I once visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. What impacted me most was a video interview. An old man told of finding his friend davening (praying) one day. “Chaim, what are you praying? It’s too late for the morning prayers and too early for the afternoon prayers.” Responded Chaim, “I am praying to thank God.” The old man asked, “Chaim, what are you thanking God for? Look around you! We’re starving. They’re torturing us and killing us! What can you possibly be thanking God for?” Chaim replied, “I am thanking God that I am one of us and not one of them.”
Recently I was re-reading Thank You! by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin. Here’s a story that deeply affected me and which I wish to share with you. Writes Rabbi Pliskin:
I met a fellow whom I hadn’t seen in over five years. The last time I had seen him he was pessimistic, negative, miserable and depressed. When we bumped into each other now he was smiling and his entire being radiated a sense of joy. He said:
When we spoke a number of years ago, you tried to influence me to become a more positive person. You suggested that I make a daily list of at least ten good things that happened to me that day. I argued that this wouldn’t help me. It wasn’t my fault that I was so unhappy. The root cause was that my parents were to blame. Nobody gave me what I needed to be a happy person. Others were to blame and I was angry at everyone I knew.
About a year ago, I gave my entire spiel to a tough personal coach. He told me that I was choosing to be unhappy and miserable. I screamed at him, and told him that the way he was talking to me was just making me feel worse. I thought he would back down, like most people I intimidated with my anger. But to my surprise and shock, he spoke to me like no one had spoken to me before.
“You can go around blaming everyone else,’ he said to me. ‘But it’s your own responsibility to make yourself happy in life. The more you blame others, the less you will do anything to change your pattern of thinking. It’s your own pattern of thinking that’s destroying your life. Stop it! Stop ruining your life! There’s a lot of good in your life that you can be grateful for. Notice it and you will live a joyful life. Continue to willfully blind yourself, and you will be a miserable human being. It’s up to you. I can try to help you develop a pattern of gratitude.
But only you can do it for yourself. If you keep avoiding seeing what you can be grateful for, that’s your decision, and that is what you will keep seeing: Nothing to be grateful for. But if right this moment you fully commit yourself to being a master at noticing what you can be grateful for, you will find things each and every day. Stop acting like an imbecile and start thinking like an intelligent human being.” This was said with such intensity that I was left speechless.
What is fascinating is that we all have the ability to change our perspective and to even change our lives in one moment — if we have an insight into life and take it to heart. Taking it to heart is the hard part; Winston Churchill once said, “Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened.”
Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you view it. We all know people who are perpetually negative. From my experience, when I ask them about their perspective, they say “I am just dealing with reality.” Reality is what happens to you. How you understand what happens to you — how you frame it or reframe it — is up to you. As someone once said, in life there is pain, but suffering is optional.