Forgive me if you will the fact that I will start this article with words that would have caused me to roll my eyes had they been uttered when I was a young student-at-law a 22 years ago by my boss or my father (which may explain the eye rolling of my children and my current student-at-law when I begin conversations this way), but “back when I was your age..”. The older I get the more I catch myself beginning my rants with these words. One recent such diatribe was caused by a week of being frustrated at people around me continually using incorrect grammar and not understanding what I meant because of my choice of words- words which are obvious to me, that I knew when I was in high school, that my teenager uses in regular conversation, so I’m not just referring to some arcane legal terminology. Words most educated adults should know but too many don’t. Usually this is an issue when I am dealing with younger lawyers and staff, those in their 20s and early 30s. These are for the most part highly educated individuals, all born and educated in Canada. The fault lies with the decline of standards in our educational system; our lowest common denominator infotainment culture; and one of the few downsides to modern technological advances, namely tweet and text-based conversational shorthand.
While I concede some of the issue may be my own prickliness when it comes to language, grammar and vocabulary, the cold, hard fact is that the English language is devolving at a pace faster than reality television if that is possible. And yes, television and popular culture are certainly to blame. As is the educational philosophy I have seen in my kids’ schools over the years where they were not penalized with reduced marks for spelling or grammar (in courses other than English) as long as the substantive thoughts and answers underlying the poor writing were understandable. This decline is also a result of the lazy, abbreviated writing of text messages, tweets, Facebook posts, and email. And don’t get me started on the cocoon of self-entitlement in which that generation was raised, always being told they were great and never being dealt with honestly when they were wrong. But it is no longer, as it was just several years ago just Generation Y. The abuse of the language has now fanned upward to affect all ages. I regularly receive emails from another lawyer in their 40s or 50s (a letter which in the prehistoric days before email would have been typed and sent by regular mail on firm letterhead) that is written so flippantly that it avoids any pretense of properly using capitalization, punctuation, spelling, grammar and formality.
We now live in an age where intelligence is considered a liability, erudition is considered a vice, and the president of the United States is mocked by his critics for being an intellectual snob who can’t relate to the common folk. We live in an age where the Honey Boo Boos are lionized and celebrated, where for a politician to achieve popularity she has to dumb herself down to be “one of us”, where a book which sells 10,000 units is now considered a best seller, and where the summer’s most widely read fiction was most notable not for its erotic nature but for its semiliterate writing.
The one station in society where I would expect that language standards would be upheld is in my profession. As lawyers, we are generally paid not just for our knowledge (which anyone with the inclination can obtain) but for our ability to communicate our clients’ ideas, thoughts, positions, stories and legal arguments, better than they can, whether orally or in writing. What sets a great litigator apart from a good litigator is the ability to persuade, and persuasion is at its core about mastering the art of communication.
I still recall the days on the metaphorical knee of my mentor, the late Doug Stewart, listening to him dictate a letter, reading briefs of law he so meticulously drafted, or watching him deliver an oral argument in court. He exercised the English language as a sword to advance his clients’ interests, while simultaneously using it as a shield to protect those same clients. To him, as to the other fine lawyers of his generation, the language was a tool not just to communicate, but to communicate more effectively than others.
The greatest writers use the art of the wordsmith not just to tell a story but to have that story move us emotionally to laugh and/or cry, or to develop pictures in our heads more vivid than any celluloid screen can possibly illustrate. Language is the reason a great many voracious readers are almost always disappointed by the movie version of a book they loved.
So to end this article where I started, forgive me for sounding like some old, retired English teacher or crotchety old man, but those of my generation who teach children in our schools, mentor the younger generations in our respective professions, and all of us as parents, have an obligation to understand that the new ways are not examples of language evolving but rather devolving, and we must band together to protect our language before all of our children talk like the illiterate morons on reality television. Sadly, like it or not, our thoughts and ultimately our actions, are put in place only by the words in our heads. If the verbiage of our society is at an elementary school level, how can the thoughts and actions that follow possibly be any loftier?
The January 4, 2013 sentencing of 5 former Toronto drug squad cops to 45 days of house arrest with not a day in jail is something that should concern us all. These five rogue cops were convicted when “jurors accepted that the defendants conducted a search of Ho Bing Pang’s Scarborough apartment in February 1998, without a warrant, then “did wilfully attempt to obstruct, pervert or defeat the course of justice, by practising deception, including by making a false or misleading account of events in their memo books, and/or by lying to the court in their testimony” to conceal what they’d done” (Toronto Star January 5, 2013 http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/article/1310868–dimanno-measly-justice-for-dirty-cops).
This time of year always gets me down. Not really sure why since as a Jew it’s not my holiday. Perhaps it’s the endless pressure to make nice at a series of cocktail parties and holiday dinners; the fake niceness from people who are rude or dismissive all year; the overly attentive and cheerful retail workers who at any other time of year forget that they work in a customer service business. Maybe it’s that I value authenticity and abhor hypocrisy. And this time of year is full of it. People who don’t give a damn about their neighbours all year suddenly spending hundreds of dollars on gifts for their already pampered children and then as an afterthought buying some dollar store game to donate to a toy drive. People spending hundreds on a single family dinner kicking in several dollars worth of canned goods to a food drive. Or coming out of the mall, having spent hundreds or even thousands of dollars on gifts and then dropping a measly few bucks in the Salvation Army kettle only because they feel guilty if they don’t.
Don’t get me wrong. Donating toys, clothing, food and money to assist those most in need is just plain good citizenry. My sadness stems not from the fact that we do it at this time of year but rather the juxtaposition with what we don’t do all year long. When I lived and practised law in Mississauga about ten years ago, I sat for a number of years on the board of Foodpath (now the Mississauga Food Bank) the largest food bank in Peel Region, serving thousands of clients a month. At Christmas and Easter, the haul was bountiful. But there were months during the year where we were literally scraping the bottom of the barrel to make sure all those in need could be serviced, and meeting the annual operating budget was and always a concern. People who require the assistance of food banks and other front line charitable organizations require those services all year long. All the holiday talk about peace, love, and generosity of spirit, giving-better-than-receiving fades away as quickly after Christmas as the old year fades away into the new.
And what of the unnecessary token gifts and not so veiled business promotional items handed out willy nilly as if from some drunken Santa at this time of year. Not a day has gone by in the last two weeks where I didn’t receive at my office some chotchka from another law firm, court reporting service, mediation company, process serving company or other service provider to whom I pay thousands of dollars a year in fees or refer work. Little paper calendars with no room to actually write anything, date books that can’t record a scintilla of what I can put in my iphone, cheap pens, fridge magnets, mouse pads and two dollar clocks- all embossed with the logo of that particular business. If you really want to send me a logo-embossed gift, have the decency to send me something with MY firm’s name on it. Your so-called gift is nothing more than a cheap shill for your firm, a firm with which I already happily do business. And as for holiday cards, don’t need them. Get dozens every year, all cold and impersonal, recycled as fast as they arrive. The cost to your company in printing, postage and person-hours is money that could be better spent elsewhere, such as charity or community service. I don’t know the total economic cost just within in the legal profession in Toronto to all these holiday cards and gifts but it’s not hard to imagine millions of dollars. Do any of these people seriously think I would punish them by taking away my business if they neglected to send me a holiday greeting card or useless bauble with their name on it if in fact they have provided me or my clients good service over the last twelve months?
All of this money would better serve our community, and uphold the best tenets of our once highly regarded profession, were it donated to food banks, breakfast programs, social service not-for-profits, senior care programs, toy drives and the like.
And that is why none of my clients or business contacts receive holiday cards and gifts. Enough is enough. After 20 years of being sucked in, this year and in the future, if I have an extra few thousand in my promotional budget for Christmas gifts and cards, I’m divvying it up amongst some of those organizations whose need far outweighs those of me and the professionals with whom I do business.
In my previous incarnation as a family law and divorce lawyer, I probably handled somewhere in the range of 700 cases. I have also acted as a mediator in these disputes on several occasions. And between the practical demands of many family law clients, not to mention that I have many friends who seek out my advice, I have acted as a de facto relationship counsellor more times than I can count. That people have allowed me into this most intimate aspect of their lives has given me unprecedented access to the psyches of individuals during one of the most traumatic times in their lives, thus affording me a front seat view to the psychology of relationships.
Add to that my own personal relationship experience, replete with two divorces, several other failed attempts at cohabitation, and a string of broken relationships. However, do not feel badly for me, and definitely do not mock the fact that I will seek in this article and others to give relationship advice. From each of these relationships (not to mention the inevitable therapy sessions that follow) I have learnt much about the nature of romantic relationships and, of course, about myself. I am a better man for it, and in fact at 45 years old am the most evolved version of myself, perhaps more advanced than many who knew me in my younger days ever expected me to be. I have the cuts and scars and bruises that give me the gravitas to enter the dangerous fray of advising on relationships.
About 15 years ago I developed a seminar for the Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto which had me travelling to about a dozen parishes a year as part of their marriage preparatory course. The 3 hour seminar was was entitled “A Divorce Lawyer Tells You How to Stay Married”. It was based on the simple premise that if I took all of those things my clients had told me led to the breakdown of their marriages and turned those items on their head, the opposite side of these negatives was a positive that if enacted may have helped propel the relationship upwards instead of down.
Arguably the most important thing I have learnt is that relationships involve a delicate balance. While we all strive for relationships of true equality the fact is that this rarely happens. One partner or the other usually has something over the other in some or all aspects of the relationship- money, intellect, child rearing ability, friendships, family relations, etc. Contrary to popular myth, sometimes the most lopsided relationships are the most successful and often the most equally matched people cannot keep it together. That said, the real balance of which I speak is in our heads and our hearts, not on some superficial checklist. It comes down to balancing how we feel about ourselves with the respect we have for our partner. Or put another way, try as we might, it is ultimately our egos, whether too strong or too weak, which entangle us.
If, in your mind, you are so far out of his league that you constantly feel he should be eternally grateful for your existence in his life, you will become complacent at best, disinterested at worst. You think you are doing him a favour because you tell him what to wear, what to eat, how to behave, etc, but you’re not- you are actually masking your contempt with the patina of caring. Who amongst us hasn’t been in a relationship where several years in we have gone from the extreme described above to complete disdain for our partner? My friend Deborah Mecklinger, one of the finest family counsellors and mediators in Toronto, is fond of saying that the very thing that attracts us to our mates will eventually be the thing that repels us. “He has such a great sense of humour” becomes “he never takes anything seriously”. Spontaneity comes to be seen as irresponsibility. Grounded turns into boring. Good with money becomes cheap while generous becomes bad money management. “She’s close with her family” becomes “her family is overbearing”.
But walk around feeling so lucky and blessed that this person should deign to be with you and insecurity will eventually creep in to the mix. Suddenly your spouse’s bad mood, tiredness, illness or casual sarcastic off the cuff remark becomes blown out of proportion and you torture yourself with fear and worry. You start to read into everything your partner says and does in a way that negatively affects you. If she wants to have dinner with a male friend, you suddenly become suspicious. You become jealous of the time she spends with her girlfriends or her sister. Her working late suddenly gives you thoughts that she’s having an affair, or that you are playing second fiddle to her career. If she leaves the room to talk on her cell phone so as not to disturb the tv show you are engrossed in, you become convinced she has something to hide.
Everyone at the courting stage of relationships is overcome with the blush and excitement of new love. The new lovers write notes professing their eternal love, rejig their work and personal schedules to spend as much time as possible with each other, forsake friends and hobbies, try things they never would have thought of just to make the other person happy. Neither is prepared to make a decision on where to eat or what movie to see for fear of offending their new potential life partner, and for certain there is no criticism levelled at your future bride or groom. And yet this passes, as it must. It is impossible to sustain the excitement and passion of the early stages of love. As the relationship settles into one of normalcy and day to day minutiae our real selves manifest. This where we need to be aware of the ego lurking silently within us, either arrogance or insecurity or often, incongruously, both, just waiting to jump out and scare our relationship away.
There is no recipe for a perfect relationship. In fact, relationships by their nature are not perfect. But if we each learnt to recognize the arrogance and insecurity- these two sides of the same coin- that destroyed our past relationships, we can protect against the tide of our ever rising egos from inflicting further damage.
And while we’re on the subject of past relationships, leave them in the past. You must not project the bad qualities of or hurt caused by a former partner onto a new one. That is a sure recipe for disaster. I have enough of my own issues to deal with to keep a happy relationship without having to worry that I will be punished for some infraction I have never committed because of your last boyfriend.
The most confident of us have insecurities, and the most insecure of us can become smug. The key is to keep these two competing forces in check and balance. Come to think of it, this applies not only to romantic relationships, but to our jobs and our friendships as well.
As anyone who knows me well is acutely aware, my biggest pet peeve is society’s obsession with celebrity. I rail regularly, to all who will listen, against our celebrity-obsessed culture. I have spent what seems like hundreds of hours of my free time reading every available treatise that tries to explain the psychological, sociological and financial reasons for the current state of our celebrity-industrial complex. All academic explanations aside, it is a very sad state of affairs. We are witnessing the dumbing down of our nation. Oh, we Canadians are quick to believe we are smarter than our U.S. neighbours, but it cannot be argued that their popular culture has not been adopted as our own. We have become a society of spectators rather than participants. Of passive watchers as opposed to critical thinkers. Observers rather than readers. We willingly open our mouths like baby birds to have the mama bird of entertainment regurgitate trivial pablum into our systems to satiate our desire for celebrity. Sadly, however, it seems there is never enough, with the result that we have moved beyond the Paris Hilton famous-for-being-famous type of fame, past the Warholian 15 minutes, and reached a point where such is our desperation for a constant diet of celebrity that an entire genre of television programming has sprung up, seemingly for the sole purpose of manufacturing new celebrities.
The result of this lowering of the pop culture bar is best captured in two medium that would appear, at first blush, to be at opposite ends of the high-low culture spectrum: Chris Hedges’ brilliantly intellectual and articulate 2009 critique of our post-literate society, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, and the October 3, 2012 episode of Comedy Central’s South Park. Of course, neither Hedges nor the South Park creators were the first to sound the alarm, but they are, each in their inimitable way, perhaps the most poignant on the subject in recent memory. And they are writing today, essentially after the bar has already been lowered beyond what could have been imagined even a generation ago. Of course, there were some particularly astute observers of human nature who warned of this but we didn’t pay heed. Aldous Huxley foresaw this future in the 1930s, albeit his vision involved a totalitarian dystopia where the citizenry had no free will, as opposed to our democratic system where we choose to squander our free will. But rereading Brave New World today one can’t help but be amazed at Huxley’s prescience vis-a-vis a populace driven by pleasure and entertainment to the exclusion of all else. Likewise, the historian Daniel Boorstin in his 1960s dissertation The Image, Warhol in the 70s, and the sociologist Neil Postman in the 80s (Amusing Ourselves to Death) certainly warned about this long before we ever envisioned our popular culture could become so banal and vapid.
In Hedges’ book he explores how only a tiny minority of our society is truly literate, and how without realizing it, most Americans (and I would posit Canadians too) are so focused on trivial entertainments that they know nothing of, and pay no attention to, the real issues facing our society. A virtue has been made of not knowing. We are so desirous of constant spectacular stimulation from the entertainment industry that we are voluntarily and without concern giving up knowledge, rights and privileges. We are allowing the power elites to run things as they see fit because to actually be involved would require time away from being entertained and instead we would be compelled to think. To stop focusing on the banality of celebrity lives would force us to critically examine our own. Whether it is fear or laziness, the overwhelming majority simply don’t wish to do so. In his opening chapter, Hedges illustrates how the dangerous preoccupation with spectacle and celebrity has allowed the line between the real news and the entertainment storyline to be blurred beyond recognition.
In the recent South Park episode, the rotund fifth grader Eric Cartman, one of the 4 young protagonists in the cartoon series, is inadvertently turned into a reality tv star to rival the lowest form of the already low genre. The show uses as its jumping off point the highly rated new reality show Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, about a 6 year old girl and her clearly uneducated, poor and proud of it, overbearing momma who is intent on making her a star. The adults’ language and diction in Honey Boo Boo is so difficult to comprehend that the producers found it necessary to have subtitles for them even though the family are white Americans whose first language is English. The saddest reality is that there is little difference between the real Honey Boo Boo on…wait for it…The Learning Channel (!!!) and the spoofed Honey Boo Boo on South Park. In the South Park episode Cartman is initially appalled and ashamed at being turned into the reality tv character Fatty Poo Poo, only to discover his real embarrassment is about having lost in the tv ratings war to Honey Boo Boo. There is much talk in the episode about shamelessness. Parker and Stone, South Park’s creators, have hit the nail on the head. It is clearly the absence of shame that is a prerequisite for anyone to seek to be this kind of celebrity. It is a similar shamelessness that causes one to eschew knowledge and literacy, and an understanding of the community around them, to devote themselves to paying attention to the goings on of these pseudo celebrities.
At risk of sounding like Chicken Little, the fact is that when I was growing up, and in generations previous, a desire for material success meant studying to get good grades, hard work, determination and years of effort. Even those who wanted fame and fortune as musical icons or tv and movie stars understood that at least a modicum of talent was necessary, and even then it would still take many years of hard work peppered with a lot of rejection if they ever hoped to break through.
The sad effect of our reality tv culture and the fetishization of fame and celebrity is that today’s generation of kids do not grasp the concept of paying their dues, hard work, or perseverance. They see knowledge and education as irrelevant to their quest for success and confuse fame with talent and entitlement. They expect that they will simply be discovered by talking their way onto a reality tv show, or failing that will easily develop a reality web series of their own. Look at how young people use Facebook to narcissistically turn the everyday minutiae of their life, every photo, every thought, into their own personal reality show focused on themselves. In fact, there are several recent studies in North America that show the thing preteens value above all else- including money, knowledge, sex, happiness and family- is fame.
The media elites, driven by ratings and profit have long ago forgotten the public trust of the airwaves. Current events and issues of the day are now mere fodder for more entertainment. History is scoffed at as being irrelevant because it happened “before I was even alive”. Most middle class children today are growing up with a level of affluence and entitlement unprecedented in our history. They are bombarded daily with more input from more media than any generation before, and yet the content of this input is less substantive than ever. And the media through which it is filtered has given up any pretext of even trying to be educational and informative. The entirety of the media is more than ever given over to a focus on style over substance, entertainment over information. In the rare instances where information is given (i.e. politics) the source is most likely biased to such an extreme that any information gleaned will be one-sided or delivered in a way so as to surreptitiously sell that outlet’s particular bias. Or real events about real people are covered with such sensationalism that the true story gets lost in the mix.
We must stop looking to popular culture to manufacture false prophets.The religion of celebrity worship must be replaced with an atheism that instills in our children the ability to examine the celebrity culture gods with a skeptical eye, while at the same time developing in the children an understanding of true worth.
We cannot rely on the media gods to do the right thing. And it is too late to turn back the clock. But all hope is not lost. As individual citizens and as parents, we can take positive steps to ensure that our children understand why they should not look in the direction of celebrity for guidance and salvation. We need to teach them about role models truly worth emulating. For the coddled majority of my children’s generation, this learning is significant as it will provide some grounding in reality, and hopefully a sense of civic responsibility as well as a desire for substantive knowledge. To the children living in situations of poverty, abuse or neglect, shaping their understanding of who ought and not to be a hero and/or or role model will provide them with real hope as opposed to false illusions.We owe it to them, to ourselves, and to the future of our nation lest we awake in 20 years to find out that the the movie Idiocracy was not comedy but prophecy.
The Jewish New Year is upon us. As I write this we have just concluded Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. For those unfamiliar with this most sacred Jewish holy day, it is the annual day when we reflect on how we performed character-wise in the last year, considering those things which we could have done better and when we make a solemn promise to ourself, our God, our community and those close to us, that we will take real steps to be better people in the year that comes. With each passing year I realize that no matter how many strides I have made in recent years to become the best version of myself I have ever been, there is still a long way to go. The lyrics to a Dwight Yoakam song act as a succinct reminder of the way most of us, if we are being honest with ourselves, should feel upon such self-reflection:
I’ve got a long way to go before I get there
I’ve got a lot of field to hoe, the sun is so high
I’ve got a lot of miles to row
And the next few only show
That there’s still such a long way to go
It is an important reminder that I must always keep striving for a perfection of character I will surely never reach. I can always be better. This is not the same thing as the dog chasing his tail. Even if we never get to the end of the road, with each fresh step we make our lives and the lives of those around us infinitely better.
Another important reminder of this concept came in an unusual form.Rather than attend my own synagogue for Yom Kippur, I had the pleasure of attending the services at the synagogue of a Rabbi who is a friend of mine. This would turn out to be perhaps the most significant High Holiday service I have ever attended. My friend gave my son and I the honour of reading the sermon- a sermon written some 40 or 50 years ago by the late Rabbi Monson, one of the most renowned North American rabbis of the 20th century. The sermon related several stories which were an allegorical lesson of how most people focus their admiration on a person they deem to be “successful”, all the while forgetting that said person would not be successful were it not for a person or people sacrificing behind the scenes, toiling often in penury and obscurity to propel the wealth and fame of someone else. It was a reminder to any of us who have tasted career and financial success not to forget those who sacrificed to help us succeed.
It is very easy for those of us blessed to have a fortunate career, to receive the praise and the big pay cheque, to be the boss and make the rules, and to have people to do our bidding, to think it’s somehow deserved because we are entirely self-made. We forget that we didn’t do it alone. I always try to remember this, but the sermon drove home the point especially poignantly.
I grew up in a family that lacked formal education and would be considered lower middle class, yet went on to become highly educated and develop a successful law practice that provided me a level of status and income before the age of 30 age that most people never achieve. I then had a fall from grace, mired in a cycle of addiction and depression in my late 30s, and at the same time went through divorce and financial collapse. As a young lawyer I had a brashness and arrogance at being a rising star, all self-made in my own mind. These days, having clawed my way back to and beyond my wildest professional dreams, I often feel a certain smugness, having triumphed over such adversity that would have kept a lesser man down to the mat for good.The sermon was a stark reminder that no matter how much ambition I had, no matter how smart I was, how hard I worked, how well I networked, none of my career success to date or in the future would be possible without parents who worked night and day and did without all the while raising me with the right values; without mentors who gave freely of their own time and attached their good names to me for my benefit exclusively; without dedicated staff working long hours for relatively (by comparison to my take) little pay and who tamp down their own ego and ambition to make sure I look good and come out on top; without friends who helped in innumerable ways, often at risk to their money or reputations, to give me a hand up. I know all of this intuitively, but it is important to be reminded.
So I write this article not just as such a reminder to myself, and a thank you to the unnamed people referenced above (they know who they are), but to anyone reading this who has the good fortune to be successful in their business or profession. Human beings have a natural tendency to believe their own press. There is a perception, often not entirely wrong, that people who have achieved success resonate a certain arrogance or sense of self-entitlement. We must remember that to do so is an insult to all those people behind the scenes without whom we would have no success at all. Those of us with any sort of profile in our profession, our community, our social circle, must lead by example to ensure in their milieu the concept of Tikkun Olam (leaving the world a better place than we found it). And we must ensure that every individual with whom we have contact is treated with dignity and respect. Money, fame, status, does not make one individual better than another. Perhaps with a bigger house or nicer car. But not better. So if you are at the top of the mountain looking down, you must never forget that you didn’t get there alone. And if you’re admiring the king of the jungle, don’t forget that there’s a queen or prince who helped to crown him.
My oldest son is almost 15. Last year when we were on a tour of Israel’s holiest sites with a group led by our Rabbi, my boy- a fiercely proud Zionist who wears a Hebrew Hammer-sized Star of David around his neck, has attended Hebrew School since he was two and a half, celebrated the Sabbath regularly in both his mom’s house and mine, and has participated in leading Saturday morning services at our synagogue- announced that he was an atheist. Upon further thought he modified his statement to “an agnostic leaning toward atheism”. This realization, which he came to at the age of 11 and voiced to me seriously for the first time when he was 13, prompted him to ask what I thought was a fairly deep question for a young teenager: Can I be both an atheist and a practising Jew? More recently, as we prepare for the upcoming Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement, he asked if he still had to attend synagogue with his siblings and I since he does not “believe in praying to God”. My answer to both of his questions was “Yes”. I am quite satisfied with the rationale I laid out for him to support my affirmative answers to his questions and I have decided to share my reasoning here. However, since my answers would apply equally if we were of a non-Jewish faith I will substitute in the first question reference to any or all religions for the words “practising Jew”. To the second question, I will refer to other houses of worship as opposed to solely the synagogue. Further, although the terms atheist and agnostic are not the same, I consider the discussion equally relevant to anyone on the agnostic-atheist continuum. And before my devoutly atheist friends jump on any of my points, this is not a column debating the merits of religion versus atheism, but rather an attempt to reconcile the involvement of religion in one’s life even if that person is dogmatic in their atheism.
The practise of one’s religious faith, while typically thought of as containing as its overriding tenet a belief in God or a supreme deity, does not necessarily have to contain that component. There are a great many benefits to being active in one’s church, mosque, synagogue, temple, or other religious community that simply put, do not require as a condition precedent the belief in an almighty. Studies show that teenagers active in religious youth organizations through their church, synagogue, or temple perform better in school. People who are active in their church are less likely to commit crime, more likely to help their neighbours and to volunteer for community service. Other studies show that people who attend worship services regularly rate their level of happiness higher than those who do not belong to a religious structure. Further, the benefits of being part of a like minded religious community are particularly felt during life cycle events such as birth, death, marriage, divorce, as well as significant milestones in our children’s lives. This is to mention nothing about the sense of belonging to a community of people of like values who care about one another. Or of the intimate friendships, business relationships and romantic partnerships that arise through the social interactions which occur as a result of one’s involvement in a religious community.
While my son does not accept the literal teachings of the Hebrew Bible that he has studied in Sunday school lo these many years, he has very clearly grown into a fine, well behaved young man who is tolerant and understanding. He tries to live a “Jewish life”, meaning an existence based on certain moral and ethical paradigms and a desire to not only succeed but to help others. In an era when we are inundated with materialism, consumerism, celebrity obsession and a culture of entitlement, it is often only through religion that our children develop a sense that there is a vastness to the universe and that said universe does not revolve around them. It is through religion that they are instilled with values that involve making the community richer for all.
It is almost trite to say religion provides a moral compass by which to live our lives. And I concede it can be argued that morality does not necessarily need to come from religion. We all know very decent atheists who adhere to a strict moral code and live to serve. Conversely, we can all think of individuals whose conduct runs contrary to their religious posture. But the exceptions would seem to prove the rule. It is simply easier for communally beneficial values and morality to take hold early in life, and remain dear to us as we age, when we are not trying to figure it out on our own. Much better to develop as a member of a larger community with supportive friends, teachers and role models to help guide us.
My son has accepted my assertions as above and feels perfectly confident continuing to live and practise culturally, and (at least tangentially) religiously as a Jew, but still wants to know why he has to attend synagogue. He argues in his defence that he finds it difficult to pray to a God he does not believe in, but goes on to point out if he did chose to pray he could just as easily do so at home. Which leads us to the second question he posed.
I took this opportunity to ask him to consider that if he went through the liturgy and took out the references to God, what would be left? How about a series of affirmations, meditations, and reflections about being thankful for what he has; remembering not to take his health, material objects, happiness, friends or family for granted; a sense of the vastness of the world; an introspective look at his dreams, joys, fears, and regrets; a reminder to try every day to live a better life by being a better person. It is one of the few times, if not the only time in our perma-wired society, that he will be away from his smartphone, detached from his ipod, disconnected from his computer and unplugged from all technology. It is only during synagogue services that he is in a place where there are none of these outside distractions. It is only in this instance, I reminded him, that he can truly engage in even a brief period of genuine, deep and profound self-reflection. Those moments, even absent a belief in God, will serve to make him a better person.
So to my son I say: I am proud of you for being able to think for yourself, for your pride in your heritage, for your courage to ask difficult questions, for your desire to figure out the difficult answers; and for living a Jewish life. I have no issue with you being an atheist and no intention to change your mind. But for all the reasons discussed above, you still have to go to synagogue next week.
I thought for sure when I made the decision several years ago to never, ever again take another divorce case no matter how desperately my law practice needed the business that I was free of the emotional stress of The Bad Divorce. After all, I had by that time been through not one but two failed marriages, the aftermath of which, in both cases, fell squarely into the category of The Good Divorce. No court battles, no arguments over time with the kids, no disputes over money, open lines of communication, joint attendances at school events and major extracurricular activities, as well as extended families that all continued to get along. As such, the only involvement I had in The Bad Divorce was purely professional. But that was enough to make me crazy (literally). I was giddy at the prospect of forever leaving behind The Bad Divorce and turning my professional attention to an area of litigation where I could use my skills to do what I did best without wanting to seriously harm my opposing counsel, my own clients, or myself. The song says rock and roll is a vicious game, but it can’t possibly be as vicious as family law. I thought with The Good Divorce x2 in my personal life and no more of The Bad Divorce in my professional life that I had set sail to a fantasy land where The Bad Divorce didn’t exist.
So here I am three years later, still part of The Good Divorce, and not involved with family law cases in my practice. Yet, I am still regularly dealing with The Bad Divorce. While I am fortunate to have a very wide and varied circle of friends, unfortunately, it seems at any given time several of them are going through The Bad Divorce. Either because of my 17 years as a family lawyer, or because of all my years as a good friend who offers sound advice, or possibly both, I am typically one of the ‘ears” or “shoulders” that my friends lean upon when going through The Bad Divorce. I don’t begrudge this and consider it my duty as a friend to help them through a tough time even if it’s just by listening. But it does make me think about the question I get quite often, which is: “How do you guys do it?”, referring to my exes and I and The Good Divorces to which we are parties. My friends inevitably end the conversation by imploring me to write a book about The Good Divorce.
I’ve thought about it alot. The Good Divorce. A very marketable title. I could write about the emotional and financial cost of going to court; the ability to recognize which issues are important and which are not; paying your support on time; understanding that the money you pay benefits your kids and is not a penalty; recognizing that the other person is the parent of your child and no matter how much you may dislike/disagree with/hate that person, your children should not be deprived of regular contact with one of their parents. I could write about the values you pass onto your kids when they see you get along and work out your differences around the dining room table versus the emotional scars you inflict upon them by battling to be the champion in the court room. I could devote an entire chapter to how you shouldn’t badmouth the other parent or undermine their authority when they make a decision that is for your child’s own good. I could write all of this and so much more. But truth be told, that book would be a long, boring read, and sadly, the very people who need it most wouldn’t buy it.
I have decided instead to write my book here in my blog in the hopes that it attracts enough attention to get the secret out about how not to have The Bad Divorce. Feel free to share, re-post, retweet, copy, or forward this article. I am deliberately waiving any copyright claim over it as the message is too important.
The Good Divorce by Darryl Singer
In dealing with your ex, always put the interests of your kids first.
Don’t be an asshole.
We live at the greatest time in terms of technology. Unlike my children, who were essentially born wired, I am middle-aged enough to remember asking for my first date by actually telephoning the girl and having to sit in the kitchen, no more than 3 feet from the wall, talking to her while watching one of the 5 channels on the old black and white. As a lawyer, I have been in the game long enough to remember when being out of the office meant I really was unreachable unless I called in for messages. I recall dreading the return to the office after several days in court because there would no doubt be a stack of pink slips with names and numbers written on them, every one of them expecting to hear from me. I recall when needing to review case law meant a trip to the nearest courthouse or law school law library.
Coming of age at a time when even this generation’s oldest, slowest technology would have seemed positively Jetsonian, I am absolutely in love with the new technology. Using these new tools efficiently and ensuring I maintain control over the technology, as opposed to allowing it to control me, means that I need not spend as many hours in the office tied to my desk as in past years yet can accomplish significantly more without sacrificing quality. It means being able to take a month long vacation in the summer (as I did in 2010 and 2011) or a series of week long vacations throughout the year (as I am doing this year) without returning to reams of correspondence and hours of calls.Being connected briefly first thing in the morning or right before bed while on an extended holiday literally anywhere in the world allows me to stay on top of anything urgent and quickly dispose of the daily minutiae. This guarantees my relaxation for the rest of the day in order to get the most out of my holiday, all the while knowing that no emergencies or mountains of paper will greet me upon my return. Similarly, my smartphone allows me to leave the office early or come in late so I do not have to miss my kids’ 10am school assemblies, their important mid-day doctor appointments or early evening extracurriculars. My less than 3lb laptop has the same files and resources as if I were in the office, thus allowing me to be productive without the pre-tech advancement concerns for either geography or time of day.. The ability to connect even when I’m on the go means, quite simply, more balance in my life rather than less.