A man gets into his car and decides – in the name of “optimism” – that he won’t buckle up. Is he an optimist or is he an idiot? After delivering a lecture on optimism to a large tech company, Shawn Achor, one of the gurus of Positive Psychology was being driven to the airport by the CEO. Ignoring the persistent and annoying dinging of the alarm for not using his seat belt, the CEO smiled at Shawn and explained that he was just “optimistic.”
“Optimism is good for a lot of things,” thought Shawn, “but it will not prevent this CEO from getting into a car accident, nor will it prevent him flying through the windshield.” This is not optimism; rather, it’s a form of insanity, otherwise known as “irrational optimism.”
In this week’s Torah portion, “Beshalach”, after the Jewish people left Egypt, the Pharaoh sent his army of charioteers after them, and now they were cornered with their backs to the sea. Short of a new miracle, the Jewish people were facing imminent slaughter, and the Torah records their bitter remonstrations against Moses crying that they should never have left Egypt and that it would have been better to have remained slaves in Egypt than to die in the wilderness.
According to commentary, at that point, the Jewish people were divided into four separate camps. One group wanted to surrender and go back to Egypt. One group was ready to commit suicide. One group was willing to fight the Egyptian army (I like their moxie but what were they going to do – throw matzos at them?) And another group started to pray. Moses cried out to God and God replied (in essence) – “Stop praying and journey forth. Do Something!” It was at that point that the famous Nachshon jumped into the sea, and when the water reached his nostrils, the sea began to part. Optimist or crazy? Grounded or irrational? Let’s see.
In his book, “Learned Optimism”, Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology explains that there are two ways of looking at life, and he gives an example. A young couple has their first baby. The father looks at her in her crib with awe and love, and he calls out her name. Although the baby is awake, she doesn’t respond. Dad picks up a toy with a bell and shakes it. No response. Dad’s heart starts to beat rapidly, and he summons his wife. The mother tries to get the baby’s attention with loud sounds – still without a response – but when she picks up the baby, the baby responded to her. “My God, she’s deaf,” concludes the father.
“No, she’s not. She’s a newborn. Her eyes don’t even focus yet,” says the mother. “Yea – but you clapped loudly, and she didn’t startle.” Mom suggested that they consult their baby book for advice, where they read how there is no reason for alarm if a baby fails to react to loud noises since it takes time for the startle and sound reflex to kick in.
Mom is reassured. Nevertheless, she leaves a voice message with the pediatrician’s office to schedule an appointment, and she goes about her weekend as usual. Dad, on the other hand, remains a worried mess, ruminating that he has a “bad feeling about this.”
On Monday, the pediatrician administers a neurological exam and finds the baby perfectly healthy. Father does not believe the test results and remains depressed and worried. A week later, when the baby startled at the noise of a backfiring car, the father began to recover his spirits and was able to enjoy his baby once again.
These are the two basic outlooks on life: one pessimistic and one optimistic. The pessimist “awfulizes” events, views bad situations as long-lasting, if not permanent, allows the upset to permeate all areas of life, and considers it somehow his or her fault.
The optimist, on the other hand, sees defeat as a temporary challenge to be surmounted, confines it to this one situation, and sees the cause as something external. These two explanatory outlooks on life affect health, relationships, quality of work and achievement, learning, and many other things, and an optimism outlook tends to enhance life across all of its dimensions.
However, aspects of pessimism have their rightful place too, especially where critical thinking is necessary to avoid bad consequences. For instance, employing optimism in the face of marrying an addict in denial, or buying a house over budget while banking on a future raise or bonus would be a form of irrational optimism, with possibly disastrous consequences.
The point is, the key to emotional and mental freedom is knowing “when to be what”. We all have certain natures by default, which will drive either of these explanatory styles. The goal is to have “flexible optimism”, to know that you have a choice and to pick your most valuable reality and which manner of thinking will serve you best under the circumstances.
Okay, now it’s a little chutzpadich, but I think there is a third explanatory style, which I am calling “Jewish Optimism”, and since I’m coining the phrase, I get to define it. Jewish Optimism takes the best aspects of optimism, such as looking at events in their most favorable light and rising to the challenge with an “I-can” or an “it-can-be-done” attitude.
But when it comes to causality, Jewish Optimism doesn’t regard events as external and impersonal. Just the opposite. In Jewish Optimism, everything is “about me” – for my spiritual growth. And this brings in the quality of faith – faith that the universe is not out to “get me”, but to “teach me”. And that ultimately leads to having a real and personal relationship with God.
Getting back to the scene at the banks of the Sea of Reeds, in facing Pharaoh’s army, the pessimists wanted to surrender or commit suicide. One group of optimists wanted to fight, but it was irrational to think that an unarmed and untrained group of men women and children could defeat the onslaught of a mighty avalanche of charioteers.
The same God that liberated the Jewish people through His open and divine intervention was now telling them to go, to “do something,” And so Nachshon, the Jewish optimist, walked calmly into the sea, and in so doing, he also paved the way for the Jewish expression of faith.
And this sets Judaism apart from any religion that is based just on thought, beliefs, or silent spirituality because Judaism calls for belief-driven behavior, and the expression of faith through deliberate action.
So the next time you face a challenge, decide first whether grounded optimism is appropriate, and if so, try adding a little faith. Know that whatever test you are undergoing is the test you were meant to have, that you can pass it, and that you will emerge emotionally stronger, intellectually wiser, and spiritually higher. Become a Jewish optimist, and there is no telling how many seas you will be able to part in your life.