The Battle of the Generation
There is a second aspect of social pressure that can have an even bigger effect because of its subtlety. We are affected by our friends’ values and actions. Even if we don’t feel pressured to join them, what they do becomes normal in our eyes and we slowly start to value what they value. We must learn how to respond, whether publicly or just to ourselves, so we are not affected.
In Shmuz 78: “Kiddush Hashem,” Rabbi Shafier conveys one method to prevent our view of acceptable behavior from slowly changing to match what others are doing. When we see people doing something forbidden, we must tell ourselves that though we don’t judge or look down on them — if we had the same life-setting, we might do the same or worse — these actions are not normal Jewish behavior. When we see others valuing something we don’t, we must remind ourselves that these values are not consistent with what truly matters. If our friends make inappropriate comments and express excitement about running after temptation, we must tell ourselves that they are talking in an unrefined manner and that we hope never to speak that way. And we must note to ourselves that they are mistakenly hyping cheap thrills that don’t make us happy and ultimately are nothing to get excited about. If we don’t think this to ourselves, we will be emotionally affected in some way. We will live with the message that these things are the most exciting things in life even though we know they’re not. We will begin to feel that it is cool to make these comments and to chase our desires. It’s hard to uproot feelings once they become a part of us. If we don’t stand up against these values at least within our minds, they will infect us to some degree.
Sometimes, we will need to take a bolder stance against mistaken values, obviously in the proper way. At the end of Chapter 5 of Mesillas Yesharim, the Ramchal relates that there will be times when we must control the conversation by talking enthusiastically about our values. This stops us from being affected by what others value. He writes that even David Hamelech felt the need to do this when he met with other kings. When they would glorify luxuries and pleasures, he would speak about his most important value, Torah.
From time to time, we will need to speak publicly about our values. We will need to express that accomplishing by overcoming challenge is far more rewarding than cheap physical pleasures. Of course, we need to present our values in an appealing way so others will be interested, and we must ensure that we don’t come off as speaking from above. But it’s not so hard for us to bring up topics such as what makes people happy or what brings meaning in life, and when these topics are discussed, it presents us with an opportunity to praise and promote what we value in a way that our circle will take to heart. (But let it be a discussion, and comment at the right time. Don’t preach.)
Finally, there will be times when we realize that some of our friends are not the best influences on us. Nevertheless, we probably won’t want to cut off from them, nor should we without advice from a Rebbe or mentor who understands us. But there still is something we can do to limit any negative influence. We should look to expand our circle by finding new friends who have the right values and are pleasant people. This will balance out some of the negative influence of our other friends. By spending more time with the right crowd, we will automatically pick up good values, and we will want to be like these new friends. This will make it easier to act as we aspire to.
Social pressure is a significant factor that comprises part of the difficulty of our battle against desire. By dealing with it properly, we can overcome this obstacle and deal the Yetzer Hara a crushing blow in the battle of the generation.