After delivering a lecture on
|Is he an optimist or is he foolish?|
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 being “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
In the Torah portion Beshalach, after the Jewish people left
Egypt, Pharaoh sent his army of charioteers after them, cornering the Jewish
people with Egypt at their back, the vast desert on both sides and the sea in
front of them. Short of a new miracle, the Jewish people were facing imminent
Splitting of the Sea
According to Midrashic commentary,
some people wanted to surrender and go back to Egypt. Some were ready to commit
suicide. Some were willing to fight the Egyptians. And another group started to
pray. Moses cried out to G‑d, and G‑d replied (in essence): “Stop praying and journey forth. Do
something!” It was at that point that the famous Nachshon ben Aminadav
moved into the sea, and when the water reached his nostrils, the sea began to
part. Was he an optimist or insane? Irrational or grounded?
In his book, Learned Optimism, Martin Seligman, the father of Positive
Psychology explains that there are two ways of looking at life: as an optimist
and as a pessimist. And he gives an example. A young couple has their first
baby. The father looks at her in her crib 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. His heart starts to beat rapidly, and he summons his
wife. The mother was also unable to get the baby’s attention with loud sounds.
“My G‑d, she’s deaf,” concludes the father.
Mom consults a baby book for advice,
reading how there is no reason for alarm 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. The
father does not believe the test results, and still 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 child once
These are the two basic outlooks on
life. The pessimist “awful-izes” events, viewing harmful situations as
long-lasting, if not permanent, and allowing the upset to permeate all areas of
life, taking it personally. The optimist, on the other hand, doesn’t anticipate
defeat but when it happens, sees defeat as a challenge to be surmounted, limits
it to this pertinent situation, and sees the cause as something external.
OK, now it’s a little chutzpadik, but I think there is another
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” would not regard events as external and impersonal. Just the
opposite. In “Jewish optimism,” everything is “about me” (for my spiritual
growth, that is). And this brings in the quality of faith—believing that the universe is not out to “get me,” but to
Getting back to the scene at the
|In “Jewish optimism,” everything is “about me” |
banks of the Sea of Reeds, in facing Pharaoh’s army, the same G‑d that
liberated the Jewish people through His 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 because Judaism calls for
belief-driven behavior, and the expression of faith through deliberate action.
Judaism teaches that the garments of the soul are for us to actualize our
potential. The trick is knowing when the focus needs to be our thought, when it
is about speech and when it must manifest through 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.
you more prone to being an optimist or a pessimist? Write down five
situations when your gut reaction was either positive or negative before
you even knew what the actual outcome would be.
Based on the above, was your gut
reaction accurate? Did the situation unfold as you thought it would? If you
were an optimist and it didn’t turn out as expected, how did you feel when the
result was not positive? If you were a pessimist and the situation came out
positively, did you regret the negativity and stress you felt for no reason?
Think about a situation, right now,
that you are facing where you still don’t know the outcome. What do you think
will happen? Is that an optimistic response or a pessimistic one? If an
optimistic one, are you being an “irrational optimist” or is your optimism
grounded? Why? If a pessimistic response, rewrite below an optimistic view you
can have of the situation. After you write that, write how this new thought
makes you feel.