My Southern friends and family often joke, “The Lord works in mysterious ways.” This morning, I wondered what I would write for this column. I was walking dogs in the sunshine and things were mostly going well.
Except, right after 8 a.m., as I set up the slow cooker for dinner, my husband returned to the back door. He’d just left for work, but announced, “Change of plans.” Why? He’d just discovered that my car had another window smashed. It was the second time in eight days.
This column could be a real downer. There’s plenty to write about the rise in vandalism and crime, the current meth and opioid addiction crisis, the lack of mental health supports and addiction counseling; there’s a lot to say. Since we’re commanded to care for the sick and the homeless, well, it’s all a Jewish topic. (Yes, Jews struggle with mental health issues, commit crimes and take drugs.)
However, I’m going to look at something else that happened instead. When the first window broke, we thought it might be from vandalism, but it was just as likely that the vibrations from nearby construction broke the glass. I tried to come up with a positive narrative.
Sad to say, the second broken window was clearly smashed by a person, who then scattered our (totally worthless) belongings around in the car. We came to the inevitable conclusion – this wasn’t just an accident. Someone was trying to steal but couldn’t find much in there of value.
It’s easy to get stuck in a negative feedback loop here. If you spend a lot of time complaining, focusing on the negative, and repeating what happened, it’s bound to get you down. Yet, it takes work to be positive sometimes.
My kids are the lucky recipients of PJ Library books each month. Every generation of Jewish kids is offered the folk story where someone comes to the rabbi to complain about his house. The rabbi usually tells the man to get a dog, then a chicken, a duck, then a goat, cow and horse … put them all in the house.
Of course, it’s a chaotic, messy, loud experience. The poor complainer comes back to the rabbi saying, “Rabbi, why did you suggest this?” And the rabbi tells the man to give away or sell all the animals. Suddenly, when his little house is empty and quiet again? It’s a palace.
I won’t lie, we all have many things to kvetch over. Things don’t go well, or things that we want that cost too much money, or seem beyond reach. The truth is that we’ve been struggling with this, as a people, for as long as we’ve been around. In the Torah portion Sh’lach L’cha (Numbers 13:1-15:41) which happens around this time of year, we read about how scouts were sent out to check out the Promised Land. How they describe it – good (who doesn’t like milk and honey?) but with significant downsides. It’s settled by giants! They will eat us!
As a result, aside from Caleb and Joshua, G-d doesn’t let anyone in who was enslaved in Egypt, essentially sending a new generation into the land of Israel. Some read this as punishment for all the negativity and things that went wrong. Others see it as something of a narrative “refresh” button. Want to get rid of the negative feedback loop? Start with people who see things in a positive light, and don’t let them focus on what is going badly.
Is it possible to cut out all negativity? In my opinion, I think that’s naïve. The world is a challenging place. There are going to be difficult experiences and bad days. However, we also need to consciously work to be grateful for what we have. Like the man with the livestock in his house, we may not realize how good we have it until things get much, much worse.
Recently someone commented that she was amazed to see me smiling and present when I was actually quite tired. (Plus, I was struggling with some bad stuff, but I kept it to myself. She didn’t even know about that.) Sometimes, we have to “fake it until we make it.” As a mom with grade school kids, I don’t get many breaks. There are times when a kid or dog is sick and wakes me up at night, when street construction is terribly loud or, heck, my car keeps getting vandalized. However, if I give in to the negative feelings and list all the complaints, I get stuck on that same problematic negative narrative, like the aforementioned Torah portion, when those folks in the desert got frightened and suggested they should go back to Egypt.
This portion also mentions a list of physical things we can do to remind ourselves of our positive connection to G-d and Judaism, such as wearing tzitzit and taking a portion of our baking as a gift to G-d. It was a good reminder. Today, I’m making a big batch of challah – and I said the blessing as I sectioned off a portion of the dough.
It takes a brave leap some days to be positive and seek out the things for which we are grateful. Yes, my windows were smashed. I’m hoping all will be repaired by the time you read this column. In the meanwhile, I focus on how good that challah will taste and – maybe? – how quiet it will be when the construction is over.
Seeing life’s challenges as the glass half-full rather than half-empty can be hard work. However, that work is a conscious (and a Jewish) choice.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.