Spirituality = Humanity

There are no shortcuts to happiness in Rabbi Twerski's new book.

happy book 8 8224 (photo credit: )
happy book 8 8224
(photo credit: )
Happiness and the Human Spirit By Abraham J. Twerski Jewish Lights 154 pages; $19.99 The first part of Dr. Abraham Twerski's new book, Happiness and the Human Spirit, is entitled "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness." Fittingly, this allusion to the American Declaration of Independence serves as an ironical springboard for Twerski's basic thesis that enormous advances in science, technology and our standard of living have not provided any significant leaps toward making the basic, "inalienable" right to happiness any less elusive than it used to be. On the contrary, he argues, in a hyper-industrialized, consumerist society in which happiness has become associated with fleeting pleasures and material comfort, unhappiness, or what he calls "spiritual deficiency syndrome," has become the rule. Hence the irony - although he does not state it outright, Twerski's thesis is the exact inverse of what "The American Way" has come to embody. A word of caution: I have always been wary of so-called self-help books. I always thought that they catered to a naive "American" belief in the quick repairability of anything from depression to Middle Eastern countries, so you can understand that I did not really know what to expect of Twerski's offering. So, not wishing to judge a book by its genre, I examined the cover, which presented the contrastive illustration of a painting of a bright sun juxtaposed with a dark spiral, suggesting a large wave curling up from the sea. The spiral and the sea are symbolically associated with the deeper regions of the psyche - with one's ability to be internal - while the sun is usually evoked to represent an outward shining, a cheery countenance. We say that someone has a "sunny disposition" and children's drawings often endow their suns with smiles. Having read in passing and enjoyed passages from the inspiring Living Each Week, I already knew that, for Rabbi Twerski, "spirituality" - a term much-bandied of late - would not turn into a fluffy New Age abstraction. The contrasting elements of the cover illustration bolstered my expectation. Delving into the book, one of the first things to strike me was the wealth and breadth of stories and examples offered in each chapter. From tales of Rabbi Akiva to snippets of Snoopy, the author gives fair and often fascinating representation to a large cross-section of mankind, and the stories, perhaps even more so than the rest of the text, engage the reader and allow him to empathize and let down defenses that would prevent him from benefiting from the significant psychological insights offered by the book. The "spirituality" propounded by Twerski is universal, human and almost entirely a-religious, which, for better of worse, strips the word of its mystical connotations. The author designates the equation spirituality equals humanity, and claims that every one of us has a certain set of spiritual potentialities, for instance the ability to choose, the ability to be compassionate and the ability to search for truth. Each chapter in the second part deals with one of these abilities. As an antidote to their unhappy proclivity for becoming enmeshed in the material, people can actualize these "spiritual" faculties, and, so Twerski claims, become happier as a result. For example, in the chapter entitled "The Ability to Improve," the author tells the story of a successful and eminent lawyer whose son decided to drop out of law school in order to reconsider the path laid down to him by his father. Convinced that he was "having a mental crisis," the parents sent the young man to undergo psychiatric evaluation. Twerski uses the story to show how, unlike the father, the son realized that being an overachiever and devoting himself to his career at the expense of his family would be nothing more than an escape. The workaholic father, who was not actualizing his spirituality, was using his career as a diversion to keep his unused faculties from nagging him with demands for their due attention. The son, on the other hand, realized that to fulfill himself and find happiness, he would have to consider parting with his father's path and forging a new, unknown way. Twerski takes "the ability to improve" and applies it to successive generations. Each of the 10 steps of the third part of the book, "10 Steps to Happiness," is predicated on an affirmation, from the basic "I am aware that I have shortcomings and I want to become a better person," to the ultimate "I realize there is never an end to spiritual growth," which is to my mind the truly spiritual step in that it allows the infinite to manifest itself. Twerski's steps to happiness successfully skirt the pitfalls of the genre by offering a program that is more a way of life than a series of "fixes." The affirmations are an invitation to let in the forces of change that can lead to a growing cultivation of "spiritual" human traits and, ultimately, to happiness. Finally, one cannot review Happiness and the Human Spirit without lingering on one of its most touching aspects. Besides case studies, talmudic anecdotes and Peanuts comic strips, the text is interspersed with Twerski's own real-life examples. He relates different stages of his own spiritual awakenings, from childhood through the motivations for his decision to set aside the rabbinate and pursue a medical career; eye-opening conversations he had with his father, and even an extremely candid description of his period of mourning for his wife. Throughout the book one is constantly under the impression that Twerski's lessons were the hard-learned results of years of clinical and life experience. The third of the 10 steps to happiness is "I realize that changing my character traits is slow work, but I am willing to persist." There are no quick fixes when it comes to the inalienable right to happiness.