Many years ago I heard a wonderful story about a great Jewish sage. Someone had written him a letter on the following lines. “I am in a state of deep depression. I wake up each morning dreading the day ahead. I find that nothing lifts the clouds of gloom. I try various distractions but nothing seems to work. I pray, but inspiration does not come. I need the rabbi’s help and advice.”
The rabbi sent him a brilliant reply without using a single word. He simply circled the first word of each sentence of the letter and sent it back. The word was “I.”
One of the strange findings of contemporary economists is that the vast increases in wealth, choice and life expectancy during the twentieth century do not seem to have made much of a difference to our sense of happiness, of a life well lived.
To the contrary, especially among the young there have been major increases in depressive illness, suicide attempts, eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse and other symptoms of unhappiness. Materially we have more than any previous generation, but psychologically, spiritually, we seem to have lost our way.
I suspect that the answer to our malaise is the same as the rabbi gave to his questioner. It is that pesky, insinuating word “I.”
It is there at the very heart of our consumerist culture. Buy this, wear that, go here, eat there, and the world will suddenly explode into rainbow colours. People will stare at us with undisguised envy. Indulge, because you’re worth it. Or so the marketing myth goes.
The trouble is that the myth can only promise us happiness by making us unhappy to begin with. Until now I never actually knew what I was missing by not having a mobile phone that can also take photos, or a DVD instead of a VHS. Life seemed to go pretty well, or so I thought, but now I know I am missing out on the real essentials. Or so someone wants me to believe for the sake of the greater glory of corporate profits.
Actually, though, there’s a better way of celebrating the festive season and it consists of three simple rules. The first is to say a silent thank you for what we have rather than worrying about what we don’t. The things that really make life worthwhile – family, friends, the love we get by sharing it with others – aren’t for sale in any shopping centre, but we are surrounded by them much of the time. It’s just that we don’t notice them without taking time out to pay them attention. There is much wisdom in the ancient Jewish custom of thanking God, each morning, for simply being alive.
The second is to reach out to those who are lonely, especially at this time of the year when there is so much celebration going on. If you are having a party, invite one or two people you know live alone – and make a fuss of them. You will never know what a difference you will make to someone’s life. Think of the old Jewish idea that by offering hospitality to a stranger you may be welcoming an angel, unaware.
And thirdly, let’s share a little of what we have with those who have so much less. While we suffer indigestion, a fifth of the world starves. Now is the time to make a donation to a charity offering help to parts of the world suffering desperate poverty. The old rule of tithe makes sense. Take one tenth of what you spend on yourself and friends and give it to those who have little or nothing.
What these things have in common is that they’re about the “We” not the “I.” They help us remember what so much conspires to make us forget – that happiness lies in what we give, not what we get.
(First published in The Daily Mail)