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Rabbi Daniel Freitag

So what is cool? When is something Phat, rad, bad, wicked, nasty, neat-o, groovy, awesome, etc... It's hard to pin down. It depends on the age of the person involved. A five year old thinks that a new remote control race car is the coolest thing on earth. A young teen thinks that a weird haircut is ultra-cool, and an older teen (sometimes) thinks that smoking is cool. Many adults think that a new sports car is cool. Elderly folks think that oldies are cool.

Obviously these are generalizations. There are some teens who think that a new trick in Visual Basic programming is cool (those teens are often considered uncool by the others, but you just wait until they buzz by you in fifteen years in their new SUV on the way to their third vacation in Bermuda while you drive off to your office downtown). Anyway, the point is that it's a very vague concept. I think there are some basic teen rules though.

Rule #1: Anything which implies obedience to authority is automatically uncool.

This is interesting. We all realize this is true, but why? Imagine you have tickets to a concert of your favorite band. Two days before the concert your dad says to you "You had better be at that concert young man! (right!). It takes a bit of the excitement away, doesn't it? This feeling stems from a basic human feeling of independence. We begin our lives as purely dependent beings. We can't even feed ourselves that Gerber carrot & pea stuff. As we grow however, we feel this intense need not to owe anyone anything. This comes to a head during the teen years. (Have you noticed this?) But we need to be careful not to be ridiculous about it.

Dad: "Now don't you dare bite your thumb off!"

Teen: "Aw dad, lay off!"

This rule is the reason why for some strange reason there are people who purposely dress like criminals. This is true in all decades. In the fifties you dressed in an undershirt and leather jacket with a pack of cigarettes rolled up in your shirt sleeve to look like a real "rebel". In the sixties, coolness was to dress like a member of the "revolution", hippie style. These days you have folks dressing like "Thuggs" on purpose. Mirroring a culture of murder and mayhem. All of this stems from the "I ain't got no authority" problem.

Rule #2: What rich famous people do or wear or think is cool.

Now why is this? Just because some dude can be paid to act like a nerd on TV I care about his opinions? Don't I have any of my own? Don't I have a better way of coming to conclusions?

This generally comes from a perceived sense of popularity. It works like this. A lot of people know who this person is. This means that they are popular. They must have opinions and behaviors that make them popular. I'll copy them.


Notice the problem? Usually people first grasp this when they see a celebrity on TV who they admire say something utterly ridiculous:

Celeb: "That's right Ed. I married my 18th wife for love. This is really the last one. We just met last week and I can tell just from her toenail patterns. We were destined to be together."

Usually one dose of that stuff (which isn't too uncommon) gets us to thinking. Maybe the celebrity is really a dork! Sort of like the emperor has no clothes thing.

The basic point is that if we really thought about what "coolness" really was, we might be a little surprised, and not so concerned with it.

Here is your chance to help me out. Help me understand the following problems:

What are other basic definitions and causes of our perception of "coolness"? Why is it that as people get older they start to care less and less about coolness?

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Some Responses....(maybe you'll see yours up here!)
Is it the "older," or just the more involved in The Society - which is made-up of the rule caretakers? In other words, if the child was involved with his family in doing indispensable acts towards the success of the family (i.e. buying the food with the household budget for the week or month) they would take pride in being part of The Society. Parents sometimes make youth feel like beggars and second class adults who CANNOT - not would not - be a part of The Society. It is human nature to despise The Society that will not let you in!
The feeling of "being cool" is an immature way of trying to fit in with one's peers. Peer pressure began with the advent of grade levels in schools, introduced in England a little over a hundred years ago with the specified and satiated purpose, according to the Encyclopedia Britannia, of removing authority from the family and placing it among one's peers. Prior to this, education was vertical, which is the Biblical pattern. The older children taught the younger ones. Authority in the family was supreme. But by changing the educational system to a horizontal one, caused the current anarchy that we see around the world, the lack of respect for authority on all levels, and the erosion of morals and character among those in authoritarian positions.

Actually this is not new. This horizontal educational experiment was tried before in history, with equal disastrous results. It robs people of creativity and personality development, because they are supposed to fit into some cookie cutter or mold.

The reason that people care less about being cool as they grow older is that they've seen many fads come and go. Maybe after a while, their attitude is 'So what? Once a new fad starts, it's becomes simply one more convention.'

I'm 49 years old. I've seen all kinds of clothing styles, hair styles, wide ties, thin ties. I can't think of any fad that would transform my life. It's kind of like 'been there, done that'.

  There is a well-known Robert Frost quote that goes as follows: "Two roads diverged in a wood and I - I took the one less traveled by, and that made all the difference." We all know the situation Frost is talking about. Those situations when we have to make really big choices that will affect the entire direction of our lives. There is a lot of pressure on us to determine what is the right thing for us to do and it seems very difficult. To make things easier, Frost gives us his rule of thumb: take the road less traveled by - do what is different.

My first year of camp, when I was eleven, my counselor had a really weird hat that she would wear when we went hiking. It was a brightly colored jester hat, complete with floppy pom-poms. All of us eleven-year-olds in our pink baseball caps looking at our nineteen-year-old counselor, thought it was the coolest hat in the world. We told her how cool we thought it was and that we all wanted hats just like it. She responded that her hat was cool because nobody else had one like it; that in order for something to be cool it has to be different than what everybody else is doing. It has to be the road less traveled.

What my counselor liked about the hat was neither the bright colors, nor the pom-poms; she liked it because it was different. This is because being different makes a statement about the way you perceive yourself. Those who are not afraid to be different give off an air of self-assuredness and self-confidence. They are not afraid to let their "true self" shine through. Simply going along with what everybody else is doing implies that a person is uncomfortable with himself. Because of a lack of self-esteem, a person will hide himself and (literally and figuratively) dress up like another person. In addition, conformity is brainless. One takes on ideas and values simply because other people have them, not because they make sense or seem right. For this reason, echoing Frost, my counselor extols those who do their own thing and refuse to conform. Still, the question in my mind is, did she actually like the hat itself?

You see, anti-conformity can be just as brainless as conformity. Instead of needing to be like other people, you need to be different. You are still just as dependent on others for your own ideas and values. In addition, anti-conformists will draw their self-esteem from who they are not, rather than who they are, and that is not true self-esteem.

So, while the quote sounds like it possesses a deep insight for life, the emphasis of the message is slightly off. When it comes to deciding what to do, being different is not what makes the difference. Making a proper decision with integrity is what makes the choice meaningful and right. Whether or not other people are doing it is something that will have to be dealt with at some point, but it is not the main factor in the determination. Hopefully, the integrity that aided in the initial decision will give you the strength to follow through and keep your way no matter how many other people walking beside you.

What it comes down to is that when deciding which way to go we have to look inside ourselves, instead of around ourselves. It means not doing things just because other people are doing them and not doing things just to be different (or "cool"). Decisions we make on the inside - by ourselves, from ourselves and for ourselves - make us special. Being comfortable with what we choose means having an inner peace of mind and satisfaction that manifests itself in an outer pride - that makes a difference, whether or not what we are doing is so different. So when two roads diverge in a wood, don't look around to see what other people are doing, take the one you think is right.

---Respond to Penina
(Penina is a regular PG writer. We will not provide the email addresses of other responders.)
In discussing the issue of peer pressure and appropriate actions with my 11.5 year old son, I have pointed out to him that if "everyone" is doing, or wants to do something, its probably wrong. And while this is not a cosmic law, we have found that time and time again, it has held true. The torah comes to teach us not to follow the "herd" mentality. The real advantage of free choice is ability to choose "NOT TO DO".
I think people care less about coolness as they get older is because their bodies give way to their heads. When they are young whatever they see impresses them and they run after it. As they grower older their mind can perceive the stupidity and danger behind some of the things that are called "cool".
I think the following summarizes a person's perspective as he matures:

At age 8, I thought everyone was talking about my shoes.
At age 13, I thought everyone was talking about my new clothes and hairstyle.
At age 16, I thought everyone was talking about my friends.
At age 18, I thought everyone was talking about my school choice.
At age 25, I thought everyone was talking about my new mate.
At age 30, I thought everyone was talking about my great career.
At age 35, I thought everyone was talking about my new house and car.
At age 45, I thought everyone was talking about my children.
At age 70, I thought everyone was talking about my grandchildren.

When I got to 80, I realized that no one was even looking or cared all those years. If we realize this earlier, we won't spend many years trying to impress others, and will instead spend time making ourselves happy.

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Copyright © 2000 by Rabbi Daniel Freitag and Project Genesis, Inc.



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