(photo from pexels.com)
Lest you think this Accidental Balabusta has been slacking off, let me set the record straight. I’ve been sick since the middle of November and haven’t had the koach to do anything, including writing or cooking. No need for the gory details; suffice it to say that it’s worn me down to a nub.
It’s been a struggle to find the silver lining in all this, and months of illness has taken its toll both physically and emotionally. There were days I couldn’t see the end in sight, and felt like my life had no purpose – a soul-destroying way to feel. There was no energy to do what I love: volunteering, attending Torah classes, meeting with friends.
In the absence of meaningful activities, my mind became a slave to anxiety and rumination, and the negativity spilled over into my various relationships. Let’s face it, no one likes a chronic complainer. Desperate to snap out of that funk, I didn’t have the mental or physical energy to attempt it.
Fast forward. I’m almost fully recovered. So, which came first – recovery or a sense of optimism?
Since regaining the bulk of my energy and well-being, I can now look at that period of suffering and negativity with a more balanced perspective. Which answers the aforementioned question – recovery came first. Which stands to reason, as it’s nearly impossible to feel positive in the midst of ongoing poor health. At least for regular folk.
A short video I watched while I was sick, by Goldie Plotkin, called Inner Strength – Courage and Faith for Life’s Challenges, was pretty inspirational, albeit vague. It emphasized the importance of “seeing the blessings in the challenges,” and learning how to use these challenges as “springboards for good.” Having overcome and embraced her own personal life challenges, Plotkin views adversity and struggle as “impetuses to grow and learn” from, and resiliency as an integral character trait. What puzzles me is this: How exactly do people “access” these blessings while they’re in the throes of illness? Or can we? Maybe it’s only after the fact that we can perceive the blessings.
The question remains: Is there a way to cope more effectively while we’re in the eye of the storm?
It got me thinking. What do Jews of great faith do when faced with illness and suffering? They think positively. Since they trust that G-d does everything for the good, they have faith that something positive will come from every experience. “Tracht gut vet zein gut” – “Think good and it will be good.” A life-affirming attitude, for sure. And one that probably takes a lifetime to cultivate. Unless you happen to be a Chassid. And still.
As my health improves, and the negativity lifts, I’m reminded of a joke from a book called There Must be a Pony, where a boy wakes up on Christmas morning and finds a pile of horse manure under the tree, instead of gifts. Possessing an extraordinarily optimistic outlook, the boy immediately starts shoveling the manure, exclaiming enthusiastically, “With all this manure, there must be a pony somewhere!”
If only faith and trust in G-d were that easy.
During the latter part of my recovery, when I actually had the energy to get dressed, I promised myself that I would do something every day to get out of my head: go for a walk, listen to a Jewish-themed podcast, read something inspiring. Anything to distract my mind from its endless loop of pessimistic storylines.
I started reading a book called Positivity Bias: Practical Wisdom for Positive Living. It gave me some practical tools to help stop my cycle of negativity. One such tool is the concept of “cognitive restructuring” or “reframing,” which was integral to me turning the corner. It’s a technique that helps people view situations from a different perspective and, when a person’s perspective changes, their thinking and behaviour often change as well. It helps one challenge the veracity of negative, often inaccurate, perspectives, and reframe their thinking. Based on cognitive behavioural therapy, the long and short of it is this – if you want to feel better, change your mind.
The essence of the book is simple yet profound. Since our thoughts and words influence how we feel and behave, each of us has the power to reshape our lives. Mindfulness and consciousness are huge parts of this process. If our thoughts are not helping us or moving us forward, then we need to change how we think. The catch is that it’s difficult to do and it’s an ongoing challenge.
An article I read recently – “Ten Hacks for Mental Control that Every Human Being Should Know” by Tzvi Freeman – was also helpful. It talks about negative thoughts and how to counteract them in a healthy way. (Read: from a Chassidic perspective.) Naturally, most of the references are to religious thought and practice. According to Freeman, the challenge is not just stopping ourselves from having negative thoughts, but finding wholesome thoughts and actions to replace the negative ones.
Relaxation techniques, like breathing meditation, and distractions such as paying attention to external stimuli, work well, too. Basically, getting outside your own head. While both approaches work, I personally think replacing unhealthy thoughts with healthy ones is the better alternative, since it not only redirects your mind, but also retrains it in a significant, consequential way.
If I’ve learned anything from this experience, it’s that cultivating positivity requires superhuman vigilance and self-control. It demands that we learn to regulate, train and discipline ourselves in how we behave, how we speak and, most importantly, how we allow ourselves to think. And it’s key to living a more intentional, meaningful, happy life.
Am I walking the walk? All I can say is I’m trying. Day by day. Moment by moment. Every one of us is a flawed human being, but each of us has the potential to make our life better, more purposeful. My advice is to use whatever works for you. Just remember that there’s something to learn from everybody.
If all that fails … try prayer. I’m a huge fan. Surrendering to something greater than oneself isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of strength and faith. And it’s just a thought, but maybe don’t ask G-d to heal you. Maybe, instead, ask G-d to give you the emotional and physical strength and courage to heal yourself. Just saying.
Shelley Civkin aka the Accidental Balabusta, is a happily retired librarian and communications officer. For 17 years, she wrote a weekly book review column for the Richmond Review. She’s currently a freelance writer and volunteer.