Not feelin’ it? Just do it

“Let us always meet each other with smile, for the smile is the beginning of love.”

A little Jewish wisdom for today:

As the Talmud tells us, “It is not the thought that counts, but the deed.”

This is truly a Jewish idea. I first realized this many years ago when a non-Jewish middle-aged caller to my radio show sorrowfully related to me that he thought he was a terrible son. He explained that for the previous 10 years he had been the sole financial and emotional support of his ailing mother — and sometimes, he confided to me, the burden was so heavy that he wished she would finally succumb to her illnesses.

When I told him that I thought he was one of the most wonderful sons I had ever had the honor of speaking to, he thought I was mocking him. He couldn’t believe that I was serious. But I was. I explained to him that it is completely irrelevant what he sometimes feels or wishes. What matters is how beautifully he has acted toward his mother all these years.

This should be the guiding principle of our views on virtually every subject.

The self-esteem movement has largely been a moral and emotional disaster. It was produced by people who, among other mistaken ideas, believed that feelings were more important than actions. Thus, no matter how little children may accomplish, they are still to be rewarded with medals, trophies, lavish praise, etc. The result is that they deem how they feel about themselves as being of greater importance than how they act.

In a math competition with students from other industrialized democracies, American students came in last. But they came in first in self-esteem about their knowledge of math. And the prominent criminologist and professor of psychology, Roy Baumeister, has often noted that no group has higher self-esteem than violent criminals.

The Torah commands us to tithe our income. Neither the Torah nor later Judaism ever cared whether our heart is in it. We are commanded to give whether or not we feel like giving. Tzedakah — which is translated as “charity,” but it is in fact the feminine form of “justice” — helps the needy. And people who are in need prefer to receive $100 from one who feels religiously obligated to give, rather than than $5 from one whose heart prompts him to give $5.

In decades of lecturing, writing and broadcasting on the subject of happiness, my two central premises have come from this Jewish teaching that behavior is what matters most. The first premise is that if we act happy, we are far more likely to feel happy. The second is that we all owe everyone in our lives not to inflict our unhappy feelings on them. With few exceptions, no matter how we feel, we have a moral obligation to act with a happy disposition. — Dennis Prager

6 comments on “Not feelin’ it? Just do it

  1. nos. says:

    Who does this Dennis prager think he is . ” I EARNED THAT TROPHY , AND BY GOLLY I WANT IT ” there’s that empty spot in my heart,,,, oops, I meant trophy case that needs filling .

  2. LP says:

    Thank you Dr Tom, what a story to read on the first anniversary of my mom’s death.

    My sister in the US was the one who bore the task of looking after my mother after my father’s death, particularly for the last 3 years when she was resident at Alexian Home. I telephoned most weeks but often felt too busy and had to pray to the Holy Spirit to guide me during the calls as my mother could be a “difficult” woman, complaining, always knowing best, what good could I do her from the UK etc. Your words comfort me that perhaps my little bit helped.

    But I am especially grateful to my beautiful sister who did so much, visiting most weeks, seeing to mom’s needs etc. Although she no longer attends Mass, she is a true Christian and I thank God for her every day. She is the one who started our new tradition of greetings and goodbyes with the words “Love you”. You see, our parents never said this in all of our lives. LP

    • I would echo Dennis in saying to you and your sister what wonderful daughters you are as your love is an act of the will, thrust against the inner tumultuous storm, for the sake of your mom. Thanks for sharing this, and for allowing us to see the witness of tough love translated into words and deeds.

  3. Pat Beckett says:

    I love the thoughts about behavior being most important in our lives. Excellent thoughts about that premise. However, I have to disagree with the statement that “we all owe everyone in our lives not to inflict our unhappy feelings on them.” Sharing feelings of all types creates honest relationships. If one is unable to share negative feelings with the ones they love, spouse, parents, friends, the relationship becomes shallow and distant. Definitely, we strive to act with a “happy disposition”, but there is still an important place for sharing feelings of sadness, anger, frustration etc.

    • Pat: Well taken! I would guess if we pressed him in a conversation for nuance he would agree with you. Maybe there’s a big difference for him between “inflicting one’s woes” on others (what we often call dumping) and sharing one’s heart with another in the hope of discovering in their love, compassion and support new hope, joy, peace, etc. Or he might value the need to express our pain or hurt to those who have hurt us so that we might facilitate reconciliation or the restoration of justice. I loved his point here because I always cherished Mother Teresa’s saying, “If you lack hope, find another without hope, give them hope and you will find hope.” I substitute the word “hope” with all kinds of other words, like joy, happiness, etc. I love your point, and think he would, in the end, agree with you. Or I think of an elderly nun I knew (now deceased) who confided to me, when I once complimented her for her ceaseless infectious joy, that she had to fake it lots for the sake of her vocation to uplift the people she served. And she added with her wry Irish accent, “The best virtues are mostly gotten by fakin’ ’em first.” 🙂 I love nuns! Blessings on you and Bill. Thanks for writing!!

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