Monthly Archives: December 30, 2013

Small Obstacles

A recent study in Appetite, an international research journal specializing in behavioral nutrition, shows that even small obstacles to snacking – like wrappers on candy – can help people control their eating. In one experiment, 60 women were divided into groups, with each group invited to snack freely from a bowl of candies for five minutes.  For one group, the candies were unwrapped, while the other group was given wrapped candies.  This small difference yielded significantly different results; on average, each participant in the wrapped-candy group ate 3.6 candies, while those in the unwrapped-candy group ate 5.5 candies each. The results of the study are in line with earlier research.  In a similar experiment, office workers ate a third less candy when the candy was kept inside a drawer rather than on top of their desks.  Simply placing food out of sight – hardly a significant impediment! – makes it far easier for us to control our appetites.The significance of small obstacles, or boundaries that stand between us and the fulfillment of our desires, should not be understated.  Human beings have a limited amount of willpower; there are only so many times we can stare our temptations directly in the eye and retain our self-control.  By setting boundaries – even small ones, like keeping candy wrapped and out of sight at home and in the office – we minimize direct confrontation with our desires and save our strength for the occasional Venetian tables that come our way.This principle lies at the heart of the halachic system, and particularly the laws that regulate conduct between men and women.  The Talmudic sage, Ulla, taught that men should conduct themselves modestly and carefully with members of the opposite gender – […]

By |December 30, 2013|

Intellectuals

Thomas Jefferson is justly revered for his extraordinary contributions as a president, political thinker and diplomat.  His immortal words, “All men are created equal,” have had an immeasurable impact upon the course of American history and democracy the world over.  But in recent years, historians have begun to pay closer attention to Jefferson’s private life – to his practices as a slave owner and businessman – and their findings are more than a little troubling.In his 2012 biography of Jefferson, “Master of the Mountain,” Henry Wiencek introduces us to a ruthless slave owner who regularly overworked his slaves and tolerated brutal punishments, including the whipping of young children.  Unlike George Washington, who liberated his slaves in his will, Jefferson maintained that emancipation was a practical impossibility.  It’s no wonder Jefferson felt this way; as Fergus Bordewich writes, “whatever moral ambivalence Jefferson may have felt toward slavery he overcame when he sat down to do the numbers for his estate.”  Jefferson’s slaves were a financial boon to his estate; in 1792, he calculated that he was making a 4 percent profit every year on the birth of black children.  They were his soundest investment!How could Thomas Jefferson, the man who personifies the causes of liberty and equality, live a life so out of step with his professed beliefs? Jefferson’s life of contradiction is actually quite typical of great intellectuals.  Paul Johnson, in his book Intellectuals, examines the private lives of some of the greatest thinkers in modern times, evaluating the moral credentials of those whose thoughts have influenced mankind.  Not surprisingly, they rarely live up to their own teachings.  As Soren Kierkegaard writes: “In relation to their systems most systematizers are like one who builds an […]

By |December 23, 2013|

Rapture

As a teenager, William Cobbett, an 18th century English radical, worked as a gardener on a great estate.  One day, while walking through the streets of London during his free time, he noticed a copy of Jonathan Swift’s A Tale of a Tub in the front window of a bookshop.  He describes what happened next: “The title was so odd, that my curiosity was excited.  I had the threepence the book cost, but then, I could have no supper.”  He bought the book, and became so immersed in it that he read until it was too dark to see the words, ignoring his hunger.  Cobbett described this moment as a “birth of the intellect” – the first time his excitement over a book overwhelmed his basic physical needs. (cited in Margaret Willes, Reading Matters: Five Centuries of Discovering Books)

By completely immersing himself in Swift’s novel, Cobbet achieved a kind of ecstatic experience, described traditionally as ‘rapture,’’ in which one is “completely absorbed, engrossed, fascinated, perhaps even carried away” and which “underlies life’s deepest pleasures, from the scholar’s study to the carpenter’s craft to the lover’s obsession.” (Winifred Gallagher, Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life).  These kinds of experiences are both exhilarating, and all too rare; losing oneself in a book, or any occupation, requires a high degree of attention and interest – all too uncommon in today’s world.

The Talmud relates: “It was reported about Hillel the Elder that every day he used to work and earn one tropaik, half of which he would give to the guard at the House of Learning, the other half being spent for his food and for that of his family.  One day he found nothing to earn and […]

By |December 17, 2013|

The Need to be Noticed

In a recent article, author Chad Stafko managed to insult hundreds of thousands of people (if not more) by questioning the motivations of America’s many thousands of dedicated runners. Stafko notes that runners in his Midwestern community tend to flaunt their long distance feats – with “26.2” and “13.1” bumper stickers – indicating the driver has run a marathon or a half-marathon. Runners, apparently, are not content to anonymously sweat their way to fitness; they need others to know about it. Why? He writes: “These days, people want more than ever to be seen. This is the age of taking a photo selfie and posting it on Facebook with the announcement that you’re bored—in the hope that someone will “like” that information. People want attention and crave appreciation. If you’re actually doing something like running—covering ground, staying healthy, almost even having fun—what better way to fulfill the look-at-me desire? The lone runner is a one-person parade.” (Chad Stafko, OK, You’re a Runner. Get Over It, Wall Street Journal, November 12, 2013)

Runners across the blogosphere were predictably insulted – a desire to be fit and healthy, without the significant overhead required to join a gym, are certainly motivation enough to pick up running. True enough. But in my opinion, Stafko isn’t all wrong; the craving for attention, without a doubt, plays a major role in helping runners rise at nauseatingly early hours to practice their sport. But runners aren’t alone; the need to be noticed is a universal human drive. As the philosopher-president John Adams pointed out, “of all the passions and propensities of man, none is more essential, or more remarkable, than the passion for distinction.”

Adams […]

By |December 9, 2013|

Laughter and Transcendence

Spike Milligan was a world renowned 20th century comedian, best known for his 1950s British radio comedy program “The Goon Show.”  Milligan, who died in 2002 at the age of 83, asked that his tombstone be engraved with the words, “Here lies Spike Milligan. I told you I was ill.”

But alongside his humor, Milligan suffered terribly from severe bipolar disorder, experiencing at least ten major mental breakdowns over the course of his lifetime.  He wrote candidly about his condition, which was so at odds with his publicly joyous persona:  “I have got so low that I have asked to be hospitalized and for deep narcosis (sleep). I cannot stand being awake. The pain is too much… Something has happened to me, this vital spark has stopped burning – I go to a dinner table now and I don’t say a word, just sit there like a dodo. Normally I am the center of attention, keep the conversation going – so that is depressing in itself. It’s like another person taking over, very strange.”  (Spike Milligan and Anthony Clare, Depression and How to Survive It).

Milligan’s personal struggles would seem to be at odds with his chosen career as a comedian.  But like many other comedians, including Richard Pryor and Bill Hicks, Milligan found the strength to continue by immersing himself in the world of laughter.  His humor did more than make other people laugh – it kept him alive.  Mahatma Gandhi expressed this sentiment when he said, “If I had no sense of humor, I would long ago have committed suicide.”

According to Chassidic tradition, the Baal Shem Tov had a lively sense of humor.  He taught his students that the divine vitality that gives a person life and awareness is […]

By |December 4, 2013|