This New World We Live In

While speaking with a friend of mine this past Shabbos, I had the opportunity to hear about a unique organization he is involved in. The organization focuses on high school-age boys and girls and provides subsidies for payment of therapists and other mental health professionals, so that issues can be dealt with earlier rather than later. The statistic that crystallizes the need for this organization almost floored me. He related that despite their being very strict about what kind of cases they get involved in, they have a monthly budget of over $30,000 and are actively involved in over 125 cases. Despite this, they still have a long waiting list.

My friend told me that he once asked the Mashgiach, Harav Don Segal, shlita, if the prevalence of mental health and emotional difficulties that so many people struggle with today (particularly children and young adults) is a product of the times we live in, or if it is something that always existed. Rav Don told him that it was not always the way it now is.

We were left to speculate on why it is that way.

I mentioned to my friend right before we parted ways, that I will always remember something my eighth-grade Rebbi once told the class many years ago: “Can you imagine,” he asked us, “what life was like without a fax machine? Today, some people even have car phones!” I was relating this story to make a point about how different life is now than it was in the not-so-distant past. But as I was walking home, I thought about the rest of what my Rebbi had said in that eighth-grade classroom and wondered if the point he was making can be applied here in broader terms.

“When we first got these machines in our lives,” he told us, “everyone thought that they would bring nothing but good. Who can think of reasons why devices that are made to increase efficiency and to promote convenience would not be great? But there is a downside to it all. When sending a document is a matter of hours instead of days or weeks, it creates a need for everything to move at a faster pace. People are under more pressure as a result, and who’s to say if the fax and other such innovations aren’t responsible for many people’s hypertension?”

That got me thinking in the context of the current discussion. The Lakewood Mashgiach, Harav Mattisyahu Salomon, shlita, at the recent Kinus for women, repeated the words of Rabbeinu Yonah in Igeres HaTeshuvah, Shaar Gimmel. Speaking about the importance of the position women occupy in a Jewish home, he quoted the words, “Umerachmos aleihem b’vo’am mibeis sefer” that the women have rachmanus on their children when they come home from school. The Mashgiach quipped, “So you see that when a child comes home from school, the child is a rachmanus case!”

That led me to ponder why it would be that children should need rachmanus when they come home from school. Put simply, because children aren’t naturally students. A child runs around, has fun, and is generally carefree. When in school, however, the natural inclination is subdued, and instead, an entirely different and unnatural persona is demanded.

If that was true in the times of Rabbeinu Yonah more than 750 years ago, one can only imagine how much more rachmanus our children need today.

There are two distinct points here. The fact is that my Rebbi’s point all those years ago is only so much truer today. What took a matter of hours or minutes (to transmit a document via fax) has become the instantaneous transmission of email. And no longer does one need to be at a desktop computer to receive it; a large portion of the general population now gets email (and calls) directly on handheld Smartphones. The convenience is great, but have we thought about the cost? The world has transformed into an instant world, one where everything is expected to be available instantly. If you had to get something shipped to you years ago, it was something that took weeks; now, options for next-day shipping have become the norm. Amazon has even announced plans to start delivering packages within 30 minutes via drone, by sometime in 2015.

And if the cost/benefit debate can be had vis-à-vis adults, can you imagine the effect this kind of world must have on children? And despite the fact that children can have perfect parents, the very fact that the world in which they are growing up is this kind of world must take a devastating toll upon them.

But there is another, second, more basic issue that this new world has created.

I heard an Adam Gadol explain one of the issues that modern technology has created. He was referring to text messaging, but the point can be applied in more general terms as well. “People,” he said, “to a certain extent, live off social interaction. People talked to each other, and when you needed something from another person, be it information or a favor, a prerequisite to that request was engaging in conversation. But texting has stripped away all the interaction that is needed to just the simple request in the form of text which appears on a cellphone screen. In many ways, our interactions with others end up suffering from this as well, even when we aren’t using text messaging.”

Indeed, this point has also been made by mental health experts who don’t necessarily have the sensitivities our leaders have. Dr. Gary Small, professor of psychiatry and director of the UCLA Longevity Center at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience & Human Behavior, said that “people that overuse text messages have a harder time communicating and talking.” Dr. Small concurred with the opinion of Dr. Lisa Merlo, of the Center for Addiction Research and Education at University of Florida, who said that texting “can create problems in relationships, as well as functional activities of daily living.”

Modern technology has created a world where traditional, interpersonal communication has become devalued because most things are accomplished via electronic communication. But we still need it. And children who are engaging the world and developing throughout their formative years need it more than anyone else. They need it from parents, and they also need it from everyone else they interact with. But they see a world that puts less and less value on the type of communication that is constructive, so they don’t necessarily realize what there is to be gained from it. And so they remain without its benefits.