What Does Changing Your Mind Say About You?

imagesWell, that could mean that you are curious, intellectually honest, and grounded in a strong sense of self that is not tethered to old and false beliefs to feel secure.  Many people feel a sense of shame when they retreat from a position or opinion they hold dear.  Once we have a strong vested interest and identification with our thoughts, the incessant need to be right leads us to fight to the death against people who disagree (especially our loved ones), as if our very survival were in jeopardy.   

The problem with a mindset that runs observations through a rigid preconceived worldview is that it stifles our growth and kills relationships. And tragically, in the case of the men who were sent by Moses to spy out the land of Israel in advance of our entry, it caused the death of an entire generation and altered the very course of Jewish history for millennia. 

The Fight against Smallness

Jewish sacred texts describe newly created Adam as filling the whole world, but that after the sin of eating the forbidden fruit, he became small.  In this week’s Torah portion, Shelach, the spies reported back: “We are unable to go up against the people for they are stronger than we….. All the men we saw in it are men of stature…. In our eyes, we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes.”[i]  Since the spies were able to completely avoid detection, this was pure projection on their part, a surmised fearful interpretation that was nevertheless reported as an absolute fact of reality.  Because the spies’ self-image and misperceptions were so warped, their judgments and conclusions were erroneous and fatal.  They suffered from a case of “motivated reasoning.”  Unfortunately, such biased thinking is mostly unconscious and pervasive in that we all do it.  The good news, however, is that with the proper mindset, it can be prevented.       

Soldier versus Scout

In a fascinating Ted talk, Why You Think You’re Right Even if You’re Wrong, Julia Galef describes two mindsets: “Soldier” and “Scout.”  Soldiers are sent into battle to defend, protect, and defeat the enemy.  The mission of a scout, on the other hand, is not to attack or defend, but to understand.  Thus, a scout will map terrain, identify obstacles and threats, and seek out vantage points, in the quest for accurate and honest information.  Both the soldier and the scout are essential, with each playing a vital role.  Described by Galef as two different mindsets, however, each acts as a metaphor for how all of us process information and ideas in our daily lives.  As in all matters of a dual nature, one must know when to be what.  Sent by Moses to scout out the land, the spies merely defended their own views and biases, and thus, they strayed from their mission.

Scout’s Honor

Shelach lecha, the command that God gave to Moses to send out the spies, means “send out – for yourself.”  Thus, when we act as scouts leaving what is known, going to the unknown, and willingly seeing what is truthfully there, it is really for our benefit.   

The next time someone criticizes you, disagrees with you or is just plain different, resist the habitual urge to defend and attack.  Rather, look within to see whether there is a grain of truth to the criticism.  Consider whether there is another point of view to be had, and for goodness sake, stop being angry at those who are simply not the same as you.  And the next time someone upsets you, don’t just write them off, or dismiss their complaints with the easy conclusion that they are wrong or irrational.  We all make assumptions that are inaccurate, unfounded, and self-referential, (i.e. I wouldn’t do that; therefore neither should you). Instead, try to find out what is really bugging them.  Ask for help in understanding the issue and sincerely inquire as to what you could do to avoid causing them pain.   

There are definitely times and situations which call on us to marshal the soldier mindset.  It is said that those who stand for nothing will fall for anything.  On the other hand, changing our mind in response to a newly emerging truth is not a weakness, but the strength of having an open mind willing to grow.  Thus, we can heal from those false beliefs that make us feel small, and we and our relationships can become big, growing into the potential we were meant to have from the beginning of time.   

 

[i] Bamidbar/Numbers 13:31-33.

 

 

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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?

 

Shelach – 5 Steps to Better Relationships

“In youth, one learns to talk; in maturity, one learns to be silent. This is man’s problem: that he learns to talk before he learns to be silent.”

– Rabbi Nachman of Breslov

But…

 Have you ever been on the wrong end of an unwanted question, such as, “Will you marry me?” Or, “Will you be my date for the prom?” Or something less serious, such as, “Hey, can you do me a huge favor?”

 If the answer is “no”, there is going to be a “but” somewhere in that sentence, such as, “I really love you – but – I’m just not in love with you.” Or, “you’re such a great guy – but – I’m already going with Mr. Wrong.” Or, “I’d love to help you out, but I think I have to do my colonoscopy prep that night.”

 And no matter how nice or apologetic or convincing the first part of the sentence is, for the listener, it’s only what comes after the “but” that matters, because that’s where the truth of the message lies.

 And so, it’s hard to believe – but – this one innocuous word, “but” is responsible for the downfall of the generation that left Egypt and it caused them to be condemned to die in the desert.

 If you don’t know the story, the Jewish people had just left Mount Sinai after receiving the Ten Commandments and were poised to enter what was then known as the Land of the Canaanites. The people were nervous and didn’t know what they were up against, and so they asked Moses to appoint a group of men to go spy out the land.

 After forty days the spies returned and issued a glowing report. “It’s a land filled with milk and honey. Here are its fruits.” And then they said the word “efes” (which means “but”) after which they painted such a negative picture of the land, that people were scared stiff and wept through the night, thus sealing their fate that where not only would they not enter the land, but future calamities (such as the destruction of the First and Second Temples) would occur on the anniversary of that date.  

The Weight of Criticism

We often mix compliments with criticisms and wonder why the listener is offended.

I gave my son a compliment about his appearance, but I ended the sentence with criticism.   “Mother giveth and Mother taketh away,” he said. And I was surprised. After all, I said something nice – also – so why the drama?

 Plain and simple, it’s what follows the “but” that counts. And we can’t neutralize or offset a criticism with a compliment. It’s not an even wash because we don’t hear or care about the compliment. Evolutionists will explain that we are wired to focus on negativity because the negative carries valuable information about possible danger.  

Whatever the reason, a ratio of 1:1 (compliment/criticism) will destroy the quality of your relationships as surely as it destroyed that generation of the Jewish people. So can we ever criticize? Of course we can, and sometimes we must, but there are ways to do it without harming the relationship.

 In a business setting, there is something called the “Losada Principle,” which tells us that unless a negative or critical remark is offset by at least three positive comments, the work environment is considered toxic, and employees will not thrive and be productive.

 In personal relationships, the ratio is a bit higher. A critical or negative comment needs to be offset with 3-5 positive comments. Dip consistently below that ratio in your marriage, and your relationship is in peril, because you are statistically headed for a divorce.

So here’s my advice:

  1. If you must say something critical (and sometimes you must) make an effort to offset it with multiple positive remarks.
  1. If you must say two contradictory things, switch the order so that the nice comment follows the “but.” For example: “You did a great job cleaning your room, but the bathroom is a mess” – versus – “The bathroom is a mess, but you did a great job cleaning your room.” Do you hear the difference in those approaches?
  1. After you get the hang of that, try to stop talking after the compliment. “You did a great job cleaning your room.” Full stop. The bathroom is another conversation for another time. Don’t ruin the compliment.
  1. Don’t ruin the compliments you receive. When I get a compliment about a meal I prepared, for example, I often would deflect it with a “but,” such as “but the chicken is too dry.” Don’t diminish yourself and make the person giving you a compliment feel silly for doing so.
  1. And finally, consciously transform the “but” from “destructive” to “constructive.” “I hear that your teacher is a demanding perfectionist, but it’s going to make you up your game.” Or, “I don’t know how I can deal with this, but I know it’s going to make me stronger.” Use the “but” to focus on the positive aspect of a challenging situation.

If only the spies could have read this blog, Jewish history could have been completely different! Let us not make the same mistake in our lives, and instead, pay attention to the “but” and infuse our relationships with conscious kindness and create a legacy of positivity.

Internalize & Actualize

  1. Think about a recent argument you had. What could you have said differently that would have changed the outcome of that interaction? What can you say now to help rectify it? 
  1. Think about someone you are likely to criticize. Now write down five positive attributes or compliments you could give that person that would be sincere. This week say one of those compliments daily and then write down any changes you notice from that person.
  1. The way we talk to ourselves is just as critical as the way we talk to other people. Using the 3-5 compliment ration per criticism, write down something negative you often think or say to yourself. Then following that, write down 3-5 compliments you can give yourself (without a “but”) to help offset the damage from that negative statement.