Hanukkah from the couch

Grab the Good because Bad will surely find you.

It’s a meditation of sorts, and it is a crucial perspective on a life well lived.

While often elusive, happiness is linked to gratitude and perspective, two concepts basic to a Jewish life. Much of Jewish liturgy, blessings, mitzvot, and celebrations are peppered generously with the concept of gratitude, and an emphasis on happiness. Bad is part of life, whether it’s a souring relationship, job problems, declining health or child issues – but good is here as well.

Our tradition invites you to consider nurturing your experience of this good, like a gardener tends to her garden. As “Ben Zoma says: Who is rich? The one who is appreciates what he has.” -Talmud—Avot 4:1

Grab the Good because Bad will surely find you.

Gratitude and perspective are not foreign to today’s secular world and the field of positive psychology, but the Jewish people have been practicing the art of happiness through gratitude for generations. It’s a cornerstone of what we are about. Even the root of our identity, yehudi, has its roots in the Hebrew word for giving thanks, l’hodot.

The mind has a way of experiencing the bad ten times harder than the good. It is probably adaptive from an evolutionary point of view. In more primitive times, we needed to sense the bad, and anticipate it, like a predator or natural disaster. Only with anticipated pain in mind, could we be sufficiently motivated to take preventative steps, and ensure our survival.

Yet, the good is in our world. Consider the fact that your body works—during Jewish morning blessings, we give thanks that we are made exactly as we are, that we are breathing (in fact, the first words out of our mouths give thanks that our soul has returned to us, literally that we awaken to see another day), or even that your digestive tract does its job when going to the bathroom (there is a blessing for this too)!

When practiced consciously, there’s a certain kind of stillness in Judaism that implores us to slow down, take a moment, reflect on what we have in our lives, and be grateful for it. In everyday life, this stillness is often discarded as unnecessary, even self-indulgent, because we are always on the run, with endless things to do.

Grab the Good because Bad will surely find you.

In 2016, Israel ranked as number 11 in the World Happiness Report, outranking the United States, the United Kingdom, and far outranking all other Middle East nations. Even when we are not engaged in the religious aspects of a Jewish life, there does appear to be something culturally ingrained within our mindset to appreciate what we have. The modern state of Israel is a historical anomaly that Jews could only dream about a few generations ago. For modern Israelis, it is not a reality that is taken for granted. It is no wonder why there is joy to be had in this small piece of land.

Grab the Good because Bad will surely find you.

The mind can be optimistic, pessimistic, numbed or vital. Our tradition encourages the optimism of a survivor over the bitterness of the victim. “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life…” (Deuteronomy 30:19)

As a psychiatrist I am often struck with the inherent optimism of treatment; that good can be found in the midst of unhappiness. Who knew that therapy was so Jewish? After all, the Greeks thought present and future pain is destined, and inevitable.

A shift to optimism may not be easy, and you may have to learn new ways to think, to see opportunity in this life. In many ways, Israel is a land of opportunity, of start-ups, of ingenuity, of a blooming desert. In our own lives, Israeli or not, we are a microcosm of a whole, fully functioning world. Our lives present opportunities to us, moment to moment. In the midst of difficult political, personal and economic challenges, both good and bad are there for the grabbing. Choose the good if you can.

Grab the Good because Bad will surely find you.

I often encourage a patient to open a new door and peek in, and allow for a shehecheyanu moment, so to speak. For some, it might be guitar lessons, a longed-for trip, contacting an old friend or love, or believing in themselves enough to look at other career or relationship options. For others it is considering a real treatment for their addiction, depression or marriage problems.

Opening a door can lead to good. Yes, many of us have been hurt, and badly. You may live in bitterness and hurt. Who doesn’t understand betrayal or abuse? It’s hard to find the good under these circumstances because the past intrudes so powerfully into our present. Why try for better?

Yet, the task of grabbing the good is still important.

Many of our most beloved Jewish thinkers had the right idea. Rebbe Nachman once said, “It is a great mitzvah to be happy always.” It is doubtful that he was naive to the concept of suffering and hardship, or depression, but this simple quote suggests something else: that we have some role in how we think about our lives, including our suffering. There is power in transitioning from victim to survivor, or to see purpose in your life. Happiness may not be here today, but it is worth going for.

Grab the Good because Bad will surely find you.

How does one actually make a shift like this? For some, a religious life may be helpful in taking in the good. For others, effective therapy can shift consciousness. I’ve heard from many that yoga can also create this effect. Find one of these paths, or one that better suits you.

It is hard work. And life is often unfair. But yearning for better is holy.

I would like to leave you with these thoughts – We are upon the season of Hanukkah, a festival of lights, where we celebrate a seemingly small miracle, found in the oil that was left in the Temple and burned for eight days, despite only being enough oil for one day. While Hanukkah also celebrates the rededication of the Temple and the Maccabean revolt against the Greeks during a time of Jewish oppression and mass assimilation, the focus of the holiday, and the mitzvah associated with the occasion, is lighting the candles in honor of that miraculous oil. But why is the oil, of all things, so important?

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson once said “Remember that in a hall of perfect darkness, totally dark, if you light one small candle, its light will be seen from afar; its precious light will be seen by everyone.” Even the smallest, seemingly insignificant light, becomes something bright, bold and a thing of magnitude, when it shines in perfect darkness.

At our darkest hour, when we see and grab the good, it becomes something more than an act that we do just for ourselves. It becomes something that expands, that illuminates darkness, that inspires. As we publicize the miracle, the miracle spreads. A small flame becomes a wildfire. As we find the silver lining in every situation and take time to celebrate it, we magnify the moment of good, even if it is but one moment in a sea of bad. The oil that burned in the Temple for eight days, instead of one, was more than just oil, or an interesting anomaly; it was a symbol of hope, a hope that we re-visit and share year in and year out, generation after generation.

The world has a sustaining enchantment to it. It is also filled with pain and injustice.

We are all going to have to deal with the bad because it will inevitably find us. Yet, grab the good. It enlivens the journey and makes it complete.

Our friends, colleagues, family and children are watching. Grab the good and live for happiness as though your life depends upon it—because, well, it does.

About the Author
Dr. Mark Banschick is a co-founder of Alums for Campus Fairness (ACF), a partner with StandWithUs. He completed his medical degree at Tel Aviv University, followed by specialty training at Georgetown and New York-Presbyterian Hospitals. He is the author of The Intelligent Divorce book series (yes, an oxymoron) and writes regularly for Psychology Today. Mark practices child, adolescent and adult psychiatry in Katonah, New York. Divorce Website: www.TheIntelligentDivorce.Com ACF Website: www.CampusFairness.org
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