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June 9, 2017 2:20 pm

True Self-Esteem Is Earned, Not Given

avatar by Pini Dunner

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Moses. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

We recently marked the second anniversary of the death of a colorful California politician: Assemblyman John Vasconcellos. If Vasconcellos is remembered at all, it is for his attempt to reshape the social science outlook of the US, with his 1986 campaign to “Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility.”

Vasconcellos passionately believed that many of society’s ills, such as the high divorce rate, rampant drug abuse and rising crime, stemmed from the diminished feelings of self-worth in American society. Lacking credible evidence for his theory, he came up with the idea of establishing a California state task force to investigate this phenomenon, and produce a report based on its research.

Vasconcello was convinced that the report would force lawmakers to legislate social policies that would result in all Americans feeling good about themselves.

Initially, the scheme was widely ridiculed as the perfect example of California eccentricity; Garry Trudeau superbly parodied Vasconcellos’ crusade in his “Doonesbury” cartoon. But the confluence of multiple factors soon resulted in the adoption of self-esteem promotion strategies, particularly in education and the corporate world. Even those who had laughed at Vasconcellos were swept up by the alluring idea that boosting self-esteem would reduce tension in society, and increase productivity and personal happiness.

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Teachers were told not to criticize their students, and to do away with competitive learning. Corporate bosses instituted “employee of the month” awards, so that even a checkout agent or a burger flipper could take pride in their success, and feel valued.

Remarkably, this social revolution was underway long before the task force had published a single page of research. In fact, it took them more than a year to come up with an agreed upon definition for self-esteem, and the final report was only published in 1989 — by which time its expected conclusions had long been used as the basis for social strategies.

The report was underwhelming, and failed to deliver any empirical evidence of a correlation between low self-esteem and antisocial behavior. The team had originally assumed that they would prove that positive self-esteem prevented problems — but they did not. In fact, nothing in their research proved any of Vasconcellos’ enthusiastically promoted ideas, and the authors noted that although they had carefully “assessed the… factors important in the genesis of many social problems” they had been “unable to uncover many causally valid findings relating to that genesis.”

And, contrary to the suggestions of those promoting the idea of universal self-esteem, the task force admitted that “self-esteem is a product of or is associated with character traits such as honesty, responsibility, perseverance, kindness, and self-discipline.” Or, to paraphrase, self-esteem is the mark of those who work for it or merit it.

I was struck by this idea as I looked at the episode in this week’s Torah portion describing Miriam and Aaron’s negative discussion concerning their brother, Moses. Immediately after the verses that record what Miriam and Aaron say, the Torah makes an extraordinary proclamation about Moses (Num. 12:3): “And the man, Moses, was very humble, more so than any other person on earth.”

For Moses to be referred to as “humble” is odd — this was the man who remonstrated with God on numerous occasions. The declaration also seems superfluous, as the narrative flows perfectly well without it. Why, then, is the statement necessary in the context of this narrative? And there is also the strange opening word “veha’ish” — “and the man.” What is this all telling us?

This sibling episode is the subject of much debate among the commentators, but all of them agree on one thing: that the criticism leveled at Moses was based on the appearance of his impropriety, at least from the perspective of his siblings, and was also very hurtfully expressed. One might have expected Moses to react defensively, or at least to be offended. But Moses did not react at all, and the Torah clearly feels the need to fill in this gap before it informs us of God’s powerful response.

Moses, the Torah says, was an “ish” — which is the Torah’s code word for a great person. Torah greatness is never about power or intellect; rather it is always about spiritual accomplishments and character. The Torah continues by telling us that although Moses had achieved this elevated ‘ish’ status — no doubt the result of hard work and devoted character development — he remained an “anav,” with no need to project or self-promote, and utterly unconcerned by the criticism leveled at him by others.

Moses’ silence makes perfect sense. If self-esteem is grounded in extraordinary achievement and true greatness, no challenge can undermine it, even if it comes from people like Miriam and Aaron. And I would suggest, on the basis of this, that we too can be “very humble, more so than any other person on earth.” If our own self-esteem is genuine, based on a solid foundation rather than a faddy social experiment, our healthy state of mind won’t be contingent on the validation of any other person on the planet.

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