Last Tuesday President Obama and the Republicans finally achieved a consensus on the economy. They both agreed that everything is going to turn out just dandy. Yes, the President and Governor Bobby Jindal agreed, we have significant challenges, but America is a country that has weathered every storm, won two World Wars, and overcame the Great Depression.
Really? Did those generations watch five hours TV per night (yes, that is the new average during the recession) and talk celebrity gossip the rest of the time? Were their executives so greedy that even as they took government handouts they bought themselves thirty-thousand dollar toilets? Did half of them divorce and did their children lose their virginity at fourteen, or is it just hours?
Will all our leaders pander tell us what we want to hear or will some begin to address our loss of values and the rot in the American soul. History is littered with great civilizations which decayed once they became bloated, brain-dead, and corrupt. And make no mistake about it. We have become corrupt. No, not the corruption of politicians on the take or of Madoff's ripping off billions, although there is that too. Rather it is the corruption of a population who have become addicted to extravagance and have elevated the entertainment industry to a position of such centrality that it betrays our desire to choose fantasy over reality and mindless escapes over a true effort to create a purposeful life.
You don't have to be an expert to see that noone in America really knows how to fix our economy. It's come down to trial and error. Throw trillions of dollars against the wall and see what sticks. The Bush Administration sunk a Grand Canyon's worth of cash into the problem and made no dent. Barack Obama is dropping in a further trillion. Still the Dow Jones tumble, still the recession deepens, still the markets have no confidence. One day we hear that only by rescuing Detroit's private jet-flying clueless auto executives and Wall Street's billionaires will we stabilize our economy. The next day we're told the exact opposite, that bailing out these spendthrifts encourages greedy and slipshod business practices which is what got us into this mess in the first place. The other day a 22-year-old man who has never held a job was telling me that he bought his girlfriend a four-carat diamond engagement ring and took her on vacations around the world. When I asked him how he could afford such extravagances he told me he simply put it all on credit cards. The bank who issued them has now been bailed out and so you have Americans who can scarcely afford jewelry for their wives these days picking up the tab for his fiancée's golfball diamond. And this is the way we rescue our economy?
An old Jewish aphorism says that difference between the smart man and the wise man is that the smart man knows how to extricate himself from a situation into which the wise man would never have gotten himself into. As the sky falls around us, what we've learned is that America, for all its smarts, lacks wisdom, that is, the ability to intuit the future, to know how to proceed correctly after hitting a fork in the road. And this time even our smarts may not extricate us from hole we're in.
Our current economic crisis is born of a spiritual crisis. Greed is a sickness of the soul rather than of the pocket. For all our wealth and high standard of living, we Americans are the most unhappy nation on earth, consuming three quarters of the earth's anti-depressants. The modern history of our country is one built on a lie that says that affluence, fame, and a shopping addiction are the secrets to happiness. But if that's true why are so many of our Hollywood celebrities divorced, medicated, and miserable? But noone exposes the lie. It spreads through our glossy magazine ads that tempt us with new necklaces that will make us glitter and in TV ads that taunt us with new cars that will zoom us past our rivals. It has even taken over Valentine's Day where people swallow whole the canard that love is expressed through a box of chocolate rather than the gift of oneself.
None of these reflect authentic American values. George Washington refused to accept pay as the Commander of the Continental Army. Abraham Lincoln eschewed popularity and practiced justice even though it meant be killed for it. Martin Luther King lived in a modest home with his wife and children even after winning the Nobel Peace Prize. All these men understood that what made America great was its commitment to human liberty and dignity and not only to a high standard of living.
What would the revolutionary generation, whose shoeless feet were frostbitten at Valley Forge, think of a generation who cannot live without twenty pairs of heels? What would the greatest generation, who stormed the beaches of Normandy, think of we who storm Macy's on Black Friday? And what would men like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, whose great love in life was books, think of a nation whose obsession is brain-rotting reality TV? They might be forgiven if they were to conclude that their inheritors are at risk of becoming a nation of shallow materialists who live for the impulse purchase.
In our time there is little to counter the consumer voice. Religion has been neutralized by becoming politicized and divisive. New-age spirituality focuses too much on finding inner bliss rather than fixing external problems. And the American obsession with therapy is only leading to more men and women becoming dependent on professionals to navigate their lives rather than cultivating the inner voice of conscience which the true hallmark of the wise and mature adult.
America will only be healed if we negate the voracious and insatiable consumer itch with a whole new set of values. Values where money is seen as a means to a higher end rather than a currency by which to purchase self-esteem. Values where a man is taught that greatness comes, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, from the content of his character rather than the content of his bank account. Americans have to stop focusing on career and start focusing on a calling. Find something in life that requires fixing and devote yourself to healing it.
All of this must begin in childhood. We parents must teach our children that school grades are far less important than genuine intellectual curiosity, the kind of mental engagement that has them playing fewer video games and reading more books and the kind of physical engagement that has them bored at the mall but fascinated on a hike.
We can renew America. But it won't come solely through shoring up our banks but through shoring up our families and learning that giving is far more satisfying than consuming.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the international best-selling author and broadcaster, has just published 'The Kosher Sutra: Eight Sacred Secrets to Rediscovering Desire and Reigniting Passion for Life." (HarperOne). His website is www.shmuley.com.