While reading Secrets of the Soul (a compilation of Rav Shlomo Hoffman's self-improvement lessons), Rav Hoffman tells of the time the rabidly Leftist anti-Torah Shomer HaTza'ir kibbutz movement invited him to speak.
The audience included authors & journalists who considered themselves very modern & enlightened with "original" thought. They felt sure their ideas developed without any influence of the "Galut[Exile]-based Torah tradition."
(Due to Rav Hoffman's position as an evaluation officer in the Israeli prison system, the kibbutz movement wished to hear his views on criminology.)
In consultation with Rav Yechezkel Sarna, Rav Sarna emphasized to Rav Hoffman that Rav Hoffman would not be able to influence them to do teshuvah.
Rather, the best result of the speaking engagement would be a softening of "their hatred against us."
Rav Sarna understood that by speaking about issues to which the extremist kibbutznikim could relate, Rav Hoffman's personal esteem would rise in their eyes, which would then soften their overall hatred toward frum people—"at least to some extent."
"That is very important," concluded Rav Sarna.
So with this pragmatic reality in his face, Rav Hoffman arrived for his speaking engagement.
(For background on Secrets of the Soul, please see a previous post: http://www.myrtlerising.com/blog/the-problem-is-not-sin-but-how-to-cope-with-it)
Nothing New under the Sun
Feelings of offense & arguing erupted from the group.
Finally, Rav Hoffman decided to conduct an experiment for them.
He told them to take their choice of book without showing him the author, and allow him to just read the story.
After a few pages, Rav Hoffman accurately guessed the culture of the author.
He succeeded repeatedly, book after book: Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish...
How did he do it?
Novels often include characters suffering from inner conflict over some wrong-doing they committed.
For example, authors from a Christian culture often portray suicide as the response to overwhelming guilt.
In contrast, Rav Hoffman told them (page 60), "Take all of Jewish writing from the beginning of time down to today and show me a similar instance of someone committing suicide (other than Achitofel [Shmuel II 17:23])."
I don't know the examples from other cultures, although Rav Hoffman mentioned the Catholic invention of atonement via confession to a priest.
But certainly, Judaism stands out for its recognition of teshuvah as atonement. Meaning, the pain of humbling yourself, being honest with yourself, and breaking your middot—that atones.
And this combined, of course, with a change of behavior.
As Hashem Himself said, "Let him do teshuvah and be forgiven."
You are Not Your Flaws
Look at how much of our surrounding culture views flaws as exposing a person's "real" self.
Judaism's view (the correct view) holds the opposite attitude.
Flaws expose a person's klippah—NOT the actual person.
In other words, flaws expose what a person needs to work on in order to bring out one's true self.
Modern psychology tends to label people by their dysfunction: narcissist personality disorder, ADHD, schizophrenic, Type A, obsessive-compulsive, neurotic, addict, alcoholic, and so on.
And yes, Judaism does too--when that particular shoe fits.
For example, Torah literature discusses a baal gaavah (narcissist), a baal taavah (one controlled by his physical desires), a kamtzan (miser), and so on.
But we also have the baal chessed (one who encompasses loving-kindness), the baal tzedakah (a generous and whole-heartedly charitable person), the baal middot (a person of sterling character), and so on.
Also, Judaism upholds the idea that a baal gaavah can develop into an anav (a humble person).
This is hardly recognized in our surrounding culture.
For example, how many people diagnosed with bi-polar or ADHD or schizophrenia are presented with their options in absolutes: They MUST be on medication for the REST of their life—no ifs, ands, or buts?
How many alcoholics embrace the idea that alcoholism is an incurable disease, that they always remain an alcoholic even if they haven't had a drink in 26 years?
They eternally remain "a recovering alcoholic"—no matter what.
And look at how all-encompassing these labels become.
It's as if being "a recovering alcoholic" overtakes a major part of their identity (again, even if they refrain from imbibing any alcohol for years).
Yet a person is much more than his flaws.
The Nature & Nurture Component of Modern Baddies
And other issues exist, like if a person genuinely possesses a fully Erev Rav soul or some other kind of soul root or impurity—and this includes the non-Jewish world too.
But today's modern secular culture actively cultivates narcissism & other bad middot.
In fact, you need to consciously fight against the culture in order NOT to slip into narcissism (and other bad middot) yourself.
Even the big problem with narcissists (that they hurt people) is not considered a problem as long as one has a socially acceptable reason for hurting someone else.
For example, if you feel they hurt you first, if you're "just kidding!", if you have a compelling enough sob story, if you have (or claim to have) some kind of disorder (ADHD, etc.), if you claim you're "just being honest" or claim "I wouldn't criticize you if I didn't really care about you," if you're stressed or tired, and so on...
...then this culturally excuses hurtful behavior—a dynamic which actively nurtures narcissism and sociopathy.
Even those well-versed in the literature of narcissism & all the manipulations encourage the belief that narcissism holds a genetic component—another way of saying that it's hopeless because it's inborn.
It's also a way of allowing current social mores & values to evade responsibility for their part in creating narcissism.
At its extreme, the above attitude is why many people (including some elites in the IDF) feel it's okay for terrorists to kill Jews, but not for Jews to kill terrorists.
Or that it's okay to pit-maneuver to death Jewish teens merely suspected of throwing rocks at Arabs, but it's not okay to bomb (or even deprive of electricity!) people who shoot (or support the shooting of) hundreds of missiles into civilian homes & streets.
This is why, when the US executed an especially violent & brutal murderer (on the basis of both DNA and the testimony of many witnesses)—a savage who committed other horrific acts too—bleeding-hearted bobbleheads came out to protest and boo-hoo his execution.
This is why it's okay for a gang claiming to operate in favor of black lives can destroy black businesses in a frenzy of rioting & looting, but it's not okay to criticize them or call out their hypocrisy—doing so makes you "racist."
Once Upon a Time, Kathy had a Klippah...
I once lived in a dormitory with a girl we'll call Kathy.
Kathy was always very nice, even to people who weren't so nice. She always preferred to avoid confrontation. She never insulted anyone or did anything to cause hurt feelings. She never talked about people behind their back, nor did she join any gossip or slander.
She was generous with her possessions.
All in all, she displayed very good middot and made herself a pleasant person to be around.
Punctuality was not a priority for her.
If you set a time to go somewhere with her, she was never ready at that time.
And not 10 minutes after that time either.
Kathy was honest & upfront about this; she told her friends to tell her to be ready by an earlier time than the real time, and felt that was all she needed to do.
That's understandable because in American culture, being honest about your flaws is considered taking responsibility for them, which then enables you to continue with your problematic behavior—guilt-free.
What many don't realize is that doing so dumps the responsibility for your behavior onto the other person—not fair.
People don't need to work out fake times just because Kathy can't be bothered to work it out herself.
Once, I watched as Kathy's friend became increasingly agitated over Kathy still not being ready—even 15 minutes after the appointed time.
Kathy kept fidgeting around with her things, getting ready, and saying, "But I told you I'm always late. I told you that this is how I am."
She honestly did not seem to understand why her friend was upset by the excessive (and completely preventable) delay.
Finally, half-an-hour after the set time, Kathy was ready to go.
Oddly, it looked like Kathy compulsively & randomly moved things around as she got ready to go. Meaning, it almost looked as if she fidgeted around with things to make herself late.
But it wasn't intentional at all.
Another time, Kathy returned from a trip to buy gloves with a flustered expression on her face.
She entered a kiosk selling gloves, then proceeded to rifle through all the gloves, trying some on—all without straightening anything up afterward & without buying anything.
As she exited the store with all the Kathy-produced disorder behind her, the owner called out, "My all your fingers get broken!"
Certainly, the owner was wrong to do that. Cursing is strictly forbidden by Jewish Law.
However, his anger is completely understandable.
He spent laborious time laying out every pair of gloves in an orderly fashion.
Customers are more inclined to buy—and to buy at the stated price—if the merchandise is clean & orderly.
After Kathy's unprofitable visit, he must now go through shelf after shelf to straighten up all the stock again, glove by glove.
And he didn't earn a single agurah for all his efforts.
Puzzlingly, Kathy could not understand what she did wrong.
The owner's forbidden response aside, Kathy honestly did not understand why messing up the entire stock was a problem.
A Torah Analysis of Kathy
Despite her other daily behavior, in which she went out of her way to maintain pleasant relations with others and never say anything hurtful (including a refusal to engage in lashon hara), Kathy's obliviousness to harming others by inconveniencing them defines her as inconsiderate at her core—according to modern secular thought.
Certainly, her inability to even comprehend why extreme lateness or wholesale disorder bothers others demonstrates a certain lack of empathy & awareness on her part.
But it doesn't make her wholly unempathetic or a narcissist.
Yes, she lacks empathy in a particular area.
And yes, it was odd that even in hindsight, she could not see the lack of integrity in her inconsiderate behavior.
In fact, she could not even understand why extreme lateness or messing up a store bothered others so much.
She honestly did not understand how this inconvenienced others.
She did not understand that by behaving irresponsibly, she thrust the responsibility for her behavior onto others.
It wasn't on purpose at all. That was clear.
Had she understood why this behavior indeed hurt others, she likely would have felt bad about it.
(Which maybe explains her block against understanding the problem. Maybe she felt confused or overwhelmed about practical consideration toward others, did not feel capable of it, so she unconsciously resisted seeing it.)
On the other hand, Kathy was very sensitive & considerate to others verbally.
That shows she cared about others' feelings.
The disconnect came regarding her practical behavior.
She understood how words could hurt.
But she could not understand how practical actions could hurt.
So what we see with Kathy is NOT "Oh, muwahahaha...we have discovered the evil gremlin under the veneer of niceness!"
Instead, what we see is a very good person who struggles with a klippah of practical inconsideration toward others.
And that's the Jewish view toward flaws.
If we condemn the person as a whole, then that is just plain WRONG.
If we focus on a person's particular flaw as their most important or most defining aspect, then that is FACTUALLY WRONG from a Torah viewpoint.
It simply is not true.
That's why, in Kathy's case, someone could work with her by saying, "You are clearly such a nice & caring person. Let's help you expand your niceness & caring to practical consideration too."
Shouting at Kathy, "You are an oblivious, inconsiderate slob!" would be unproductive partly because it's not true.
Yes, Kathy is oblivious & inconsiderate in one aspect. But not overall!
Needless to say, as mentioned above, there are people who really are mostly bad.
But most people contain a lot of good.
It's better to err on the side of: "You're a sparkling diamond who happens to be entangled in a thick 'n' thorny klippah."
(If you see you're wrong, you can always backtrack later.)
And because it's the truth, people are more likely to improve themselves via the Torah attitude rather than the attitude that they are fundamentally defective or awful at their core.