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by Rabbi Yossi Braun

"I can't..."

"I must..."

"I need to..."

These sentences or outbursts were not copied out of my two year old's temper tantrum manual, nor are they renditions from  the "teen vs. parent" daily performance ; they are actively present in the minds and hearts of myself and yourself on a regular basis.

Often, in response to that soft or silent inner voice eating up at our conscience, we will protest that we can't do it any other way.

The formula is straight forward and consistently goes along the following lines: Think. Want. Must. Can't.

Spelled out in full, it reads as follows: "I think. Therefore I want. Hence I must. Consequently I can't otherwise." 

Chassidic literature addresses the wide range of spiritual maladies that may confront us as individuals. Specifically, it is replete with diagnostic and prognostic information, along with suggested cures and solutions to the spiritual maladies known as timtum ha'moach (dullness of the mind) and timtum ha'lev (dullness of the heart). This refers to an individual whose mind and heart has become "contaminated", i.e. he is rough, insensitive and unresponsive to spiritual matters[1].

A Chassidic sage was once asked to explain the distinction between the two forms of timtum (dullness), that of the mind and that of the heart. His succinct response says it all: "'I think' is timtum hamo'ach (mind); 'I want' is timtum halev (heart)."

The mere engaging in the pronoun "I" is a form of timtum, contamination and insensitivity.

True, we are naturally inclined to be self centred beings. If you ever looked at a group photo, be it a class picture or a family picture, you'll discover that regardless of your position in the group, your eyes will consistently carry you to the image of yours truly. Your post-viewing-photo-analysis will always feature, first and foremost, your most-popular theme of "did I look good" or any derivative of that subject matter. 

This is an ingrained, inborn, natural predisposition. Natural tendencies, however, are not precluded from being listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, psychiatry's encyclopaedia. Blame it on whatever you want, nature, nurture or neither, it is a disorder, and of severe proportions.

But we also have an ingrained, inborn, natural predisposition to overcome this disorder. The soul, the ultimate anti-body, has an immune system which produces antibodies to neutralise spiritual bacteria and viruses.

While the body is self centred, the soul, is anti-body and G-d centred. So, all our issues, challenges and concerns boil down to the one million dollar question: I or Him?

There is something strange about the English language. The "I" rule. The nominative form of the singular first-person pronoun, "I", along with all its contractions (I'll, I'm, etc), are always written in upper case letters. There's absolutely no grammatical reason that the solitary majuscule "I" should tower above "you,"' "us" "he" or the royal "we". Consider what effect capitalising "I" but not "you" may have on English speakers[2].

The most recent outbreak of this infectious disease has reached epidemic proportions and should set alarm bells ringing. I am referring (sorry, that should have been "i am referring" in the lower case; actually who needs the "i" altogether? That should really be "this is referring") to our generation, the iGeneration. We are a generation which is self obsessed. iPod. iTunes. iPhone. iPad. iBook. Or MySpace.

Gone are the days of email, eBook and eBay. It's all about "I" now. (By some fluke chance, YouTube, the pioneer of the "broadcast yourself" industry, wasn't named iTube).

In our blood cell count, the "I" count is very high[3]. "I need it and I need it now" is the motto of the day (make that hour,  minute, millisecond, microsecond or nanosecond).

And we better do something about it fairly quickly, like NOW...

But, wait a second, isn't the iGeneration using the lower-case "i"? Indeed, Modern email culture dismisses all uses of capitalisation (and even correct spelling, for that matter).

Aha! We just hit the nail on the head.

In the past, people were plagued by isms of all sorts (e.g. agnosticism, atheism, socialism, pantheism etc.). Religion or spirituality was confronted with the challenge of tackling with these isms head-on. Philosophical arguments were created, texts were brutally analysed, roles were redefined - all in an effort to fight the contemporary ism.

Nowadays, the ism-gods have virtually disintegrated and been buried in the local junkyard. No longer does the believer feel threatened by the onslaught of  isms, currently in vogue.

The threat comes from somewhere else altogether. I-ism. While the isms of the past are fading into oblivion and coming to an end, the "I" disorder is taking advantage of the vacuum and rearing its ugly head. The shallowness and emptiness of past-post-modernism have created a vanity fair. A world which is completely self-absorbed and self-obsessed but internally impoverished; successful in the outside world, but possessing an inner emptiness.

It is an "i",  but a lower case one. An "i" which is empty and void, lacking inner dignity and pride. Ours is a generation of chutzpah -  brazenness and arrogance but without having a leg to stand on[4].

This is good news. Why so? Because emptiness is, guess what, empty. It doesn't present a challenge. All that is necessary is to fill that void with truth and genuineness.

Put simply: Treating a sick person is a daunting exercise. Aside from being time-consuming and expensive, you got to know what you're doing and even then - chances are that you might not succeed. But treating a hungry person is simple. A drink of water and a morsel of bread is all it takes to do the job. And you're a definite winner.

Our generation, the iGeneration, are hungry souls.  Filling ourselves with the sweet waters of Torah or relishing the taste of approaching G-d in prayer will immediately fill that craving.

The i-ism will go the way of all other isms. The iGeneration will soon be replaced with the I-generation, THE CAPITAL AND UPPER CASE I, referring to the one and only I, the I of all other i-s.

Our G-d centred soul will successfully have fought off  our high i-count and will be given the all-clear to go home.

[1] In the words of the Alter Rebbe in Tanya (chapter 29): "they experience a dullness of the heart, as though it had turned to stone, and, try as they might, they cannot open their heart in prayer, which is, by definition, the  'service of the heart.'"

[2] You know that things are really getting out of hand when you discover that prominent linguists out there are of the firm conviction that it is "forbidden" to  capitalise pronouns that refer to God. Of course, if you really insist on capitalizing His name out of reverence, "permission may be granted" and you haven't broken any of the rules, but if you are an ardent believer in the conventions of proper English grammar, syntax and style you wouldn't do something so silly.

[3] A recent study from the San Diego State University suggests that there has been a major increase in narcissistic attitudes; in statistical terms, we have had a 30% increase of elevated narcissism scores. Partly, this is due to all our efforts to boost self esteem in our children, resulting in a host of self-esteem programs (or problems). Nursery school children are singing songs like: "I am special, I am special. Look at me."

[4] The Kabala explains that all physical illnesses are a manifestation of a spiritual syndrome, and the physical symptoms reflect the spiritual disorder. The most devastating malady of our time, cancer, is one in which the cells multiply and grow in a manner disproportionate to the rest of the body. The Lubavitcher Rebbe (Likkutei Sichot I:151) suggested that this is a manifestation of the spiritual malady of our time, which is a distorted, disproportionate sense of self:  An overblown self esteem but  one that has no identity and meaning, continuously questioning "who am I, and what am I?"



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