The Easy Life – Versus the Meaningful Life

 “Do not pray for an easy life. Pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.”

-Bruce Lee

In one of the most famous mass performance reviews in written history, the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) starts out with Moses doing a recap and overview of the Jewish people since they left Egypt, and the review was hardly favorable. In re-telling one of the lowest moments of that period, the “incident of the spies,” (where the Jewish people were afraid of entering the Land of Israel after hearing the fearful report from the infamous spies), Moses pointedly reminded the people how they spoke against God when they said: “Because of God’s hatred for us did he take us out of the land of Egypt, to deliver us into the hand of the Amorite to destroy us.

This is tantamount to claiming that the whole thing was a setup from the start, in that God freed us from Egypt, only to deliver us into the hands of a much worse enemy and certain death. We have the luxurious vantage point of having read “The Book” (OK, and we saw the movie too), so we know the story has a happy ending. But, in defense of the masses, which had been manipulated into a state of terror by the spies, can we empathize with their pain when they “claimed” God hated them? What was really going on?

The Longing Underneath the Complaint

When our children come home from school, smarting from a bad grade or being disciplined, for example, and they cry out with unwavering certainty, “My teacher hates me!” are they making a statement of objective fact  – or are they really expressing an unspoken fear of not being loved by the teacher? What is the unexpressed longing underneath their complaints?  

While it’s very challenging to remain centered, conscious and non-reactive when someone is bitterly complaining, look under the hood of a complaint – especially an irrational one – and you will likely find someone who is insecure, wondering if he or she is loved. Just to be clear, I don’t regard terrorism and anti-Semitism as “bad behavior masquerading as a cry for love.” I can’t go there. On the other hand, disciplining myself to ignore how a message is delivered so as not to lose sight of the underlying expression of a legitimate need, is a choice I make in my relationships.  

If God Only Loved Us…

When seen in that favorable and compassionate light, then, you could consider the irrational complaints and accusations the Jewish people made against God, as evidence of very insecure people questioning their relationship with God. In their minds, in their logic, it made sense that if God really loved them, he could have kicked the Egyptians out of Egypt and let the Jews live free and safe in the fertile Nile delta. If God really loved the Jewish people, why were they the ones wandering in the desert?   Why were they attacked and beset by people trying to destroy them? And why did they have to face years of battle to establish their homeland? At Mt. Sinai, God called us His beloved. Really? Is this what love looks like?

When my husband was a little boy, he lived in the DP (Displaced Person’s) Camps in Germany after the war. “The bad Germans lost the war,” he was told. And yet it was these “bad” Germans who walked around freely, seemingly doing as they pleased, while he could only peer in bewilderment at them from behind barbed wire, confined to the grounds of a concentration camp that was hastily upgraded to house the Jews that had nowhere else to go. The little boy was confused. Is this what winning looks like?

And when we read the news today, with worldwide terror a commonplace event, and anti-Semitism rising up with a terrifying velocity, isn’t it possible to wonder whether God really loves us as well? Like – what’s the deal? So are life’s challenges proof of God’s hate or evidence of His love?

A Mother’s Blessing

Every Friday night I lovingly lay my hands on my daughter’s head and I ask that God should bless her like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. Isn’t that beautiful? But if you think about it, how exactly were our foremothers “blessed”? They had lives of unbelievable challenges, hardships and adversities that seemed much more like curses than blessings, as well as having to endure dysfunctional family dynamics that would compete with any sensational tabloids we see today. Why would I want any of that for my daughter? Wouldn’t it make more sense for me to find a better role model? I racked my brain to come up with a female figure of merit and distinction in any arena that would exemplify an “easy” life and I couldn’t. And not in the fictional world either.

But then I found her – a beloved and famous young woman who has not just the perfect easy life, but the perfect body, long flowing hair, flawless skin, adoring faithful boyfriend, great clothes, loyal and subordinate friends, cute pink car – complete with its own carrying case. In case you didn’t figure it out, it’s Barbie. Suddenly the catchy pop lyrics sound in my head: “I’m a Barbie girl. In a Barbie world. Life in plastic. It’s fantastic.” Now how does that sound as a utopia? And yet, that is what the Jews were complaining about. In essence, if God loved them, then they should have been able to live like Barbie and Ken – but in Egypt.

Life’s Bigger Purpose

God had – and has – other plans for us. He wants us to have a real, meaningful and fulfilling life. God wants our lives to shimmer with transcendence and holiness, endowed with purpose and service. God wants us to have a life where we overcome adversity, where we choose and grow. As Rilke said, “The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things.”

You can’t move up the ladder by being a plastic doll or yearning for a life of ease. And so, while our forefathers and mothers didn’t have easy lives, they had profoundly meaningful and spiritual lives, lives that charted our very course and destiny, and whose qualities are embedded in our spiritual DNA. When we don’t confuse the good life with an easy life, then we can embrace challenges as a means of self-discovery. And when we don’t expect our lives to be simple, then we can tap into our significance. In giving us the Torah, you could say that God was the first life coach ever – exhorting us to live our lives by design and not by default. That sure looks like love to me.

And therefore, while the complaint of the Jews in the desert against God was perhaps understandable, in the end, it was ultimately unjustifiable – because the longing underneath the complaint equated easy street with God’s love, and adversity and challenge with God’s “hatred”. So even if its origin was fear, such thinking was distorted and immature. And when others were looped into the negativity, these complaints were rightfully deserving of Moses’ derision.  

Whenever you may face individual and national challenges, do not fall prey to insecurity that doubts God’s love and connection. Remind yourself of times in your life where you have endured suffering that led to blessings or growth, and ponder the ineffable survival and spirit of the Jewish people over the millennia. Life is not a “set up.” The Kotzker Rebbe is famous for saying that there is nothing more whole than a broken heart. But don’t worry – that’s how the light gets in.

Internalize & Actualize:

  1. Think of a time that you acted out or behaved in a certain, which really was a defense mechanism for how you were truly feeling. Write down the adjectives to describe your behavior, and then alongside it, write down the adjectives that represented what was really going on in your head and heart.
  1. With the above in mind, think about a situation where someone else behaved towards you or responded with the negative behavior that was similar to yours. Knowing that your behavior did not represent how you were actually feeling, rewrite that situation and how you feel towards that person when you believe that their true feelings were hurt, fear, insecurity (etc.), rather than rudeness, anger or blame (etc.).

 

  1. When in your life did someone push you well out of your comfort zone, and as much as you may have resented it at the time, you eventually came to recognize strengths in yourself you would not have discovered without that challenge? How can you apply this lesson to situations you are now facing where you would rather take the “easy” path than the one less traveled?

 

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The Dual Art of Rising to the Occasion

We need a psychology of rising to the occasion.”

  • Martin Seligman

Staffs and Reeds

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” If anyone knew the truth of this, it would be the author of this quote – Helen Keller.

In the Torah portions, “Mattot-Masei,” the Jewish people were on the cusp of entering the Land of Israel. While this would be at last the joyful fulfillment of God’s ancestral promise, it was not going to be all “milk and honey.” It was quite the opposite; actually, as the Jews who entered into the Land were headed into cycles of trial and suffering that would last for years to come.

At this critical time, God referred to the Jewish people as “mattot” which has the dual meaning of both “tribes” as well as “staffs.” Wooden staffs are unbending, unyielding, straight and strong. Thus, God was imbuing the Jewish people with the very qualities they would need in light of the turmoil and challenges ahead.

While the word mattot was used from time to time, the most common word to describe the Jewish people was not mattot, but “shevatim.” Like the word mattos, shevatim also has a double definition – “tribes” or “reeds.” Unlike wooden staffs, however, reeds are thin and flexible. Reeds are rooted, yet able to withstand external elements by being supple. In general, since God typically uses the word shevatim, one could surmise that embodying the qualities of the flexible reed is our natural or preferred state.

By referring to the Jewish tribes as “mattot” at this particular juncture, however, we should understand that sometimes – as in times of war, upheaval and chaos – we have to stiffen our resolve and embody a very different nature. There are times when being a reed does not serve us. There are times when being a reed actually hurts us. And in such times, we must become like “mattot.” We must become a solid staff. So the question is: When do we become what?

Three Hours and Twelve Minutes

 Recently, the news brought horrors from abroad and close to home. As we were reeling with the news of the massacre in a gay bar in Florida that took place over a horrific three-hour period, we learned soon after of the brutal murder of a French police officer and his wife (in front of their three-year-old child). For twelve infinitely long minutes, the murderer chillingly filmed their torture, while issuing warnings to Europe of Isis’ intention to turn it into an imminent graveyard.  

Not to be an alarmist, but we could be on the brink, once again, of facing significant challenges. The flip side of adversity, however, is that it is the birthplace of greatness, and when we rise to the occasion of formidable challenges, we can achieve great heights. When confronting evil and hatred, we must rise to the occasion and stand as one with the strength of the wooden staff. As Winston Churchill said, “Never give in…never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”

Looking for the Good

On the other hand, when it comes to our interpersonal relationships and interactions with people outside of our comfort zone, we would be well served to be flexible, to put aside our differences and embrace our commonality. Eventually “close to home” as opposed to “over there” will be indistinct, as hatred anywhere must be perceived as hatred everywhere, and everyone’s backyard becomes a global reality.

When I have empathy for the sufferings of others as my own, I will be inclined to commit acts of benevolence, compassion and bravery. And while I must keep my eyes open to the horrors of this world, it’s just as important, if not more so, to see what is so very good. Otherwise, we will lose the best of what drives us forward.

In an article called, “The Optimism of Uncertainty,” Howard Zinn wondered how it’s possible to stay involved and happy in a world where the efforts of caring people often pale in comparison to what is done by those who have power. And he answered it thus:

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places- and there are so many- where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of the world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

Driving home, I was listening to the news. Overwhelmed with sadness and anxiety, I silently asked God to show me signs of kindness and compassion. As if on cue, I noticed a homeless woman begging in the middle of a hot street, and I saw an arm shoot out of a car window to give her a bottle of water.

Fred Rogers said that when he was a boy and would be afraid of scary things in the news, his mother would say, “Look for the helpers.  You will always find people who are helping.” When we see pain and suffering, we must, even to the point of bending over backward, do what we can to ease it. When people hurt, we must heal. When it comes to the root causes of pain and suffering, however, and those who inflict it, we must stand tall against them. God tells us we have a dual nature. We must use our heads and hearts to know when to be what

Internalize & Actualize:

  1. Write down a challenging situation you are currently facing and if you have been handling it like a staff or like a reed. Would it perhaps be better served by switching approaches? What do you feel will make the biggest impact in transforming this situation to the positive?
  1. When terrible things happen it is easy to lose sight of anything positive that is happening around us. Think about something difficult you have experienced, and then write down five good things that happened during this experience. They may pale in comparison, but focus on them. Then write down how you are feeling when you think about something uplifting alongside something so negative.
  1. Finding the good in those we struggle with is likewise a challenge. Think about someone you have a difficult time getting along with, and write down the characteristics and qualities that bother you about that person. Then alongside each aspect you find negative, write something that is positive about that quality (ie. Stubborn = someone who stands by their beliefs and feelings).