Jewish World Review July 23, 2002 / 14 Menachem-Av 5762

Contented cows

By Dr. Abraham Twerski, M.D. | I am a roving reporter doing a survey on THE PURPOSE OF LIFE. The majority of those polled said: "The purpose of life is to be happy". They are being very honest with their feelings. In psychological terms what they are seeking is "contentment"-since one of the strongest biologic drives is to avoid discomfort.

It is clear, however, that human beings often voluntarily accept some forms of discontent. When the alarm rings in the morning, we would really prefer to turn it off and cozy under the covers "just five (ten) more minutes --- please." When we drag ourselves out of bed to go to work we are actually frustrating a natural desire ---and we do this only because there is a goal which supersedes the desire for physical contentment.

The goal of earning one's livelihood and supporting one's family overrides the natural desire to continue sleeping. This is the prototype for accepting a degree of discomfort or making a sacrifice for the sake of an ultimate goal. Accepting the increasing inconvenience and delays of heightened security measures at our nations' airports for the goal of greater protection is another case in point.

This concept is of great importance in the prevention of addiction. When the rather naive campaign was launched, urging youngsters to: "Just say no to drugs," some adolescents who were interviewed responded: "Why? What else is there"?

There is no denying that alcohol and other mind altering substances give the user some type of pleasant sensation. Even if the "high" does not constitute a state of euphoria, it is at least a respite from unpleasant sensations of anxiety, tension, depression and awkward self-consciousness. The use of such chemicals is nothing other than the pursuit of contentment.

But why should young people (and more than just a few baby boomers) risk the serious social, physical, and psychological consequences of mind-altering chemicals? Are there no other, safer, and more durable ways of achieving a feeling of contentment?

Of course there are. The problem is that:

1. These do not produce immediate results; and

2. One must have sufficient self confidence that one's efforts can ultimately achieve the desired state of contentment.

The problem of immediate gratification is relatively new in the history of mankind and may explain why the use of mind-altering substances is much more prevalent now than in previous times.

Years ago people were accustomed to waiting. Travel by stage coach was of weeks duration, as was mail by pony express. Foods would cook slowly over a period of hours, and transactions involving long columns of figures had to laboriously calculated and rechecked. The miracles of technology have eliminated all waiting. Jet flight, the telephone, the fax and email have made communication instantaneous. Pre-cooked food and microwave ovens have eliminated time delay in food preparation, and the magic of computers has reduced complex mathematical calculations to nano-seconds. We have even become impatient with the speed of speed and now demand broadband instead of the snail paced "dial up." Speed is the password of technology, and with the exception of pregnancy, everything appears hurried, hectic and frenzied.

In an ethos where virtually everything is expected to occur instantaneously, it is difficult to impress young people (and many baby boomers, too) that they should wait for years to achieve a state of well being. The quest for the quick fix that will solve all of our issues and problems is quite in keeping with the fast paced, throw away, new and improved generation we live in.

Even if the delay were to be tolerated, this will only be when we see a light at the end of the tunnel; i.e., when we feel with reasonable certainty that the desired state of contentment is within reach. This requires a degree of self confidence and an awareness of and a trust in one's own capabilities that is so lacking in our low self esteem society.

Many people have a distorted self-concept that causes them to be oblivious to their own personality strengths and assets. The nature and complexity of the modern super-industrialized society may have contributed to the prevalence of the low self-concept. Where there is a lack of self esteem, the aspiration that a state of contentment is achievable is greatly diminished, and with nothing else to look forward to, young people (and more than a few baby boomers) who feel this way are easily attracted to mind-altering chemicals.

The only answer is the development of a goal or goals above and beyond that of contentment, something for which people will be willing to forego physical comfort and accept sacrifice, just as one does when one allows the alarm clock to interrupt the nirvana of sleep.

Pride in one's humanness can provide this ultimate goal, but only if one sees oneself as more than merely homo sapiens. The sapiens in man is that which brought about the Concorde, compact discs, DVD and zip loc baggies. Is there something more?

Animals, too, are driven to seek contentment. One producer of dairy products advertises that its raw material is "milk from contented cows." The rationale is that the highest quality milk is produced by the contented cow-the highest quality of cow. Certainly the pride of man should instill in him a drive for the kind of excellence that surpasses that of cows. The milk producer is right. Contentment is indeed bovine excellence, because cows are creatures without a spirit. Spiritual man must be different.

There are many goals open to man. One person may be drawn to the preservation of the environment or to the protection of an endangered species. Another may be motivated to combat poverty or to improve the lot of the homeless. Yet another may dedicate his efforts to relieve the hunger in famine-stricken countries, and yet another may seek the heights of religious experience and devote himself to fulfillment of religious teachings through acts of kindness. There is no dearth of goals available to man, if he would only turn off his television and become a proactive player in any field of human endeavor and betterment. These goals are all beyond the capacity of animals and make them unique components of the human spirit.

The spiritual person is thus one who is willing to sacrifice his personal comfort and physical contentment for a goal external to himself. Development of such spirituality among young people (and one or two baby boomers) may be the only way they may be deterred from the destructive use of mind altering chemicals. Without such spirituality, neither prohibition, interdiction of drugs at the border, legalization of drugs, nor any other method of enforcement is likely to succeed. Furthermore, absence of chemicals does not lead to elimination of addiction, because lack of spirituality and the pursuit of contentment for its own sake will lead to some other type of indulgent behavior. The development of our spiritual selves remains the best prescription for reclaiming our humanity.


Spiritual animals?
The Believer's Guide to 'Buying' Happiness
Preventing future attacks
American Spirituality
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): A very real condition
Helping our kids deal with trauma
The Creator helps those who help themselves
Knowing what to expect
Psychological fallout in the shadow of terrorism
Self-esteem in the face of world terrorism

Abraham J. Twerski, M.D. is a psychiatrist and ordained rabbi. He is the founder of the Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Pittsburgh, a leading center for addiction treatment. An Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, he is a prolific author, with some 30 books to his credit. He has recently launched a new 12 step program for self esteem development Send your comments by clicking here.

© 2002, Abraham J. Twerski, M.D.