Instilling a positive outlook
by Jonathan Rosenblum
June 9, 2005
Two weeks ago, we described a positive attitude as one of the key ingredients of a happy and successful life. The question remains, however: What can parents do to foster a positive attitude?
As with most aspects of parenting, we begin by acknowledging that our ability to shape our children is not unlimited. Each child is born different. Children are not a tabula rasa upon which we can write any character we choose. As I heard recently from a prominent Chassidic rebbe, there are children who left in a room filled with toys would soon start crying about the one toy that is not there, and there are children who left in a room with a pile of dung would immediately start searching for the pony.
On the other hand, one's approach to life is not immutable either. Last week a very beloved aunt passed away. Fortunately, I had a chance to visit her two months ago, for what we both knew would be the last time. She endured a great deal of physical pain in her life, as well as the loss of a much-loved daughter in her early twenties. Yet I never heard a complaint from her or detected an ounce of self-pity.
When I mentioned her remarkable buoyancy to her on that last visit, she told me how she had lost her own mother at the age of nine. A few years later, her father remarried, to a woman who had never had any children of her own. Though her step-mother devoted herself to her new daughter, she had unrealistically high expectations of what could be expected from children in the way of behavior, especially one who had been largely without maternal supervision for five years. My aunt learned to smile constantly to deflect her step-mother's frequent anger. "And in time," she told me, "I became the happy, smiling person I was pretending to be."
There is good deal we can do as parents to help our children develop a positive attitude within the limits set by their innate character. One of those is to constantly point out remarkable actions (literally ones worthy of being remarked upon) of those around us. The trick is to find the amazing in the seemingly everyday.
A few weeks ago, I heard a contemporary ba'al mussar describing with astonishment a brief exchange that he had once witnessed in a butcher shop. A young woman came into the shop and asked for fresh ground beef. The butcher told her that he had just ground some beef and held up a bag for her inspection. She rejected the beef as too white, and remained unconvinced by the butcher's assurance that red meat turns white in the grinding process.
So the butcher held out some red meat for her examination and asked her if it met her specifications. Receiving her affirmative reply, he then put it through the grinder and handed the customer the resulting product, which was just as white as the ground beef he had originally offered her.
As he related this story, the Mashgiach was fairly jumping up and down with excitement. His audience meanwhile wondered what was so remarkable. As if sensing our question, he explained, "Don't you see, the butcher didn't say to her as he handed over the meat and took her money, 'See, just like I told you. It turns white from the grinding.'"
"Could you have restrained yourselves?" he asked. "I could never have restrained myself."
If we train ourselves, we will discover many such examples in any given day, and by talking about them, we encourage our children to see the world as a place filled with goodness. Rather than focus on the grosse zachim done by great tzaddikim, the point is to be aware of countless impressive things done by average people.
Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of sharing a Shabbos meal with Shmuel Greenbaum, whose first wife Shoshana was killed in the Sbarro pizza shop suicide bombing. His response to his personal tragedy was to start a project called Partners-in-Kindness to publicize the countless small acts of kindness that Jews do for one another daily, and by publicizing those actions to sensitize others to how many opportunities to do chesed present themselves each day.
In addition to helping our children see how much good there is around us, we can also teach them to reframe apparently negative behavior by viewing it from another perspective. Who has not seen someone desperately pounding on a bus door at a traffic light, while the bus driver remained oblivious to her pleas. Our natural reaction is to assume that the bus driver's heart must be as hard as Pharoah's. But how many of us would be willing to indemnify the bus driver against the possibility of being fined 750 shekels for opening his door in the middle of the street?
Anyone who has run down the street to catch a bus, only to have the driver pull away from the curb as he drew near, has no doubt wondered whether the driver could really be descended from Avraham Avinu. What we fail to consider is that the thirty seconds required to wait for us could result in an extra three passengers waiting at the next stop, at the cost of another minute. Within a few stops, the bus driver might find himself running five minutes behind because of the initial thirty second delay. And by the final stops on its route, the bus would be too full to take on passengers at all.
Thus by being kind to one person the bus driver would end up being cruel to dozens. Though this thought would not likely occur to the one flailing his arms as he arrived panting at the curb, it is a lesson that the bus driver has undoubtedly learned many times from bitter experience.
The case of the bus driver is just one example of how we can educate our children to view apparently cruel behavior as just the opposite. In the process, we teach our children to try to find a positive side in the actions of others and to always ask themselves, "Is there another perspective that I'm missing?" If they learn to do so, again the world begins to look like a much brighter place.
A steady stream of stories on dan l'kaf zechus (judging others favorably) like those collected by Rebbetzin Yehudis Samet in The Other Side of the Story helps our children learn to evaluate others favorably. Kinah (jealousy), which is itself an aspect of eyn hara, is one of those characteristics that "takes a person out of the world," by turning the world into a depressing, gloomy place of fighting over a limited pie. Developing an ayin tov, a favorable eye, transforms the world, and in the process fills us with more enthusiasm for all our daily tasks.
One lesson that goes with advancing years is that many apparent disasters turn out to be blessings in disguise. How many of us, for instance, experienced heartbreak at some point in the shidduchim process, only to discover our true basherte a few months later? The older we get the more such examples multiply. And we should share them with our children too, as a way of helping them deal with inevitable disappointments and setbacks.
That is not to deny that there are tragedies – e.g., the loss of a parent at an early age, chas ve'Shalom – for which there can be no such consolation until Hashem reveals His ultimate plan. But if we have taught our children to see the world as filled with examples of human goodness, and to find the beauty in everyday life, they have a much better chance of coping with even the most overwhelming tragedy without being destroyed by it.
Related Topics: Jewish Ethics
receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free jewish media resources mailing list