'If you had a choice of whether or not to have been born, what would you choose?'
By SHMULEY BOTEACH
The principal cause of the ruination of today's men is a culture that teaches them to use money as the currency by which to purchase self-esteem and self-worth. I call it "soulless capitalism." Capitalism is a system that recognizes that the most effective engine of economic advancement is one that rewards individual effort and achievement. Communism may be a more moral economic system insofar as it provides according to need rather than effort. But its immorality, not to mention its ineffectiveness, lies precisely in its inability to recognize the human desire, indeed the human need, for recognition. People work not just to eat, but to distinguish themselves. But communism makes them into one unidentifiable morass. Capitalism recognizes that people have material and ego needs not just to get by and survive, but, as the German philosopher Friedrich Hegel says, to earn the corroboration of their humanity through the recognition of their peers.
But capitalism is itself limited in its failure to recognize that man is comprised of not just a body but a spirit. Man is not a homo sapiens but a homo spiritus. Capitalism that is soulless, that only caters to the material needs of the body rather than the spiritual needs of the soul, will destroy humanity as thoroughly as communism. Which explains why America is a land of such profound contradictions; the greatest and richest country in the world accompanied by the most shallow and vulgar culture; a place with the highest standard of living but also some of the highest rates of depression.
The hallmark of soulless capitalism is where people are judged by the quantity of their bank accounts rather than the quality of their relationships. It is where money is the sole arbiter of human importance. It is where money maketh the man.
FOR ABOUT a year I hosted a radio show that aired in Utah and was geared toward women. We were able to deal with issues that few others explored, especially on a monster 50 kilowatt station. I talked often about the effect of soulless capitalism on men. The discussion resonated with the women listening, especially the married ones. One by one they would call in to speak of how their finances directly impacted on their husband's happiness.
With the women, when the family did not have a lot of money, they felt the squeeze. But it was a practical concern about how to pay bills. But for the men, it was different. Financial problems ate away at their very self-esteem. Their confidence eroded. They did not question their professional acumen but their entire existence, and they sank into a depression from which their wives could not easily lift them.
Then one day I took this idea of feeling worthless further. The Talmud relates how the two scholarly academies of the House of Hillel and the House of Shamai had a debate on the question of whether it was good for man to have been born or not.
I asked my listenership. "If you had a choice whether not to have been born, what would you choose?" Three calls from women in rapid succession all affirmed their desire to have been born. But the forth call was from a man and it was easily the most memorable moment I have ever had on radio. He related how, at that very moment, he was perched on a cliff in his car and his plan was to drive off and kill himself. Just as he was about to floor the accelerator, he decided that he would turn on the radio and look for a sign that might bring him back from the brink. Improbably, he found us, a women's station! He heard the discussion and decided to call in.
"I'm standing here moments before I kill myself, and I'm not bluffing. I would never have chosen to have been born, and now I'm choosing to die. I was a cop. I did everything right. I risked my life for other people and I got paid very little for it. I always struggled financially. And then one day the department downsized and they let me go. And for the past four months I have looked at a mountain of bills and I have slipped to a very dark place. I have a loving wife and she's done everything to get me to believe in myself. But I'm a failure who can't even support his family. I have no reason to live and I'm going to kill myself." He was 44 years old, way too young to die. More importantly, he had a wife and three children he needed to take care of and who loved him. I told him he sounded like a good and honorable man. A hero. A cop. "If you kill yourself, you'll substantiate the big lie that a man is only worth as much money as he makes. If you take your life, you will have let down not just yourself and your family, but all us men who struggle to find self-worth in a life devoted to something other than the endless pursuit of capital. But if you back your car up and choose life, you will be a hero to your wife and your children and an inspiration to the rest of us struggling men. You will show that you have infinite value as a human being, infinite worth as a child of God. And you will give that lesson to your children."
While still on the phone he promised me he'd go home and seek help.
Three weeks later I received a letter from his wife telling me that, together, they were seeing a counselor three times a week. She thanked me for saving his life. I wrote back to her that the idea that I saved him was absurd. She had saved him. It was the knowledge that he was not just an empty bank account but a man who was loved by a devoted woman and children which had brought him back from the brink. It was just a matter of reminding him how loved he was.
The writer is the host of TLC's Shalom in the Home Tand the author of a new book by the same title.
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