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Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Giving Thanks Even in the Worst of Times

In America, this is Thanksgiving weekend. These days in Israel, though, there doesn’t seem much to give thanks about. Precisely for that reason, a bit of uplift is called for. Here’s some food for thought along those lines.

How often have we heard others (or us too) say “I’m lucky to be alive” because they just missed being killed in some accident or terror attack? Indeed, Judaism has a special prayer for someone escaping danger: “birkhat gomel.” But this is missing the main point: everyone in the world is incredibly lucky to be alive! Literally. And this is true in several ways.

First, although we do not know for sure if there is life anywhere else in the universe, it is clear that the chances of life “evolving” on any one planet are very, very small – it entails many “just so” circumstances. We happen to be living on a planet where this did happen – the chance of that is less than winning America’s Powerball Lottery. So just from an astronomical standpoint, we all should be thanking our lucky star (pun intended)!

Second, in many cases the chances of your parents meeting when they did is also quite small (notwithstanding the occasional “marrying one’s high school sweetheart”). In the course of your mother and father’s youth and young adulthood, they met – even superficially – a few thousand people, among the hundreds of millions that they could have met. And amongst this large population, there were hundreds they reasonably could have married. The point? If they had met someone else, you wouldn’t be here! So you’re doubly lucky!

Third, and something of a head scratcher, is the most important “lucky event” of them all. In a nutshell, whereas your mother dropped one ovum each month down her fallopian tubes to be (potentially) impregnated, your father’s ejaculate contained close to one hundred million (100,000,000!) sperm. So, think about this: if the specific sperm that impregnated your mom’s egg had been beaten in that swimming race by one other among the “99,999,999” sperm, would YOU have been born? Probably not – just someone pretty similar to you (at least, similar to when you were a baby).

Who thinks of that? This is precisely the point of being thankful. Life is largely a matter of attitude and perspective. You can look at your cup that’s missing a few drops on top, or at the cup that’s brimming with life (yours). As human beings, we are capable of shifting our viewpoint once we look at the mirror straight on, instead of from the side (or upside down). Some people don’t need to do this – their natural predisposition (what is usually called “attitude”) is to be positive and optimistic. Others are naturally pessimistic, seeing more night than day. And then there’s the broad middle who can go either way, depending…

On their social circle; on their socio-economic status; on their social happiness (quality of marriage; relationship with their kids); and certainly on the state of their State. But there’s one other extremely important factor, especially relevant in Israel’s contemporary situation: how a person consumes media information.

I am not indulging here in modernity’s national sport: media-bashing. Actually, if anyone’s at fault for the media’s relentless negativity it’s the “people” (that’s you and me). No matter where you live, when was the last time you read this headline? “Yesterday, Millions of [choose your country] Had an Uneventful Day.” Never. Because we, the readers, listeners, and viewers, want to get “bad news” – almost the only kind that we consider “news” at all.

Why? For that we have to go back several hundred thousand years (or even millions). All creatures on Earth – and certainly evolving humans who were not particularly strong or fast – had (and have) to be on constant lookout for danger that could annihilate them: back then, tigers and human enemies; today, technology (e.g., cars) and still human enemies (Hamas et al). Thus, danger-sniffing is planted deeply in our genes. And what constitutes “danger” (socially and personally) is not only the usual stuff (plane crashes; war breaking out) but also – even increasingly – unusual stuff that we are not familiar with. Flying machines? (Early 20th century) People changing their sex?? (Mid-20th century) Robots manufacturing cars faster than humans can??? (Late 20th century) Designer babies?!?! (21st century).

The media – old (“legacy”) and new (“digital”) – are doing an increasingly better job of ferreting out each and every “potentially dangerous” item of information from around the world. And as we absorb more and more of this (with the occasional respite through sports scores and fashion fads), our perception of the world is that things are going to hell in a basket faster than ever. As a matter of fact, per capita there is less violence in the world today than ever before in human history! (Don’t take my word for this; read Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.)

So, we “moderns” are caught in a paradoxical situation: the better things get (objectively), the worse they seem (subjectively). The solution is not to avoid the media (we do want to know what real dangers lie out there). Rather, it is to choose wisely which media to consume – and then understand that 99% of what is happening in the world is positive, precisely what is NOT found in the media (because we don’t think that good news is really “news”).

Freed from the shackles of informational negativity, we can then more realistically work on developing a more positive and optimistic attitude towards the world – micro (ours personally) and macro (society and the world at large). Indeed, there’s even a very positive piece of news in this: the latest research shows that people with a generally positive attitude have, on average, a lifespan that’s a few years longer than those with ingrained (or acquired) negativity. So not only are the former “lucky to be alive,” but by appreciating that fact they actually get to live longer – and that’s not a matter of luck.

In this story, there’s one final “you’re really lucky” booster worth mentioning. Let’s return to your parents’ egg and sperm: take that back to every generation of your personal forebears! In other words, if any procreation act of any of your great/great(etc)/grandparents had a different sperm win that specific impregnation race to the ovum, you would not be here (or anywhere, ever)! This one, repeated, “generational” piece of good fortune should be enough to get us to count our blessings every minute of the day – no matter how temporarily bleak our personal (or the nation’s) situation.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published four books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see: www.ProfSLW.com