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We often crave things that are bad for us. We have long known this to be true in the physical realm: eating too much food is not good.
But we also have a deep and innate desire for security – a stocked freezer and a well-provisioned bank account. We want to be able to live our lives without worries, to keep all our fears at bay.
The problem is that all the evidence we have suggests that people do not, as a rule, excel when they have nothing to worry about. It is adversity that tests the soul, insecurity that forces us to grow and improve and change. Popularly, “necessity is the mother of invention,” or as the English so pithily put it: “Needs Must.”
The best waiters are those who know they have to be excellent, that there is no easy “fallback” option. This is why the Torah forbids the priests to have any landed inheritance: they are in a service industry (to G-d and man), and service requires certainty that in order to make a living, one cannot treat customers poorly.
It is loneliness that makes us reach out to form relationships. When Adam and Eve are punished after eating the fruit, they are condemned to a state of need: Adam needs to make bread, and Eve needs her husband. It is this altered state that makes them work, create, grow, and learn how to coexist.
By contrast, the snake is told he will eat dust. But there is no shortage of dust! The snake is not lonely or needy; he has everything he needs. And so, of all of them, the snake is the most cursed, because he actually lives a static life. Adam and Eve, on the other hand, grow and change and create.
The snake is the DMV employee, merely punching the clock and going through the motions. People who are inextricably bonded to the welfare teat and trust fund babies have this in common with the snake: they do not have true insecurity, and so they are, as a rule, consequently useless as productive, creative human beings.
In those times when people manage to create their own sense of security, it is much like consistently eating too much: there is a long, albeit often slow, decline. Companies and bureaucracies work the same way: in desperate wartime, anything seems possible, and the incredible becomes commonplace. But in comfortable and secure bureaucracies conducting a “war” on ISIS or procuring the warfighter for the next century, Parkinson’s Laws apply: everyone is always busy, and nothing gets done. This is why disruptors disrupt: established entities do not crave or embrace insecurity; they do everything possible to reduce uncertainties, even at the cost of missing out on enormous opportunities. Insecurity is a necessary precondition for human innovation and ingenuity.
Of course, sometimes the cure can be worse than the illness. By itself, insecurity is the petri dish for some singularly bad organisms. It is insecurity that leads to blind obedience to strong leaders, to tribalism and eventually villagers with torches and pitchforks. It is insecurity that drives the demonization of the strange and the unknown, the metastasis of our welfare system, the infantilism of every citizen, the creation and seeming-permanence of Obamacare, even when it has been shown to be awful. It is insecurity that leads single women to predominantly vote Democrat.
Indeed, our fear of insecurity often perversely leads to far worse outcomes: people are irrational. We are more afraid of loss than we are excited about gain. So a poor “health insurance” is preferred to a far better (but more varied and yet-undetermined) actual health care. Most people elect strongmen or nanny states run by self-appointed “experts,” because the alternatives are just too frightening. Indeed, at this point it seems clear that even the majority of the citizenry of the United States has tipped away from any pride in rugged individualism, into a reflexive need to create security, a sense of safety at any cost at all. “Safety First.”
From a religious perspective, insecurity leads people to seek and embrace helplessness, a fatalistic belief that since G-d (or the gods) run everything anyway, nothing we do really matters. “If everything is in G-d’s hands, then I can slide into mediocre passivity.” There is even an atheistic version of the same belief: “Since we are so much smaller than the universe, our lives don’t really matter, so I might as well just seek to enjoy myself as much as possible in the time that I have.”
I think that the vast majority of the world chooses this defense mechanism in some form. But as Mao showed us so vividly, just because most people go in a certain direction does not make it a good idea.
For me, the Torah presents us with a colossal and daunting challenge: G-d made the world, and handed it to us to finish. In the Torah, insecurity in all of its forms (mortality, loneliness, thirst, hunger, suffering etc.) is given as a spur for us to seek better relationships with G-d and with man. Adam and Eve are told to go and improve the world.
But this is harder than ever today, when we have so very much wealth compared to our ancestors. The unique challenge of the modern world is to help people find meaning even when our material needs are satisfied; we are lousy at raising children in luxury. Why should we seek a relationship with G-d when our incomes seem to be disconnected from any divine favor?
Insecurity is a necessary but not sufficient precondition for achieving meaning in our lives, for doing great things. G-d is not our nanny: He is our partner, helping each of us to see what it is we must do. But it is we, not G-d, who have to make the choices, who have to have the courage and will to do the heavy lifting.