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Changing Society to Change Myself

Nature gave us three challenges: it “sentenced” us to constantly seek escape from suffering; it set us on a continuing pursuit of pleasure; and it denied us the ability to determine what kind of pleasure we really want. In other words, we can’t control what we want. We are subject to a variety of desires that pop up within us, without asking our opinion in the matter.

Yet, Nature not only created our desires, it also provided us with a way to control them. If we remember that we are all parts of one soul, that of Adam ha Rishon, it will be easy to see that the way to control our own desires is to affect the whole soul, meaning humanity, or at least a part of it.

Let’s look at it this way: If a single cell wanted to go left, but the rest of the body wanted to go right, the single cell would have to go right, too. That is, unless it convinced the whole body, or an overwhelming majority of the cells, or the body’s “government,” that it was better to go left.

So even though we can’t control our own desires, society can and does control them. And because we can control our choice of society, we can choose the kind of society that will affect us as we think best. Put simply, we can use social influences to control our personal desires. And by controlling our desires, we’ll control our thoughts and ultimately, our actions.

Almost two thousand years ago, The Book of Zohar had already described the importance of society. Since the 20th century, it has become evident that we depend on each other for physical survival. And now, with millions of people seeking spirituality, an effective use of our societal dependency has become vital for our spiritual progress. The paramount importance of society is a message that Baal HaSulam makes very clear in many of his essays.

Baal HaSulam says that every person’s greatest wish, whether one admits it or not, is to be liked by others and to win their approval. This not only gives us a sense of confidence, but affirms our most precious possession—our ego. Without society’s approval, we feel that our very existence is ignored and discarded. And because no ego can tolerate denial, people often go to extremes to win others’ attention.

Because our greatest wish is to win society’s approval, we are compelled to adapt to (and adopt) the laws of our environment. These laws determine not only our behavior, but design our attitudes and approaches to everything we do and think. For the most part, we don’t feel that we are surrendering to society’s rule’ we simply devise new ideas that we think are our own. But we rarely stop to think where we got those ideas.

In such a situation, we are unable to make any free choices—from the way we live, to our interests, to how we spend our leisure, and even the food we eat and the clothes we wear. Even when we choose to dress contrary to fashion or regardless of it, we are still (trying to be) indifferent to a certain social code that we have chosen to ignore. In other words, if the fashion we choose to ignore hadn’t existed, we wouldn’t have had to ignore it and would probably have chosen a different dress code. Ultimately, the only way to change ourselves is to change the social norms of our environment. The next chapter will show how we can achieve that.

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