It seems that a malaise is gripping many Americans and is reflected in many aspects of our national life, from the crazy election cycle with its two shameful but shameless front-runners, to college safe spaces and denial of free speech, to the riots and anarchy that repeatedly grip our major cities. I am not a psychologist, nor am I a sociologist, and do not have any specialized knowledge in the areas of personal or cultural mental health. Nevertheless, I can’t help but reflect on our society’s slow, creeping rejection of the entire concept of personal responsibility, and my suspicions that it might have much to do with the turmoil gripping the country. David French eloquently writes:
“Americans feel helpless. They feel as if their lives and fortunes are in the grip of forces they can’t control… But the challenge of our time is to teach a culture that there is no political solution to what is at its core a cultural problem — a problem in the human heart.”
The Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, which will lasted from Tuesday night to Wednesday night, is in the Jewish tradition a day devoted to repentance. At its heart, what is repentance? When we repent, we acknowledge responsibility for our actions, accept the blame, and resolve to change. Essentially, the very possibility of repentance is an affirmation of power of the human spirit. It acknowledges that “to err is human,” yet it is rooted in the understanding that man can transcend his instincts, that man can exercise control over himself, and that man can change himself.
Again to Mr. French:
“In one of the paradoxes of modern life, America is deeply polarized in part because it is increasingly united around a common idea: that life is getting worse, and it is someone else’s fault. The unity is in the notion that life is getting worse. The polarization lies in the allocation of blame.”
Perhaps the source, at least in part, of our malaise is the fact that we increasingly feel that we are not independent, that our lives are not our own. Just as the addict chases his fix, we seek to absolve ourselves of responsibility for our actions and life choice, and the false comfort of blaming others for our own conditions. If we really want to turn the country around, then we must focus on turning our culture around, by rediscovering the responsibility ethic.
Sorry for the sermon.