A new commercial for Choice Hotels sort of caught me off guard. The background music is The Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go." It was a little freaky to hear the song being used for a commercial. Maybe punk is coming back? If so then I'd like to share two stories.
The first I overheard at a high school party back in 1988:
A preppy teenager walks up to a punk rock teenager with a Mohawk and asks him "What's Punk?"So the hardcore punk teen kicks over a garbage can and say '"That's punk!" The preppy teen proceeds to kick over another garbage can and says "That's Punk?" The punk kid looks at him, smiles, and says, "No that's trendy!"
I love this story because it shows that it's not only our actions that define us, but our attitude when we perform those actions.
We can give meaning and emotion to what we do. Acts of kindness, good deeds or performing a mitzvah have an effect. To follow the crowd without thinking about what or why you're doing something isn't always the best plan. Plenty of people, myself included, fall into the trap of doing things by rote, even when it comes to mitzvot. Raising money for a cause, volunteering for a JUF project, making a blessing over food, hugging our children or a loved one -- these can become empty actions. They can also be really meaningful experiences. It's all about what you do and how you do it.
I'm guilty of not putting thought into my actions, but I'm not alone. These days I find more and more people are on autopilot, and that's not punk.
Here's a second story, paraphrased from the Artscroll biography of Rav Dessler, by Yonoson Rosenbloom:
When Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler came to America in 1948, he met up with his son, Nachum Velvel, in New York. Rabbi Dessler asked his son who had helped him during his years alone in America. His son mentioned several people in New York along with Rabbi Eliezer Silver, the head of Agudah Israel (a national organization that services Jews) and the rabbi of Cincinnati. Rabbi Dessler said, "We must thank him."
His son offered to place a telephone call to Rabbi Silver, but Rabbi Dessler wanted to show personal "hakarot hatov," gratitude and thankfulness, to Rabbi Silver. Nachum Velvel and his father then took a nine-hour train ride to Ohio, arriving at 5:00 a.m. in Cincinnati. They went to Rabbi Silver's home and waited on the porch to meet him as he left his house for morning prayers. Rabbi Silver met his two guests when he woke up and they all went to shul and then back to the Silver's for breakfast. After a bite to eat, Rabbi Silver said, "So, Rabbv Dessler, what brings you to Cincinnati?" Rabbi Dessler said that he had only come to show appreciation to Rabbi Silver for all he had done for his son.
Rabbi Silver thought about this and again asked, "So, Rabbi Dessler, what really brings you to Cincinnati?"
Rabbi Dessler said that he had no other purpose that to show "hakarot hatov." Rabbi Silver said, "Rabbi Dessler, what can I really do for you?"
Rabbi Dessler, for a third time, repeated that he only wished to show gratitude to Rabbi Silver in person.
Rabbi Silver finally gave up and muttered, "This must be the greatness of Mussar (a movement within Judaism that focuses on ethics and growth)."
This is one of my favorite Rabbi Dessler stories. It embodies what I think is the best of the Mussar movement. You can't preach ethics and not be ethical. For me, this means actions need to be in sync with how I live my life. When I am mindful of this, I'm the nicest guy; when I go on autopilot, I can be the exact opposite.
This is what Rabbi Dessler was about. A simple "thank you" isn't enough sometimes. We need to go out of our way. To show gratitude or do a kind act for a spouse, parent, teacher, or even a child who needs to be acknowledged is the right thing. For Rabbi Dessler, he felt he had no choice but to travel to Cincinnati. For me, walking across the street or just to the living room can make a big difference to someone. We have no idea what effect our actions can have on others.
Being punk means that you don't follow the mainstream sometimes, and focus on an extreme. If your extreme is something that helps others, you're real punk.