That same young man proceeded further, brushing past another shopper and pushing him off balance. There, too, not a word of apology. The first person he had hit observed this and mustered up the courage to approach the rushed young man and, with a smile, said, “The word is ‘excuse me,’ or ‘I am sorry.’” To his credit, the young man seemed a bit embarrassed and sheepishly said, “I thought I said ‘Anshuldikt.’”
A few days later, while waiting on line in a large supermarket in a large city, a young man who looked like he was in a rush pushed his way into an existing line, cutting ahead of others. I think he assumed that those waiting before him wouldn’t mind, because he only had a few items and they had fuller carts, but could he have been polite and asked? Actually, he should have been polite and asked.
Pulling out from the supermarket and waiting to turn left, a shopper who was turning left from the left lane notices, out of the corner of his eye, a car zooming from behind him at top speed, jumping past him into the right lane and then suddenly veering to the left, jumping in front of him and cutting into the left lane to get in front. It was illegal, it was dangerous, and it didn’t even save him time, because they were both stopped at the next red light together.
To round out this picture, a very well-know to’en, a person who puts forth the case of his clients in bais din, recently opened his file cabinet with a whole bunch of files and explained, “You see all of these? These are all cases of gittin for young couples who have retained me. Do you know the primary reason behind nearly every one of these? Lack of civility.”
The “Civility Deficit” Pervading Our Society
This “civility deficit” seems to cross all denominational lines and all communities. It doesn’t matter whether you are Chassidish, Litvish, Sefardish or American, or whether you live in Brooklyn, Monsey, Lakewood, the Five Towns or any other large frum community. It has invaded and it is wreaking havoc before our very eyes.
What is the reason? Is there anything we can do about it? These are questions that are long overdue. Perhaps now, during the yemei haSefirah, which are especially auspicious and designated to work on improving middos, it is time to analyze this.
Another important point: Lack of civility, mentchlichkeit or whatever one wants to call it, although a societal problem in general, has its roots in the home. Certainly, the school and the general community in which one is raised strongly influences a person, but the primary mandate to bring up civil, well-bred, sensitive children falls upon the parents. It is the home that is the hot-house for this. What is going on in our homes that has adversely affected our chinuch in these areas? Why just 15 and 20 years ago were certain interactions with society taken as a given, as something one imbibed from the very environment in which one was raised, and yet today these foundational norms seem so elusive?
I have been grappling with this issue for a long time now, and like all communal social structures, it is not easy to find one answer. Nevertheless, after conversations with several distinguished mechanchim, a number of contributing factors can be clearly delineated. Certainly, there are others as well, but the following ideas are a small beginning.
The Rise of Anxiety and its Repercussions
There is a global plague of increased anxiety in our times, with multiple underlying causes. The fact is that when parents are anxious, it is very difficult to have the yishuv hadaas, the requisite serenity, that is pivotal to imparting these life lessons. A home must be a safe, warm haven in order for children to absorb these lessons by example and in order for their parents to impart them. If one is in perpetual crisis mode, all of those wonderful, life-building, character-building middos cannot thrive.
Part of that anxiety is a by-product of today’s lifestyle. Unfortunately, it does not appear that we can change that in the future. For example, the majority of households today, at least in most of our communities, are two-income families. Either both parents are working or the father is in kollel and the mother is working. Parents come home at night, stressed out from work, and then, after all that, they must be parents. Each child is an entire world. If a parent is not fully focused and fully mobilized to “be there” for their children, physically, emotionally and mentally, the parent will not be able to properly enter the world of the child, see what is on the child’s mind, and educate them by example and through teaching. Thus, the children will learn their middos from the street. The street says, “Do whatever it takes to get ahead, no matter what the collateral damage is.”
When one comes home from work and is met with obligations to keep the house clean, make supper, do multiple homework assignments with one’s children, take care of bill-paying and myriad other duties, does one have the emotional wherewithal to engage in calm, nurturing parenting? These heroic parents are just trying to make it through the day! Inevitably, what then falls by the wayside is the intangible but vital calm, unhurried time and simas lev, investing of one’s heart, that children so desperately need from those individuals who are the most important people in their lives.
It is important to note that despite all of this, there are many parents who, against all odds, are raising wonderful, well-behaved children. The above words and the comments that follow should not be misconstrued as an indictment on an entire society. Boruch Hashem, there are wonderful boys and girls, young men and young women, who exhibit the middos and mentchlichkeit that we look for as a society. Nevertheless, we would be guilty of sticking our collective heads in the sand if we were to deny that, as a whole, we are in a downward spiral when it comes to these issues.
The Lack of Resources
Another contributor to this anxiety that cultivates the cutthroat mentality and the middos deficit is the shortage of resources in so many areas. Did you ever realize how one needs to fight and battle for so many things that should be services that are taken for granted? Whether it is space in a school, a yeshiva, or even a kollel, and whether it is something as benign as a parking spot, and of course the elusive parnossah dollar, we are always battling for the resources that are scarce and insufficient in our communities. How can you expect a child to grow up with middos tovos, with the attributes of forgoing, when he sees the adults in his life left with no choice but to battle even for a parking spot on the street, in the shul parking lot, or in the local shopping plaza? As for the adults, what choice do they have? It seems that every important resource in our communities is scarce.
In addition, the sheer amount of money necessary for a frum family to remain afloat is mindboggling. Just start tallying up the amounts that large families pay for tuition, for clothing, for food, for camp, for Shabbos and Yom Tov , and for the myriad other things that one must have to be part of frum society. Can you blame parents for being anxious?
In addition, even those who don’t suffer from these issues, and even those who have parnossah and have the time to spend with their kids, are inevitably affected by the society around them. When lack of civility becomes a societal norm, how can you expect the well-bred children not to be influenced?
In addition, there are many self-imposed anxieties and “needs” that we take upon ourselves at our own peril. By the time many young couples have three children, in communities where home-ownership is possible, many feel that they must own a home. Certainly, it is a commendable and prudent thing for any family to own a home, but if one is at a stage in life where he is barely making ends meet or is still in kollel, is it prudent to undertake such a burden?
Generally, a steep mortgage comes with one or two rentals. Most people are not aware of what it means to be a landlord and how taxing it can be. Additionally, frequently, the numbers don’t really add up, and many make “heimishe cheshbonos” to cover the mortgage every month. Unfortunately, the reality is that we are often forced to start chasing our tails to meet payments. This adds to the anxiety in the home and the lack of serenity so important for parents to engage in true chinuch.
In and of themselves, these issues are enough food for thought and require much contemplation, but unfortunately that is not all.
There are several other issues that are perhaps just as important that we have not yet addressed. Issues such as peer pressure and unreasonable expectations that children feel they have to meet, and the infiltration of many aspects of the liberal and “progressive” parenting ideals into our own hallowed homes, are wreaking tremendous damage.
More on those and possible ways to address all of these issues next week.