Why is it so hard to become a better person?

The following is a summary of the Rosh Hashanah sermon I gave this year.

The purpose of the High Holy Days (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) is moral introspection: Every year, Jews meditate on the issue of becoming a better person.

But how many of us do become better people the next year?

This question has bothered me for many years, and I have decided to finally address it. Why is it so hard to become a better person?

1. Most people don’t particularly want to be good.

The biggest obstacle to people becoming better is that you have to really want to be a good person in order to be a better person, and most people would rather be other things. People devote far more effort to being happy (they do not know that goodness leads to increased happiness), successful, smart, attractive and healthy, to cite the most prominent examples.

2. Confusion about what goodness is.

Goodness is about character — integrity, honesty, kindness, generosity, moral courage and the like. More than anything else, it is about how we treat other people.

Not everyone agrees.

For thousands of years, more than a few religious individuals have regarded goodness as being more about sexual behavior and religious piety than about character and the decent treatment of others. And while sexual behavior and religious piety are important, they are not as important as simply acting decently toward other human beings. That is what God wants most (see Micah 6:8, for example) and what we should want most.

At the other end of the spectrum, to modern progressives, goodness is all too often about having the correct political positions, not about character development.

3. Goodness is not about intentions.

Very few people have bad intentions. Even many people who commit real evil — such as true believing Nazis, communists and Islamists — have good intentions. But as an ancient Jewish dictum put it, “It is not the thought that counts but the action.” Good intentions alone produce good people about as often as good intentions alone produce good surgeons.

4. We don’t learn how to be good.

Even if you want to be a good person, where is the instruction manual? Where are the teachers, the coaches and the schools? People spend years studying how to be good at everything — from sports to medicine to plumbing — except how to be good people.

5. We think too highly of ourselves.

Self-esteem frequently runs counter to goodness. Raising children with self-esteem sounds great, but when unearned — which it usually is — it leads to bad results. In fact, it is people who do not have particularly high self-esteem, people who feel that they constantly have to prove their worth, who are more likely to act good. And it is violent criminals who have the highest self-esteem — “I am better than others and can therefore do whatever I want.”

6. We think we will be taken advantage of.

Many parents have told me that they fear raising their children to be “too” good, lest they be taken advantage of.

People confuse goodness with weakness. It is weak people, not good people (goodness demands strength), who are taken advantage of.

Yes, bad people take advantage of others. This is why it is so important that good people surround themselves with good people. They allow us to be good and they make us better.

7. Few personal models.

It is very difficult to grow into a good person without good models — whether a parent, a sibling, a friend, a clergyman or even good characters in literature and film. That is why it is so important for all adults to try to be good models — not necessarily friends — to all young people.

8. We don’t believe there are rewards for being good.

In fact, however, there are many rewards:

• Good people have far more inner peace.

• You will trust other people. The cheater never trusts anyone because he thinks that everyone is like him — out to cheat everyone. Not being able to trust is not a pleasant way to go through life.

• People will like — and even more important, respect — you more, just as you like and respect good people more.

• You will make more friends. And life is incomparably better with good friends.

• And, finally, God will reward you in the afterlife. It isn’t fashionable in our hyper-sophisticated and secular age to speak of the afterlife, let alone about ultimate reward and punishment. But if there is a just God, there is ultimate justice.

9. We have to battle our nature.

To be a good person, most of us have to battle our nature. Among many other things, we are naturally preoccupied with ourselves. Yet, to be good, one has to constantly think about others, and how we are treating them.

10. I’m a victim.

I suspect that more people than ever before, in our society and in many others, walk around thinking of themselves as victims. Victimhood status is actually cultivated.

Now, the truth is that most people are victims. Very few of us have been entirely fairly treated by life. The problem, however, is that people who see themselves primarily as victims will rarely do any good, and many will do evil: “I’ve been mistreated by others,” the thinking goes, “so I don’t owe anybody anything.”

11. Few people were raised to be good people.

Parents raise children to be good students, good athletes, to have high self-esteem and with myriad other goals. But few parents put character first. For decades, I have asked parents whether they would be angrier at their teenager for smoking cigarettes or for cheating on tests. You can guess the overwhelming response.

The sad irony is that while goodness is the thing that everyone most wants from everyone else, few people want it most for themselves.

To obtain a recording of Prager’s sermon, call 800-225-8584.

A life coach’s seven key Steps to changing Your attitude and your life

Your attitude is the energy you are putting out into the world. Are you positive, upbeat and solution-oriented or negative, fearful and mean-spirited? Whatever it is, people can feel it. And what you put out determines, in large measure, what comes back to you. As you step into the new calendar year, then, changing your attitude is absolutely necessary if you want to improve your life.

Many of us struggle with these kinds of changes. We may wonder why, no matter how hard we’ve tried, our lives are still stuck. Our relationships lack real warmth and connection. Our finances never get beyond a certain level. And those big plans we have just can’t seem to get off the ground. Why? Well, changing your attitude requires some real personal growth. You cannot fake your way to a positive attitude, neither can you will yourself to be positive — at least, not for any significant length of time. But if you really want to change, and you follow the steps below, not only will your attitude be transformed, but your life also will become truly enjoyable.

Let go of the past. Whatever you may be holding on to, some idea of yourself — who you should be — or a deep-seated grudge or resentment, it doesn’t matter what it is, if it’s in the past, it’s over! Forgiveness is your key. Make a list of people in your life, going back to your childhood, and forgive every single one of them. Pay particular attention to those closest to you — parents, siblings, spouse and, if you’re older, adult children. And put yourself on that list. Forgive yourself for all the mistakes you’ve made or that you believe you’ve made. Just let it all go, and start fresh.

Face reality and accept it. You cannot change something if you refuse to see it for what it is. Observe things that consistently upset you — whether it’s your weight or how you look, someone in your life, an addiction or bad habit — small or large — some perceived failure or loss, or a relationship that is not working. Look it dead in the eye, and say, “I acknowledge and accept that __________ is what’s happening.” Once you’ve fully accepted it, you will have far more clarity on how to change it.

Take tiny steps forward every day. When the goal is far off, we can feel like we will never get there. This often accounts for a negative attitude. The goal seems impossible, and despondency can set in. This is particularly true when you are trying to change habits and patterns. The key is to break the big goal into small steps. Take one tiny step forward every day. Any right action, no matter how small, does wonders for how you feel about yourself.

Begin to trust life. Take the position that life is working out just the way it needs to, and get out of the way. This step is perhaps the hardest, particularly for those of us who are “control freaks.” But it is critical to real success. Sometimes you may be working really hard, doing everything you know possible, and things are still not working out. Chances are you’re getting in the way. Try letting go of control. What’s the saying? “Do your best and leave the rest.” Know that there is a higher power than you, who ultimately is calling the shots. And while you will do all that you can, allowing things to flow is of critical importance in making life work.

Know your value. It’s important to recognize your value. Others will not value you unless and until you value yourself. Make a list of all the special qualities you possess and the contributions you make to those around you. Remember, you’re valuable and worthy just because you exist. So take care of yourself. Do something special every day: exercise, practice yoga, eat a healthy meal, take a hot bath, get a massage, curl up with a book, meditate, write in a journal, pray.

Ask for help and be willing to help. We accomplish nothing alone. These days, perhaps more than ever, success stems from partnership, teamwork, community. In fact, in this second decade of the 21st century, it’s all about community. So become involved in your community. Find some humility. Open your heart. Offer help and ask for help. Everywhere, all the time! People are usually happy to respond to a genuine request.

Be grateful. Of all these steps, undoubtedly the most important is practicing gratitude. So, focus on the good. Make a list of all the things you have, the qualities you’re blessed with, the people you love and who love you. Keep that list next to your bed. Read it every night and every morning!

Boy Do We Need Teshuvah Now!

When I was a small boy — 6 or 7 — I became acutely aware that being a Jew made me a member of a tiny minority. I asked my mother why there were so few of us, and her answer was quick: “Judaism’s a hard religion, with lots of rules. When you’re Jewish, it’s not enough to believe, you have to actually do the right thing. Most people don’t want to work that hard.”

As I grew older, I discovered another reason for a scant Jewish presence in the world: persecution. Demographers have estimated that without the carnage inflicted by the Crusades and the Holocaust and centuries of pogroms, there’d be about 100 million of us.

But when it comes to one major cause of a diminished Jewish presence, assimilation, I do believe my mother was right. Being authentically Jewish is tough. It’s also part of what makes Judaism vibrant and meaningful.

I was reminded of this several years ago, when my youngest daughter brought home a study packet from school centered around the month of Elul and the concept of teshuvah — repentance, or literally, return. This fourth-grade material listed the elements of self-improvement elegantly and succinctly:

1 — Feel bad about what you did.

2 — Stop doing it.

3 — Admit you did it out loud.

4 — Decide not to do it again.

The quartet pertains only to sins committed against God. When one transgresses against another human being, a fifth stage is added: Beg forgiveness from your victim and, if not met with immediate assent, persist at least three times.

Repentance the Jewish way is tough love at its finest, a perfect road map for self-improvement grounded in a profound understanding of psychology. Yes, it involves guilt and much has been made of “Jewish guilt.” But that’s just one more bad rap against our religion perpetrated by self-hating individuals who’ve tried to reduce 3,000 years of proud, Jewish legacy to a loathsome whine.

“I’ve been crippled by Jewish guilt,” goes the chant, “therefore I can’t move forward.”

But the old joke — “How many shrinks does it take to change a lightbulb? Only one, but the bulb has to want to change” — is true. And healthy guilt — honest, heartfelt regret over doing the wrong thing coupled with the courage to effect behavioral change — can be a wonderful, empowering emotion.

Back when I worked as a child psychologist, I was clear about distinguishing my role from that of other doctors when I met new patients. “They do stuff to you,” I explained. “I work with you.”

My patients appreciated that, none more than the seriously ill kids I treated at Childrens Hospital of Los Angeles. These were youngsters with cancer and diabetes and birth defects and cystic fibrosis who’d been poked and probed and cut open and irradiated for much of their young lives, and craved a sense of control over their destinies.

Years later, as a cancer patient myself, I appreciated this on a whole new level. But even my physically well patients grasped the notion of being respected as volitional beings, and they reveled in confronting their maladaptive habits and learning new ways to cope. One of the many joys of my years as a psychologist was establishing partnerships with thousands of kids, guiding them toward insight and helping them help themselves.

Yes, the bulb has to want to change, but when it does, it shines brighter than ever.

Teshuvah is tough, but boy, do we need it now. Because repentance in the short attention-span, sound-bite-driven zeitgeist of the 21st century has devolved to smarmy, self-serving, spin.

And pseudorepentance — talk show repentance, public relations repentance, politician’s repentance — is worse than no repentance at all, because it consoles the wrongdoer, teaches him he’s gotten away with it and fuels further bad behavior.

Teshuvah raises the probability of improvement. Spin-doctored recitations virtually guarantee the repetition of sin.

In a teshuvah-driven world, Austria would stop trying to convince the world that Beethoven was Austrian and Hitler was German, and France would shudder at offering moral lessons to anyone.

In a teshuvah-driven world, countries like Switzerland and Sweden who maintained a noxious neutrality during World War II, and profited from it to the tune of billions of dollars, would be scrambling among themselves to return the filthy lucre to its rightful owners and would cast aside their postures of staggering self-righteousness.

A healthy dose of teshuvah would cause self-styled “progressives” to remember the transgressions of their philosophical forbears, when the left refused to condemn Hitler as long as the Nazi leader aligned himself with Stalin, only to relent when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union. The same goes for the spawn of those religious leaders who turned a blind eye to the extermination of millions, while inveighing against the establishment of the State of Israel.

Today, the philosophical spawn of both groups have chosen to forsake the only democracy in the Middle East and to align themselves with corrupt, thuggish Arab dictators, obsessing upon Israeli misdeeds, while maintaining a good German silence when Jewish babies are shredded to death in Jerusalem pizza parlors.

The failure to do teshuvah leads to the horrible confirmation of Santayana’s warning, quoted so often that it’s become a cliche, but no less valid for that: Forget the past and you’re condemned to repeat it.

Teshuvah is hard. Being Jewish is hard. But what holds true for muscle, applies to the human spirit: no gain without pain.

So perhaps there’ll never be a lot of us, and maybe that’s good — quality over quantity.

We Jews must adopt a dual approach: Never forget what has been done to us, never allow the world to forget and never cease to defend ourselves with power and vigilance. At the same time, we need to look deep within our own souls, taking a no-excuses approach to our own shortcomings, and working harder at self-improvement.

Teshuvah’s good stuff. We Jews need more of it.

So does the world.

Jonathan Kellerman is the author of 24 novels, five nonfiction books and numerous essays and scientific articles. He is clinical professor of pediatrics and psychology at USC School of Medicine. His current novel is “Twisted” (Ballantine.) His novel, “Gone”, will be published in April.

Self-Improvement for Dummies

Some of the letters we get here at the Jewish Journal are quite flattering. Some people relate that they find my biweekly musings to be pithy and funny (thanks, mom!). If these people can be trusted, they are laughing out loud, weeping with laughter, dying of laughter. I’ve killed six by the latest count.

It’s not all good news, however. After reading some of the letters to the editor about this column, it is clear that I have a lot of room for improvement. I see these letters as constructive criticism, not only of my writing style and choice of subject matter but of me as a person, too. That time of year was fast approaching to make New Year’s resolutions, so I was determined to take advantage of this opportunity to better myself.

This notion was in my head when I picked up a copy of the Learning Annex catalog from a yellow newspaper dispenser on a street corner. I was reminded that we live in a world of unlimited opportunity and in a country where every child can grow up to be president.

I signed up for every course they offer. I resolved to improve myself in every conceivable way.

The possibilities for self-improvement were astounding. I discovered my psychic gifts, protected my assets, took charge of my life and now live stress-free in Los Angeles! I’ve regained youth and vitality, I have mega-memory. I make sushi. I learned to speak French in only three hours! I lost my foreign accent.

Next week, I’m exploring fetishism, calligraphy, candle making and henna tattoos. I’m changing my identity.

Why pay a shrink $100 an hour when you can take a class for $40? I solved problems I didn’t even know I had. I overcame anxiety, overcame phobias, overcame compulsive-eating disorders, overcame procrastination, overcame infertility, overcame my fear of public speaking. In all likelihood, I am coming to a theater near you.

My romantic life has changed forever. I’m not letting shyness stand in the way of my happiness. I’m socially savvy, assertive with style.

I’m letting go and moving on. I can talk to anybody about anything, make someone fall in love with me, impress my date every time. I learned how to seduce a woman, marry rich and reach higher levels of sexual ecstasy. I’ve stopped being nice.

Now I want to break into television, break into broadcast journalism, break into commercials, break into New York art galleries, break into stand-up comedy, survive and thrive after a breakup, break out of my box and learn to live.

People I’ve never even heard of are offering me life-changing advice. I now know how to use feng shui for wealth and business success. I’ve got a job teaching English abroad. I can turn any idea into millions of dollars. I’ve got all the latest information on prenuptial laws, which could come in very handy some day. I found corporate sponsors.

My financial picture is already brighter. I found my niche on the net. I’ve created a dynamic online presence. I’m using the Internet in my job search, setting up shop on the Internet, using the Internet for direct mail, becoming an electronic day trader, making a great income (at home) in the adult-entertainment business on the net. I can find out anything about anybody.

My spiritual side has undergone a complete makeover. I unlocked the ancient mysteries of the kabbala. It was pretty easy. Thousands of years of Jewish mysticism condensed into a two-hour lecture. I woke up with a hangover that morning, and by nightfall I was practically a holy man. Wow!

I learned to read the tarot, opened the psychic doors within, do past-life regression, summon angels and built a Native American medicine wheel. I perform CPR.

I’m igniting my inner healing forces using foot reflexology, practicing qi gong, discovering the healing properties of green tea. I improved my eyesight, enhanced my natural beauty and improved the sound of my voice.

I am becoming the most well-rounded person in the city. I belly dance. I’d love to tell you more about ancient African tribal wisdom, the art of erotic writing or basic medical billing, but I see that the UCLA Extension catalog has arrived in today’s mail. See you around campus.

J.D. Smith is constantly improving @ www.lifesentence.net.