Human beings are more apt toward focusing on the negative rather than the positive. You can hear ten comments on your work, nine favorable and one unfavorable, and you’ll likely focus on the single unfavorable comment. From noticing the negative to falling into despair and depression, the downward slide is often the path of lesser resistance. During challenging times, how can we set aside the inimical focus? We can spend more time celebrating life’s victories.
There are not many examples of celebration in the Torah. Here’s one from this week’s reading at Chapter 15:18 - 19:
וַתַּ֥עַן לָהֶ֖ם מִרְיָ֑ם שִׁ֤ירוּ לַֽיהוָה֙ כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה ס֥וּס וְרֹכְב֖וֹ רָמָ֥ה בַיָּֽם׃
“And Miriam chanted for them: Sing to the LORD, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.”
After centuries of slavery, witnessing plagues, and a hurried escape from Egypt, the Red Sea is crossed and the people stop to notice. In that moment of noticing there is singing and dancing:
וַתִּקַּח֩ מִרְיָ֨ם הַנְּבִיאָ֜ה אֲח֧וֹת אַהֲרֹ֛ן אֶת־הַתֹּ֖ף בְּיָדָ֑הּ וַתֵּצֶ֤אןָ כָֽל־הַנָּשִׁים֙ אַחֲרֶ֔יהָ בְּתֻפִּ֖ים וּבִמְחֹלֹֽת׃
“Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels.”
With celebration, the people will not merely survive; they have the potential to flourish. Flourishing begins with positive emotions. The text tells us how to shift our focus. The steps are easy. The first is to stop and notice. Bother to look! Second, take time to allow for transitions in your day. Perhaps it means just taking some deep breaths and noticing how they feel. Or try inviting a memory of something positive that has happened and basking in the afterglow of that moment. Third, give yourself permission to be filled with happiness or joy. It might not happen that you feel happy in the midst of a stressful day, but allow for the potential of pleasure. Fourth, give expression to your pleasure. Even if it feels inauthentic, try a smile, or even better, sing, skip, jump or dance. It is good to practice the expressions of happy. Fifth, when you can, celebrate with others. Community enhances joy.
Positive psychology tells us that sometimes it is better to lead with our strengths even as we recognize both the challenges that confront us as well as our personal difficulties in coping and overcoming. This is not a Pollyanna approach but rather an attempt to exercise the pleasure muscles of our personality to give us the strength to persevere.
There is nothing trivial about these suggestions. If we are to have strength to flourish, and not merely endure, we have to develop our internal tools to express positive emotions and harness the energy of appreciation. With the barrage of negative news and the challenges of living life in a complex society, a bit of self-care will be critical to your health and well being.
R’ Evan J. Krame