Polls consistently show us that people are unhappy. The Harris poll, which has been tracking happiness in the United States since 2008, always finds that what they call the “happiness index” is stagnant in the low-to-mid 30s — a score which is out of a possible 100.
Polls which ask people to describe how they feel about the direction of the country fare the same. The last time the Real Clear Politics average of that poll had less than 50 percent of people saying the country was headed in the wrong direction was between April and June of 2009.
Currently, those who think the country is headed in the wrong direction are beating those who are more optimistic by well over 10 percent. This, despite the fact that there was recently an election — and one would think that those who won might find cause for optimism in the victory they have only just attained.
It isn’t that life is so bad. Life, by every quantifiable measure, is pretty good. Over the last 50 years, life expectancy has risen by eight years, and the poverty rate has never broken 15 percent over that time span.
Still, people are not happy. And far be it from me to dismiss their unhappiness; there is, after all, good cause for it. But there’s a fine line between being unhappy with certain circumstances and the feeling you get from certain people who think that everything is awful because of the few points of discontent.
You know what else is doing pretty well these days — though you wouldn’t know it if you listen to certain people? We are.
Frum Yidden, by any measure, are being wildly successful. Incredible amounts of Torah study are now commonplace in virtually every Jewish community. Learning isn’t limited to yeshivos anymore — from the simple Daf Yomi to learning programs which unlock advanced subjects for baalei batim like Beth Medrash Govoha’s Shivti. There is an incredible amount of chessed done by our communities — and the unprecedented cumulative wealth we now have can support both our Torah and chessed organizations ably.
But people are still unhappy. One common refrain you hear these days is how hard it is to bring up kids in the world today. And it really is hard — the utter craziness that is prevalent in “modern” society runs directly counter to our value system. But despite that, we are doing it — and we are doing it well.
I’d bet that most people don’t know that retention rates (that’s just a fancy term data people use to measure individuals who do not go off the derech) as measured by Pew and others are higher than they’ve ever been. But, as they say in the news business, “if it bleeds it leads” — and it’s only the negative stories you hear about.
I got a reminder of just how good our chinuch system has become at a recent PTA meeting I attended at our sons’ cheder. One particular interaction with a Rebbi stuck with me, and while it is anecdotal, it illustrates very well how much our mechanchim have advanced in recent years.
My first-grade son reminds me — and others — very much of his father. I am very acutely aware of my own imperfections, and I remember the struggles I had as a young student. My son being very similar to me both in temperament and in nature, I voiced my concern to his Rebbi that he might have similar struggles in yeshivah.
His reassuring response, which displayed both an incredible understanding and care for my son, reminded me of something I heard the Kashau Rav say in a speech over 10 years ago. Rav Preida, the Gemara tells us (Eruvin 54b), had a talmid who needed to be taught everything 400 times. The Kashau Rav pointed out that there was almost certainly something wrong with this talmid — yet Rav Preida managed to teach him Torah. Because, he said, nothing can stand in the way of a Rebbi who is entirely dedicated to his talmidim. Evidence of Rav Preida’s dedication can be found in his teaching the talmid 400, even 800, times. But the key is dedication.
Melamdim today are especially dedicated. My elementary school experience was great, but today’s Rebbeim — especially those my children have been zocheh to have, embody Rav Pam’s famous exhortation that Rebbeim must teach talmidim, not material. The singular focus on each child, and the devotion to bringing out the best in them all, is something we should all be proud of.
Of course, we have challenges — and we need to deal with those challenges. But it’s important to remember that on the things that really matter, we’re doing well.