is the key to it all one’s actions and choices throughout the day. How one lives their life, is not just significant to them, it’s not just of value to their family – it has cosmic implications.
Now that’s an awesome joy inducing proposition.
Imagine the joy a simple person would experience if a powerful and honorable king were to come and stay at his house. The immense joy and honor the individual would experience is indescribable. This is truly what we experience on a daily basis.
G-d, in essence, is personally visiting us in our home and wants to spend time with us here. The oneness at the core of the entire existence, namely G-d, depends on us to do our part [16]
Reflecting on this privilege and responsibility further enables us to avoid becoming self-centered and ensures that we use our modern amenities and conveniences in the service of our higher purpose [17]. The humility that follows breeds a deep sense of gratitude. All this results in a purpose-filled and joyous life [18].

 
Other-Centeredness Combats Self-Centeredness
An additional humility-based method for increasing joy is helping others. Modern society typically views man as needy; in order to achieve joy we need something to provide us with joy. Whether it be an exciting experience, a new job, a new house or a new car. When we get the thing that we “need”, then we’ll be able to experience joy.
The mistake is that as long as we are focused on our needs, even when we are simply taking care of ourselves, and even in ways that are necessary and not unduly self-centered – the focus is on our needs not what we are needed for. In other words, it’s still about us and as long as this is the case we will not experience true joy.

Three Step Humility Dance
So how can we do both; make good use of the benefits of the modern era and ensure that we don’t get too self-centered and lose the joy in life? Through humility.
Humility can be achieved through:
1) remembering the source of our blessings by meditating on the Modeh Ani, which leads us to
2) recognizing our central role in achieving the purpose of all existence
3) by shifting the focus away from what we need, to focusing instead on helping others.
In short, the less time we spend thinking about ourselves, the happier we become.
It may be counterintuitive, but it works.

 

Sources and Footnotes
[1] ​https://goo.gl/mhPGvE
[2] ​https://goo.gl/EoMHVt
[3] Perhaps an extreme example of additional affluence adversely affecting one’s level of joy in life are the suicide statistics in the US. There are far more suicides among white males (7 out of every 10) than any other segment of society. (Source: ​https://afsp.org/about-suicide/suicide-statistics​). Conventional wisdom dictates that the more difficult ones life, the greater the risk of suicide. However, white males are the least disadvantaged group in America – yet by far have the highest suicide rate.
[4] In addition, the modern conception of human rights is not as it was once perceived, i.e. your rights = my responsibility; today the focus is on my rights, i.e. my rights = my expectation, your responsibility. This too has contributed to raising a generation that is so self-absorbed that it has squeezed the joy out of life.
[5] Sefer HaMaamorim 5710, Pages 238-240 6 Koheles Rabbah, Parsha 1, Posuk 13
[6] Koheles Rabbah, Parsha 1, Posuk 13
[7] Pirkei Avos 4:4
[8] In Tanya (Chapters 29-30) the Alter Rebbe does write about humility coming from a sense of lowliness and distance from G-d, but this is not supposed to be the regular mindset. Rather, one should dedicate specific times to acknowledging one’s distance from G-d and coming to terms with one’s general lowliness. But even this is to later bring one to greater joy when they realize that although they are so low, they were chosen by G-d to fulfill His mission in this world.
[9] This was when Miriam related to Aharon that Moshe had separated from his wife and she criticized him for this. The Torah then recounts to the reader about Moshe’s greatness, namely that he was so humble. After Moshe died, in the last few verses of the Torah, reference is made to Moshe’s other accomplishments. However, even there, the very last reference – in fact the very last words of the Torah – refer to Moshe’s decision to break the Luchos; the most humble and selfless act imaginable.
[10] Bamidbar 12:3
[11] Likutei Sichos 13:30, Sefer HaMaamorim 5710, Page 236
[12] In fact Moshe felt that had G-d given the same talents to another individual, perhaps they could have done even better than he.
[13] See Kuntres Inyana Shel Toras Hachassidus
[14] Tanya Chapter 20
[15] Tanya Chapter 36
[16] Tanya Chapter 33
[17] When one is preoccupied by their purpose and role in this world, they are unlikely to feel depressed. They effectively lose themselves in the higher calling of living their purpose. Try concentrating on what your jaw and teeth are doing the next time you eat some food. You will actually find it hard to successfully chew. Only when you stop thinking about it and just simply do it can you successfully chew your food. When one is too self-conscious they tend to become paralyzed, a focus on our purpose fills us with joy and gives us the ability to successfully and joyously navigate modern life. (Obviously this doesn’t preclude instances of clinical depression, which requires specialized solutions).
[18] This mindset enables one to maintain a joyous and positive outlook on life even when tragedy strikes. In truth, entire books can and have been written about the centrality of joy in Chassidic teachings. The focus of this essay is on providing an antidote for the lack of joy experienced by many in the modern era. There are obviously many more aspects to this topic but not everything can be covered in one essay

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