Hakarat hatov amidst political chaos
This post’s original title was was “Karen Handel would never punch a reporter in the face.” It wandered a bit into the weeds from that headline, but hear me out.
Georgia’s 6th is not accustomed to its newfound swing district status. The constant intrusions on voters’ private lives provoke scorn and spite, threatening canvassers that the campaign has lost their vote after too many approaches; climbing on soapboxes about how the constant flow of glossy postcards harm the environment; heaping judgment upon donors and strategists, for such transgressions as daring to take interest in a race in another geographic location, or inability to coagulate data to ensure that no voters ever feel harassed.
A few reactions spring to mind. I admit to a bit of judgment about complaints of #firstworldproblems (something we’re all guilty of on occasion). I also feel compelled to awaken annoyed constituents to the reality of contested elections, and that Democrats absolutely need to do this to get out their lower-propensity voter base. But mostly, I am grateful for the bees in bonnets up in the 6th.
In Hebrew, we channel gratitude through hakarat hatov, “finding the good.” Without question, the political fervor is intense and uncomfortable. And particularly in a historically-noncompetitive area, those living in the 6th did not sign up for this and have never experienced this. It is a system shock! But underneath all the kvetching, we must find good — we have much reason to be grateful to be a part of this moment in history.
Don’t misread me as shaming anyone. I mean, my kvetching about kvetching is still kvetching. And short of lashon hara, there is value in complaining with a good-faith intention to solve a problem, or venting to commiserate with (and to help ease the pain of) others. But to ensure that our whinging transcends the destructive energy such activities invariably entail, we must endeavor to balance it with thanksgiving, with finding the good. The feeling of “having everything” is, after all, the essence of happiness — and happiness is fundamental to living a Jewish life.
How do we achieve thankfulness in the face of challenges? Traumatic life events require a deep dive that warrants its own study. But for everyday frustrations, I’ve found two simple strategies effective in achieving hakarat hatov. (1) Tell myself “at least I’m not on fire.” (2) In rational moments, allow myself to explore the worst-case scenario, and respond to my negative thoughts with “even if” logic–“even if I get fired, I have a wonderful family, and can leverage it as an opportunity to seek out my passions.” Dayenu, sort of.
I distinguish this from two other avenues to counting blessing that decidedly do not resonate with me. (1) “There are children starving in Africa.” That’s “at least I’m not on fire,” but with a heaping dose of guilt. Guilt undermines the pure gratitude. (2) “This was meant to be/God’s plan.” For very minor irritations when I’m a good mood, I can twist this into a “que sera sera” and get on board with it. But if I’m truly upset about something, this phrase is question-begging and compounds the negative emotion I am experiencing.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to thankful energy–Jewish prayer may help us find unique individual path that suits us, as Aryeh Kaplan’s Jewish Meditation explains. In the Amidah’s blessing of Modim anachnu lach (“We are grateful”), we bend and bow to submit our thanks to God. This physical act of humility before the Divine Presence nudges our bodies toward surrendering our human egos. The Talmud’s insistence on this motion–it teaches that reciting the blessing of thanksgiving without it causes one’s spine to become a snake–acknowledges the reality we are flawed humans, often not a position to acquiesce on the spiritual level. Even then, at a minimum, we must humble ourselves in this symbolic sense, placing the head below the heart. Kaplan describes this as “overcoming the energy of the serpent,” distributing spiritual energy throughout the body before rising to lift the energy back into our heads.
After this experience, we move on to conclude the Amidah with a blessing for peace — Kaplan suggests that “[w]hen a person can fully thank God, in a mystical as well as a mundane sense, he is at perfect peace.” We then transition into the final paragraph of the Amidah — we all know the powerful concluding lines of “ose Shalom bimromav,” but it begins with a powerful meditation of humility. Elohai n’tzor l’shoni mei-ra usfatai midabeir mirmah — “my God, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from lies.” Boiled down: every time we retreat from the Amidah’s elevated spiritual plane back into our daily grind, we ask Hashem to help us keep our kvetching in check.
Back to the 6th district race, which has no doubt infused itself into our daily grind–it’s politics, there’s mudslinging, it’s contentious, it’s invasive….so where’s the good?
The heart of it is that no matter which side we are on, people care. When it comes to the all-important duty of selecting who will govern us — a liberty of which many on earth are deprived — indifference is much more dangerous than passionate love or hate. In that vein, democracy is alive and well here. We are divided, but we are awake! Canvassers hit the streets tirelessly, risking verbal beatings from residents sick of answering their doors. Online commenters spent time debating, sometimes inspired to the point where anger and insults fly. Even the worst reflects hope for our future — people care enough to steal and destroy signs, for crying out loud. All this bickering and back-and-forth gives me hope–I dare to dream that we will move past the days of apathy over our leaders’ decisions, of complacency about the process, and of absolving ourselves on the flawed notion that our actions lack influence. That would be very good indeed.
So… at least we’re not on fire (in the literal sense).
And I conclude by expressing for the record my sincere gratitude that Karen Handel would never punch a reporter in the face.