I have a very wise, non-Jewish friend who often will say something profound and then later I’ll discover that the idea she’s spoken of already exists within Judaism. It’s become almost a running joke with us. One of the ideas that she believes very strongly in is the idea that our perception of reality has the ability to shape our reality.
You can see this in science, where they’ve proven that the very act of observing something with a preconceived notion will make a researcher more likely to see outcomes that support their preconceived notion. We all experience it much more concretely in our lives when we have a friend like Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh who is very negative and can see only the worst in every situation or when, as children, we decide to look for something. As a child, my family would pick morel mushrooms in one of our small forests on our land. It never failed that none of us would see mushrooms until one of us had found at least one, but then suddenly, we’d see them everywhere. When you’re looking for something in the world around you, you tend to see more of it.
This idea also plays out in Judaism, where often we’re told to focus on the good and it will be good, to not dwell on a possible negative outcome and to always believe that the good will happen. I see this play out among my friends as well, with Orthodox friends frequently giving a “Baruch Hashem” when something unfortunate happens, instead focusing on the idea that it could have been much worse. Most recently, I had an Orthodox friend in Israel who had a pipe burst in her kitchen over Rosh Hashanah. Instead of being upset that her kitchen was a mess for the holiday, she was instead grateful that it happened over the holiday because everyone was home and able to find what had happened soon after the pipe had burst, minimizing the damage. She was able to see the good even in a soaked kitchen.
Conversely, I have friends who are bikers who view the world as a scary and violent place and are always fearful of a fight. Consequently, they often do find themselves in fights. I have other friends who view the world as a very unjust place and as a result, everywhere they look, they find injustice that must be fought against. I have friends who feel that men are oppressing women and find evidence of this all around them and others who fear the world is being destroyed and again are granted all the proof they need to support these fears. It is as if there are seeds all around us for whatever flower we want to see, just waiting for our attention to sprout.
To me, it is a testament to the power of co-creation that Hashem gave each of us when He made us in His image that we have such amazing power to shape the world around us just by the lens through which we choose to view it. I’ve had some amazing examples of this in my own life. One was the recent storms and watching my friends react to them. One friend was focused on how unprepared most of the cities were and how much better the response should have been and as a result, he was very upset about the storms even though his home was left untouched. Another was focused on how many people were helping each other and all the volunteers rushing to offer aid, as such, she was inspired by the kindness of all these strangers. Both were looking at the same events, but both came away with a completely different experience of them.
Which brings me to my re-entry into the “real” world from my holidays. Yesterday I wrote about an experience with our own home, both here and on Facebook. My intentions were to share something positive, given that so much of what we are fed as information lately is negative. I wasn’t intending to upset anyone or brag and, Facebook being what it is, I limited the audience of my post there to only my Jewish friends, people I thought would be most likely to understand the lens through which I viewed what had happened. I expected that a few people might notice or comment on my post, but that many just wouldn’t be interested, but I didn’t really expect anyone to be upset.
Oddly enough, some people were. Most were relatively mild and it came down to them wanting someone to blame. Why didn’t our painters lock the house for us? Why didn’t we leave a key with a neighbor or call someone before the Yom Tov? Why didn’t we plan better? For them, there was comfort in thinking that it was human negligence alone that led us to the situation we were in and they were satisfied when I freely admitted that there were several things we could have done differently so as not to be left in that situation again and that we were working on those things now. The way I see it, their concerns and objections were well-intentioned and reasonable.
Then I had one friend whose objections to what I wrote were more theological and she was much more upset. To her, my entire interpretation of what had happened made me a bad person. To her, it was extremely presumptuous to credit divine protection for the fact we hadn’t been robbed when during that same weekend, a hurricane and earthquakes had left other people in other parts of the world homeless. Did we think we were so special or that us observing the Yom Tov so worth of reward while these people deserved death and destruction? How could I be happy about our belongings being safe when mothers in Mexico were mourning their dead children? How in the world could a just G-d save my home while destroying theirs and how could I believe in such kinds of calculations?
I really was taken aback by the passion in her arguments.
I had written what I had written before even checking the news, having been offline through the holiday. As a non-observant Jew who is very involved in social justice, she had been online throughout and following the news carefully, so she and I were coming from very different viewpoints. I was not intending in any way to minimize the suffering of anyone, but merely thanking Hashem for our good fortune. I don’t live in a world where there is only a certain amount of good fortune to go around where somehow my family receiving goodness subtracts from the amount of mercy available to others. A friend wisely pointed out that many of those families who had lost their homes were probably thanking Hashem that their lives had been spared with just as much sincerity as I was thanking Him for our possessions being saved…were they too in the wrong since other lives had not been so fortunate?
In the end, I realized that nothing would help my friend feel any better or better understand my perspective. We simply live in very different worlds and, glimpsing the hurt and anger in her world for a moment, I don’t think I would want to trade mine for hers. I can celebrate one friend’s success or good fortune without feeling that I have let others who are suffering down and I live in a world where suffering and joy can both exist and where I choose to focus on joy while still doing what I can to relieve suffering. I can’t imagine how hard it must be to feel like you must focus only on whatever is “wrong” in the world until every problem is solved before you can be happy over the smaller things, where suffering and injustice must constantly be ranked and weighed to decide who is allowed to rejoice and who must be silent.
There is much we can work on in this world to make it a better place and so many places where we can work to help those less fortunate than ourselves, but I don’t think we need to deny our own gratitude for what goes on in our own lives to do it. I believe Hashem created us with the capacity for far more complexity, for the ability to reach out in concern for others while still feeling joy within ourselves.
I also can easily admit that I can’t explain why my house was spared and so many other homes destroyed this weekend. It’s far beyond me to know why so many earthquakes have shaken Mexico lately and not Anchorage or why hurricanes just keep pounding Puerto Rico. I don’t automatically assume that the people in either place have done some great evil that deserves divine punishment…I simply can’t know why they have been chosen to suffer these things and I do feel compassion for them. And, without any contradiction to me, I am also grateful that no one stole our belongings.
I choose to look for the good and to look for things to be grateful for. I choose to look for the people who rise above disasters to help each other. I choose to be inspired and to donate what I can to help them rebuild. I choose to believe that Hashem is good and that if I can’t see the good in what has happened, it’s a matter of my perspective not being wide enough to see all the ripples from whatever has happened.
I make these choices when I look at the events of my life and the world around me because those are the choices that bring me joy and make my life more meaningful and help lift me up more to a place where I feel like I have more to offer the world around me, rather than dragging me down to a point of feeling overwhelmed and hopeless. Perhaps that is childlike or simplistic, but I’ll also freely admit that my Jewish learning is probably more at a child’s level right now, more at what a 7 year old might know…and I’m ok with that. I’ll keep on growing and learning and I feel like being an optimist is a better way to help me continue doing that.
I can let someone else be Eeyore in this story. I’m content to be piglet, albeit a kosher version.