William Hamilton

Your to-don’t list

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian-American psychologist who recognized and named the psychological concept of flow. 5 June 2010 (PD)
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian-American psychologist who recognized and named the psychological concept of flow. 5 June 2010 (PD)

We all make to-do lists. Organizational psychologist Adam Grant has taken to making a to-don’t list. His top three things not to do? 1) Surf social media. 2) Look at his phone while in bed. 3) Turn on the TV unless he knows in advance what he plans on watching. Part of his new talk on languishing, that listless foggy sensation we get, which tends to make us indifferent and inactive.

The opposite of languishing is something called flow, achieving a state of total absorption in doing something, like writing, sculpting, or a massive basement reorganization. Your immersion in the task is so total, that life’s basic cues for food, sleep, and even time itself, get disregarded.

This week the world lost the founder of this positive emotional concept. For those who knew Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (mee-HIGH CHEEK-sent-me-HIGH-ee), or Mike C as he was called, it came as no surprise that somebody so considerate and kind would discover and introduce the world to such a nourishing sensation of being carried on a water current.

Karen recalls how, back in 1988, prior to her nerve-racking dissertation defense, “Mike walked behind me and whispered, ‘Be sure you order a nice bottle of wine at your celebration dinner tonight.’”

“In that moment” she recalled, “he communicated his belief in me and helped me get into a positive frame of mind.”

A key to the concept of flow is that it must be active. It cannot be passive. Binging Netflix will never produce it.

This week’s portion of Torah chronicles lots of action. It describes doing things that matter, like establishing a burial plot for Sarah and securing a bride for Isaac. Rebecca becomes immediately identified with her brisk and cheerful readiness. This is evident both when she waters the camels of Abraham’s servant and when she responds, against the will of her brother Laban, with a desire to immediately depart with the servant to begin life with Isaac. “They called her and asked, ‘Will you now go with this person?’ She replied ‘I will go’”( (Gen. 24:58). If Laban is more associated with languishing, Rebecca’s alacrity associates her more with the positive sensation of flow.

Actually, to-don’t lists are very familiar to the Torah. It contains 365 thou shalt nots. Rebecca’s way offers us a hint that the best way to not-do something is to displace it by doing something else.

With which trait does the Torah elect to illustrate brisk, positive action? With hessed, unsought kindness. It often involves going out of your way, inconveniencing yourself, in order to do something considerate for someone else.

Try it. Even now, in the next ten minutes. There’s not much better way to turn the present moment into a present you gift to another.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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