“You could say I’ve identified a new syndrome,” says eminent psychiatrist Dr. Abraham J. Twerski, “and it’s called SDS—Spiritual Deficiency Syndrome.” Coming from anyone else, the idea might sound like a New-Age gimmick. However, Dr. Twerski’s ideas are worthy of consideration, since he is recognized as one of this generation’s most innovative physicians and creative thinkers.
And possibly the most published. As the author of almost 60 books written in a witty, direct style that instantly puts you at ease, he has guided a broad readership on how to overcome everyday problems. He seems to be in your living room, sharing his thoughts and asking about yours. Moreover, he offers good, solid advice.
That is when he is operating in his “popular” persona, teaching us how to get the most out of life. He is also a renowned expert on addictive behavior. One of the country’s leading authorities on chemical dependency, Dr. Twerski is the founder and Medical Director Emeritus of GatewayRehabilitationCenter, near Pittsburgh. It has achieved worldwide recognition and was cited by Forbes magazine as one of the twelve best drug and alcohol treatment centers inAmerica.
So, when Dr. Twerski speaks, people listen, and currently his favorite topic is SDS. It is so common that most of us feel its effects but are unable to identify its cause. The symptom: chronic unhappiness.
Dr. Twerski is quick to assure us that he is not talking about clinical depression, which is treatable with drugs. No, he is giving us a formula for dealing with a feeling of dissatisfaction or lack of self-fulfillment, “which all the anti-depressants in the world won’t help.”
Everyone wants to be happy. We want that buoyant feeling of good health and optimism. Yet true happiness eludes us because, most of the time, we’re looking for it in the wrong places.
Dr. Twerski spells it out in his latest book, Happiness and the Human Spirit: The Spirituality of Becoming the Best You Can Be. “I’m not talking about religion,” he emphasizes. “This has nothing to do with going to synagogue or to church. I’m talking about the universal human spirit, the traits that make us human. When we ignore them, when we fail to act as a true human being, we begin to suffer.”
What exactly are those traits, and why does he call them uniquely human? Dr. Twerski explains, “Modern society has bought into the idea that we are not much more than intellectual baboons. But we have traits rooted in our human spirit that put us in a class by ourselves. I’m talking about the abilities to be compassionate, to have purpose, to choose, to improve ourselves, the ability to search for truth, even to have a sense of humor, among others. The sum total of these qualities is what makes us human. Being spiritual simply is being the best you can be.”
One aspect of being spiritual is “getting out of your own skin,” as the doctor puts it: be there for someone else. By way of example, Dr. Twerski points to his parents’ 52-year marriage and a poignant episode at its very end. “Though he was a rabbi, not a doctor, my father was very knowledgeable in medicine. When he was diagnosed with cancer [many years ago], he called me into his room and quietly asked, ‘When it comes to pancreatic cancer, chemotherapy doesn’t help, right?’
‘So we understand each other. There’s no need for me to go through it.’
“A few days later, he called me again, this time with some disturbing news: ‘Unfortunately my doctor misinformed Imma [Mother]. He told her that chemo might prolong my life for about three months. She said, ‘Three months! If it only helps for three days, it’s worth doing!’ So she’s under the impression that it would work and she wants me to go through with it.’
‘What will you do?’
‘I’m going to take the chemo. After I die, I don’t want her to feel guilty. She must feel that we tried everything.’
“And he suffered through those chemo treatments, knowing the whole time that it would not help him, just for her sake.” Dr. Twerski concludes, “I call that spiritual.”
He offers a simple analogy. “Recognize that you have a body and a spirit. If your body lacks something – let’s say iron – you develop iron deficiency anemia. You’ll go to the doctor and he’ll prescribe iron supplements. If he gives you extra vitamin A or niacin, it won’t help. It has to be iron. It’s the same with Spiritual Deficiency Syndrome. If you try to cure it by amassing wealth, going for a cruise, taking a drink, taking another drink, you’ll feel better for a little while. But you won’t be happy.”
“You have needs that have nothing to do with self-gratification,” he urges. “Get in touch with your spiritual side. It will make you feel great.”
To some people, Dr. Twerski’s advice may sound rabbinic – he was, in fact, an ordained rabbi before he went to medical school – but he does not view it that way. “My role as a psychiatrist is to help a person be whole, and that means exploring his spiritual nature as well.”
Dr. Twerski’s unusual upbringing accounts for his melding of traditional Jewish wisdom and professional insight. Born into a long line of distinguished Hassidic rebbes (spiritual leaders), Dr. Twerski grew up in a staunchly religious family inMilwaukee. Their faith was so strong that they had no trouble preserving their lifestyle while integrating with the surrounding American norms of the 1940s.
These multiple influences blended into a person who sees everyone and everything as a harmonious whole. There is no separation in Dr. Twerski’s mind between religious sensibilities and his open, loving relationship with all of mankind. His religious training, in fact, contributes to his insights on how the human mind operates. “You know, I’ve often thought about the fact that we credit our biblical forefather Abraham as the first to discover one God,” he muses. “How can that be? It’s hard to believe that no one before him noticed that idols were worthless!
“But here’s what really happened. The pagan concept was that ‘God is there to provide for my needs.’ Abraham realized that God is not there to serve us – we are here to serve Him, to be good to His creatures. We are here to give of ourselves, not to take.” Expanding this idea to its natural conclusion, Abraham became the paragon of chesed, which means doing something for someone else. That is what he lived and what he taught. This value is not only the foundation of Judaism; it’s the cornerstone of civilized, human behavior.
“We’re essentially a pagan society,” he went on. “There are no idols, but the idea that ‘God is here to serve me,’ that everything is here to satisfy me, is still rampant. Yet giving is one of the defining features that separate man from animals. When we forget that, Spiritual Deficiency sets in. One of the beauties of being human is that we can realize we’ve made a mistake. Once we recognize that we’ve been undermining our own spirituality, we see that we’ve been using the wrong things to fill the void.”
Of course, individuals will find different ways to maximize their inborn spirituality. To some it will mean volunteering in their community, to others it may mean connecting to a long-forgotten heritage. And there are a thousand other ways – you just have to look. Dr. Twerski’s timely message is that living your life aglow with inner happiness doesn’t require therapists or an outlay of money. The cure for SDS has always been there, right inside you.