A friend of mine, a gentle soul, is constantly in search of meaning.
He’s been through a few Landmark forums, where, huddled in an auditorium with a few hundred other people, he was taught how to unleash his precious individual potential. He’s walked on smoldering coals with motivational speaker Tony Robbins, hoping that his scorched feet would give his mind the clarity it so badly needed. He even tried following Sting around for a little while, thinking that the aging singer and tantric sex aficionado may unlock a few of life’s mysteries while playing the lute.
Alas, nothing helped.
Still looking for a solid vessel on which to sail life’s stormy seas, my friend settled for a far more conventional, and much more popular, belief system–so popular, in fact, that it has no name. For our purposes, let’s call it the cult of emotional entitlement, defined as a strong faith in the following assertions:
- Everything must be pleasant.
- Everyone must be special.
- Criticism, confrontation and cold, hard truths may be emotionally injurious, making people feel less special and therefore making everything less pleasant. They are therefore to be strongly discouraged.
We see this cult’s adherents everywhere. They’re there on college campuses, for example, moaning, as some of my former students did, that the B they received was unfair, accurately assessing their lack of intellectual ability but neglecting to reflect the all-important fact that they had tried really, really, really hard. These are the very same people we see in our reality television shows, doing their best to be stars, incensed when their singing voices or dancing moves or cooking skills are called into question, and inevitably resorting to snide comments about how there’s no need to be mean because, after all, they were just doing their best.
Here’s the delightful truth: our best often isn’t enough. Why? Because we aren’t special. Most of us are just plain ol’ folks, ordinary people with no outstanding skills to speak of and nothing, really, to set us apart from the rest of humanity. We are, in short, Aarons.
Talk about an ordinary guy. Aaron’s brother, Moses, talked to God, parted the sea, and led the people out of the house of bondage. And Aaron? He was left in charge for one minute and already there was a giant golden calf being erected. And when Moses finally returned and the Tent of Meeting was finally erected and Aaron was finally appointed as high priest, things weren’t going that much more smoothly. In this week’s parasha, Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, offer a “strange fire before God, which He commanded them not,” and are killed on the spot by the wrathful deity. Aaron, then, can’t seem to catch a break.
Now, if he lived in modern times, Aaron might have well emulated the demeanor of defeated reality show contestants or petulant college students, and tearfully whine that he was not being treated fairly because he tried his best to be a good shepherd to the people and it’s not his fault that they’re sinful and that his sons are overzealous and that his brother’s some kind of holy dude. It’s not fair, he probably would have said, it’s not fair and it’s mean.
But Aaron had the good fortune of being born biblically, and serving beside a tough-minded leader who had little patience for emotional entitlement. A moment after Aaron’s boys were smitten, Moses sets things straight: “This is what the Lord spoke,” he tells his bereaved brother. “And Aaron,” the paragraph goes on to say, “was silent.”
By modern standards, of course, such treatment is unthinkably harsh. We would expect”and with good reason!”anyone whose brother just lost his children to show a bit of sympathy, a touch of compassion, a hint of remorse. But Moses has no time for any of the above; he summons Aaron’s relatives to replace the dead sons and goes on with the business of worshipping the Lord.
And while we would be right to reject Moses’ behavior as bordering on fanaticism, let us nonetheless take from it a lesson we so sorely need to learn”when crisis strikes, when injury befalls, when wrong is done, there’s only one thing we can do: get over it.
No matter if we were dumped by a girlfriend or touched by an uncle or had the misfortune of belonging to a particularly disadvantaged minority, let us do the only thing that is truly useful, which is to get over it and get on with our lives. Like Moses, let us summon the strength to witness the most terrible tragedies and think not of our own emotional precariousness but of the common good. Let us remember that we deserve nothing, that the world is neither pleasant nor fair, and that the only way to redeem ourselves and others is through action”single-minded, focused and unemotional. Let us ignore that which is insignificant”our hurt feelings, our self-pity, our insecurities”while simultaneously working to mend the source of our suffering, affecting real change with real deeds.
I phoned up my friend and told him all of this. He sighed. It sounded mean, he said, and anyway he had no time to talk it through. He had just joined the Church of Scientology.