The true definition of optimism…

Tonight we received a visit from a dear friend, Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg. Rabbi Goldberg is the founder of an amazing organization called Kids Kicking Cancer, which teaches children facing tremendous adversity to use the mental aspects of martial arts to power through their challenges.

I had the honor of meeting Rabbi Goldberg (who was the head of Camp Simcha for more than 10 years) more than 10 years ago when we had no expectation of ever gaining a first hand understanding of what he does. (As I mentioned to Rabbi Goldberg, I view this as one of the many kindnesses Hashem has shown us over the years in preparing us for our current challenge.)

Among the amazing things we learned from Rabbi Goldberg tonight was a most incredible outlook on one of the most often used, and misused, terms.

OPTIMISM

Optimistic people often get a bad rap. We look at their smiley shiny faces and view them as most unrealistic. Either life hasn’t hit them yet, or it hasn’t hit them hard enough… or… they are just a bit off.

When dealing with truly trying situations – and I don’t mean situations that may or may not become trying in the future – I mean situations that are, in the here and now, DIFFICULT – having a positive attitude seems like nothing more than self-delusion.

How then can we be “shiny happy people” – even as things actively crumble around us?

So here’s the definition of optimism shared by Rabbi Goldberg:

“Optimism doesn’t mean that you believe everything will be great. Optimism is the belief that, come what may, you will respond with greatness!”

Wow. Back to this in a bit.

Over the past few weeks, I haven’t written much. My incredible wife has kept all of you informed of the amazing things being done on Benny’s behalf as well as our journey down his path to recovery. As I am sure you can all imagine, this is not due to lack of interest. Those of you who know me well know that in the flesh I am far more reserved than my writing would imply. The same thoughts that I can easily put to paper would be very difficult for me to share in person. I view this mechanism for sharing our (but to some degree my personal) fears, struggles, prayers, hopes dreams and successes large and small, to be the truest, most honest form of communication I have with you at this point in my life.

Many of you have asked me some of the questions that I have addressed in writing, “How are you?” “How’s Benny?” “What’s new?” “Any more of a sense of where things are at?”, etc. to which you have gotten a “Boruch Hashem Yom Yom” (loosely translated for intent “God Bless… One day at a time”) or similar response.

That type of response won’t qualify for this medium. Here is where I get to tell you what I am really thinking.

Over the past weeks, I couldn’t do that with any remotely positive inflection. I couldn’t project “optimism”, based on my erroneous definition, into my thoughts. So I simply couldn’t share the level of fear I faced on a daily basis. This fear related to Benny and to so many other challenging aspects of my life.

In the past week, we have been zocheh to speak with three very special tzaddikim. Rabbi Efraim Wachsman (through the generosity of our dear friends the Stern’s), Rabbi Boruch Yehudah Gradon, and Rabbi Goldberg.

They each spent significant time with both Faigie and I. In each of those conversations, the primary topic was properly defining Emunah (Faith) and Bitachon (commonly termed “trust”). Rabbi Wachsman focused our attention on our (humankind in general – and us in particular) inability to discern, predict, plan for, and in many cases influence, outcomes. We are simply charged with working through things with the tools and context we are handed. We spent time talking about the two primary aspects of true faith:

  1. Everything – and I do mean everything – is directed by Hashem
  2. Everything – and I do mean everything – and this one was way harder for me to relate to – IS good. Not “will be” but “is”.

So, while the outcomes are completely and utterly out of our control – we are simply in the realm of action. At the same time, we need to tap into the mindset that past, present and future are all – cosmically – good.

Rabbi Gradon shared a thought with us – among many cogent and practical ideas for coping – that Faigie and I both found fascinating. While we think we can measure the specific value of each action as it relates to the outcome, even that is beyond our ability. There are many stories brought down by our sages, of the epic reward given to someone for a seemingly inconspicuous act – such as taking a few steps or pointing across the street in advance of a Mitzvah.

Many of the amazing works that the people featured in the story had accomplished in their life dwarfed the act that is recorded as the cause for the great – seemingly oversized – reward. Rabbi Gradon said, you never know whether that particular person’s livelihood is as a result of the $100,000 they gave to an organization or the $100 they gave to a poor person who cries out their thanks to Hashem and prays for their continued success.

After all is said and done, however, how does one keep their head high – not just above water. How do we become “shiny, happy people” in the face of adversity? While we know – and intellectually believe – everything is from Hashem, everything is good, we can’t plan for or possibly even impact, outcomes, and we don’t even know which of our actions has the greatest impact – how do we manage to feel remotely positive about a situation which – with all of our human instincts – feels bad?

The key lies in the message of Rabbi Goldberg. In truth, Rabbi Wachsman and Rabbi Gradon were sharing the same thought but it only hit home in the simplicity of Rabbi Goldberg’s message.

“Optimism doesn’t mean that you believe everything will be great. Optimism is the belief that, come what may, you will respond with greatness!”

The faith we need to have is not that things are cosmically good – although we need to know this.

It is not that we will say that 1,000,000th perek of tehillim and miracles will happen.

It is that, within each of us is the power required to respond with greatness to our unique challenges. As Rabbi Wachsman and Rabbi Gradon said, we are in the world of action. Our only element of “control” is how we act in response to challenges in their context. If we truly believe, then we will recognize that – despite the incredible difficulty of a particular situation – one that we may not be able to change at all – we can act with greatness and that acting with greatness is all that is expected of us.

Again, to be clear, we are not EXPECTED to have an impact. We are expected to act with our version of greatness. If we do that, we don’t have to calculate the level of impact, we don’t have to be concerned with the outcome (which is beyond our control), we don’t have to understand the cosmic good in things.

From day one, until our last breath, we need to constantly ask ourselves, am I being “great” in response to this challenge and situation.

It goes without saying that if that’s our only responsibility, when we don’t know what “great” dictates, we better find out. But if we know, and can answer yes, we have done everything required.

We can be “shiny, happy people”.

Echoing Faigie’s thoughts fromi a few posts ago, I want to thank all of those people who have been acting with greatness for these months. Family, friends, Rabbonim (Rabbis), organizations, our doctors and nurses, even strangers – have all been incredible.

As mentioned above, one truly doesn’t know which of the actions has the greatest impact on the outcome. Whether it is a daily text message without fail, showing our other children the good times they might not be getting from us, taking Benny for a walk, helping keep him occupied in the hospital, the incredible arrangements on the part of Rabbi Ten and his crew, the amazing works of Chai Lifeline, Ladies Bikur Cholim, and other organizations in town, the assistance of a family member with paperwork, the understanding of a teacher, the incredible care, expertise and understanding from every one of Benny’s doctors, nurses and other medical professionals, the by-now hundreds of thousands of zechusim (merits) gathered for Benny’s recovery, the thousands of other “little” kindnesses – each one which could be the source of Benny’s refuah (healing) – are each appreciated at the deepest level.

I imagine that in shamayim (heaven) when one asks why each of you (after 120 years, of course) is sitting in such a lofty and elevated place among the “all time greats”, they will respond, “Don’t you know the story? One Shabbos she answered Amen to a brocha (blessing) on Benny’s behalf and in that merit caused his refuah and was given that special spot next to the kisei hakavod (throne of glory)”?

Thank you all for everything large and small!

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