The Rambam set all this down for us years ago. He writes (Hilchos Deios 6:1), “Derech bri’aso shel adam lihiyos nimshach bedei’osav ubemaasov achar rei’av vechaveirav.A person has a natural inclination to act and believe in the same fashion as do his friends and acquaintances.”
Before we knock peer pressure, let’s recognize that it can in fact have immensely positive results. If a person surrounds himself with a circle of friends, acquaintances, neighbors or an office or work atmosphere of people who are good and growth-minded, that can be one of his or her wisest decisions. Rather than only seeking the company of those we are completely “comfortable” with, sometimes forming a close connection with people we feel have qualities we would like to have or develop is a great idea that we wouldn’t regret.
The pitfalls of peer pressure, on the other hand, are definitely real as well. The fact is that just as we are far from perfect (shocking, isn’t it!), so are those around us usually not without their shortcomings. Too often, rather than set an example for those around us, we end up imitating them, which, as the Rambam points out, is our natural inclination after all.
If this is the way Hashem made us, though, if this is how human beings behave naturally, what else can be expected of us? How can we be expected to stand up to what we view as what “everybody else” is doing? We are human, after all. We are not angels. Are we expected to always want to be different than the entire world?
There is an interesting fact, though, pointed out by Rav Shimshon Pincus zt”l, that should give us pause. Yes, people learn to copy those around them. This goes for virtually any aspect of behavior. We would slowly pick up an accent, a mannerism, a mode of behavior or a belief if we would live among those who live that way long enough.
Yet, suppose that a person worked on a chicken farm. From morning to night he is surrounded by chickens and chicks. He hears them cackling and cheeping. He sees them pecking and waddling. Some days, he hardly even has any human company. First thing in the morning, he’s in the hatchery. Later, he’s in the yard. He’s cleaning up the coops last thing before he goes to bed. Morning, noon and night, he’s busy at his job in the chicken farm.
Does this person forget his speech and begin cheeping like a chicken? Does he start pecking at his food or begin eating chicken feed rather than enjoying his usual supper?
Why is that? Why, indeed, do we so inexorably change our ways in even the most fundamental aspects of our lives to conform with those around us, and yet, were we to be surrounded by chickens or cows for even longer periods of our lives, we do not begin mooing?
The answer is simple, and that is because we know, on every plane of our consciousness, that the chickens are chickens and the cows are cows. We do not feel — on any level — that we should be like the animals around us, because we recognize that they are animals. We see them for what they are.
Peer pressure is our natural tendency, true, but only insofar as we look at those around us as peers in at least some way. Royalty can deal with peasants often and not even begin imitating their ways, because those of royalty would never look at a peasant as an equal or peer in even the slightest manner. To the extent that royals no longer recognize their worth do they no longer completely keep to the values they once espoused or held dear.
The Torah tells us that Noach was singular in his generation in his service to and recognition of Hashem. Not only wasn’t the rest of society on his level, but they were entirely corrupt and rotten to the core. For 120 years, Noach built his teivah and explained to all who asked that he was doing so because an epic flood was coming unless the populace changed their ways. For 120 years, Noach was ignored and even ridiculed. Nobody — not one person — repented or changed their ways.
Think about this: Imagine being the ridicule of those around you not for a day, a week, or even a year. Imagine the papers poking fun at you, the coffee-room talk focusing on your foolishness, your acquaintances and neighbors all seeing you as a laughingstock, for a lifetime! Would any of us be able to cope with such a degree of social ostracism? Would we be able to continue clinging stubbornly to our message and not bend to the winds around us even one bit?
How, indeed, was Noach able to do it?
Maran RavElazarMenachem Man Shachzt”l explains that although we surely do not appreciate Noach’s greatness, we fail to take into account one simple matter when contemplating Noach’s behavior. Noach was not building his ark because he felt that a flood was coming, nor did he chastise the people of his generation because he believed that their behavior needed improving. Noach knew that these things were the truth! Hashem told him so!
When G-d Himself tells you that a flood is coming because the people are acting terribly, 120 years of ridicule might hurt, but it won’t make us change our minds or our belief, because we know it with the same certainty that we know we are not chickens or cows. We heard it directly from the Creator and that’s pretty powerful.
Every year on Rosh Hashanah,we take stock of ourselves and our lives. We know where we need to improve. Usually, nobody needs to even tell us; we know it deep down. As growing individuals, as people who surely want to be the best we can be, we wholeheartedly resolve to do better next year, to improve and better ourselves. We are sincere in our resolutions, no question about that.
Yet, if we were to be honest with ourselves, we would concede that we meant as well last year — and the year before that. While we may surely have grown in some areas, there are some other stubborn spots that we’ve always acknowledged deep down need improving, and yet we find ourselves almost at the same starting point year after year.
What can we do to pull ourselves out of these ruts? How can we finally jumpstart ourselves to find some real fulfillment and happiness at where we are? How can we bring ourselves to where we really know we should be?
There can be many variables, but to a great extent, our inertia often stems from the fact that no matter how sincere our resolve, in the end we find it virtually impossible to do differently than what everybody else is doing. If everybody, at the same time, would do what we feel we really might be better off doing, we’d be ever so happy. Everybody is waiting for everybody else, though, just as we are, leading to a communal paralysis.
We resolve and we accept to do this or that better this year, but is it realistic to expect ourselves to be the “only one” staying out of a neighborhood conversation, or wearing something “nobody else” is wearing, or keeping away from forms of entertainment or social media in which “all our friends” are completely immersed?
We find is virtually impossible.
What we can do differently this year is spend a small amount of time thinking about why we want to change or improve in whatever way we do. Once we see and resolve with certainty that this is indeed a better way (and we know that everybody else knows it too, but finds it equally as difficult to change and go against the “norm”), we can consider it to be something we know, just as Noach knew that what Hashem told him was true.
As such, we can feel with certainty that where we want to be is where our peer group should be. We wouldn’t moo no matter how many moos we hear around us, because we know that mooing is not who we are, and it is not who those around us are either — whether they do it or not. If we know who we are, who we really are, perhaps this year we’d be able to keep our resolutions in whichever positive direction we wish to go.
It may be difficult. We might sometimes find ourselves the odd one out. Our natural inclination may be to just adapt to whatever everybody else is doing — until we remember that it is they who should be adapting to what we are doing.
Be a trendsetter. After the first time, it’s not even half as difficult as we imagined it to be. After the second time, it’s even less so. By the third time, we find that people already expect us to do it our way and don’t even give it a second thought. After a while, people may even begin subconsciously adapting to our way of doing things, in a classic example of positive peer pressure.
Ah gut yohr and kesivah vachasimah tovah to all.