Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Flawed Thinking

I am reading this book called "As a Man Thinketh" by James Allen. (Free Book or YouTube) Its premise, as I understand it, is that your circumstances are a reflection of your thoughts. To some extent I can understand this. I understand self sabotage. I understand that if you don't think you deserve to succeed you probably won't. I understand that clearing out the demons of your past will allow you to focus on getting to your future goals.

But I am not sure I am convinced that "good thoughts equal good circumstances and bad thoughts equal bad circumstances" is an immutable law of the Universe.

Mr. Allen wrote:

It has been usual for men to think and to say, "Many men are slaves because one is an oppressor; let us hate the oppressor." Now, however, there is amongst an increasing few a tendency to reverse this judgment, and to say, "One man is an oppressor because many are slaves; let us despise the slaves."

The truth is that oppressor and slave are co-operators in ignorance, and while seeming to afflict each other, are in reality afflicting themselves. A perfect Knowledge perceives the action of law in the weakness of the oppressed and the misapplied power of the oppressor; a perfect Love, seeing the suffering, which both states entail, condemns neither; a perfect Compassion embraces both oppressor and oppressed.

OK. Obviously, I'm black, female, and Jewish; as are the scenarios that flashed through my mind:

  • a black person living in Africa during the 17th century, who ended up working in the hell of a sugar plantation in Jamaica, with a life expectancy of 9 years at best.

  • a young woman, almost anywhere in the world today unfortunately, abducted, drugged into addiction, tortured into submission and forced into prostitution.

  • a Rabbi in Germany during the 2nd World War, suffering in the camp and dying in the gas chambers at Sobibor.

Each of the above with thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of others.

Of course I have no way to know, but what if these people were moral in their thinking before their circumstances changed? What if they even managed moral thoughts afterward?

Or does what happened to them, to all the "thems" it happened to, mean that they were all weak, immoral thinkers?

This is what I am struggling with.

It seems to me that there must be circumstances beyond anyone's control. I am not saying there are not choices a person may have about how they deal with their circumstances, but I am having trouble wrapping my mind around the idea that an ordinary person, going about their lives on an ordinary day, who ends up the next week, enslaved, prostituted, or dead had this happen to them because of their disordered thinking.

The only people I can think of who deserve the fates of the people above, are the ones who did it to them. Despite what Mr. Allen says to the contrary, I have no sympathy for the perpetrators. Perhaps that is a flaw in my thinking.

The book was written in 1902. In England. And near the height of the British Empire. So maybe that is where this type of thinking comes from. As we might say today "first world" thinking. From the rulers. I wonder if those they ruled thought the same things.

I'm not even sure why this bothers me so much. Except that some of the book seems to make sense and some of it seems so fundamentally wrong.

I'm wondering, perhaps hoping, that I'm misunderstanding. 

But right now what I really most want is to stop thinking about this. Maybe my thinking really is flawed.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Blessings & Smoked Salmon

This past Sunday morning, just as I was about to eat a lovely Eggs Benedict made with smoked salmon, I thought to myself how grateful I was that I had gotten up early enough to get to the restaurant while there were still enough open tables that I didn't mind taking up one for a “just one?” as the server always says when I walk in.

But I was a little sad that I couldn't express my gratitude for the food by saying a bracha. For one thing I didn't know what the correct blessing would be. I only know two relative to food, the one over bread and the one over wine. And I'm not sure the one for bread would have been appropriate over an English muffin. What I do know is that which blessing is said when and over what is complicated.

And second, I know you're not supposed to say a bracha over treif food, even if it isn't one of the forbidden foods. As far as I've gotten on the road to keeping kosher is not eating pork, shellfish or meat and milk together (although I have some issues with chicken and milk, that whole cooking a chicken in its mother's milk thing, but that's a post for another time). Still whatever the food is, if it is not cooked in a kosher kitchen, it is still not kosher.

Not being able to say brachas over food has bothered me for awhile, since one of the things that attracted me to Judaism was its built in mnemonics to help me remember to be grateful for the everyday things that it is so easy to take for granted. And goodness knows, I love to eat (if not to cook since it seems to me cooking for one person isn't worth the effort of the clean up) so I have lots of opportunity to be grateful for my food. But since it is usually food from non-kosher restaurants, I can't express it. (I know. I know. Eat in kosher restaurants. I know of two close to where I live, neither of which is especially good, though I eat at one of them anyway because I like the folks who run it.)

I was thinking about all of this as I was enjoying the lemony hollandaise sauce and I decided that even if I couldn't fulfill a commandment there was nothing stopping me from saying some words to express my gratitude.

These are the blessings that I have come up with so far:

Thank you G-d for... “

...the food and the money to buy it with and tip the server (This wasn't and isn't always true for me.)

...being able to hear the screaming child at the next table (A couple of my friends are having hearing problems and would probably love to be able to hear that child, at least for the first minute or two.)

...getting home without hurting myself or anyone else or damaging any property; and without anyone else damaging me or my property (I've been in a couple of car accidents lately, one that was and one that wasn't my fault. Always happy every time I drive somewhere and nothing happens except I get where I am going.)

...keeping my home safe when I am here and when I am not here (It hasn't happened lately, but several places I've lived have been broken into. The worst part isn't that they take your stuff. The worst part is they take away your sense of security inside your own home.)

I have a long, looong way to go on the road to being more observant. And I know that the letter of the Law matters. I can honestly say I am sincerely working to learn more of the letter of the Law.

But, in the meanwhile, I also think G-d knows my intent – to express gratitude for this amazing world I live in and all the gifts I have been given... which is to say pretty much everything. I think G-d understands and accepts all expressions of gratitude however, and in whatever language, expressed.

And I think that the expression and the intent will help motivate me to learn more.

For this day, this hour, this minute... I think, I truly hope, that's enough.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

I need to recharge my emotions

I was talking to my friend about my need to be alone to recharge my emotional batteries. He burst out with “You are such a chaim!” Me: “I'm sorry. What?”

It turns out there is a Jewish personality profile (developed by Rabbi Noah Weinberg z”tl and written about by Lori Palatnik here) that comes as close to describing my personality traits as anything else I've seen. It is based on the personality traits bracha/blessing, tov/good and chaim/life. According to this system, everyone is a mixture of all three, but two are our defaults: one for our souls and one for our bodies.

Reading Lori's article, I can easily see that my friend was right. My soul most takes after Jacob, whose personality inspired chaim. Jacob stayed in his tent, and studied all day. Some of my main drivers are learning and understanding. I am deeply introverted and not very good at relationships or at dealing with arbitrary rules and regulations. (And I think all rules and regulations are arbitrary. What can I say?) I stay home alone as much as I do because I like staying home alone. And you will definitely find me off in a corner in social gatherings, possibly talking with one person when I can stretch myself; or contentedly and quietly watching everyone else interact when I can't.

I'd say my second, soul driver is tov, based on Issac who followed the rules and did what was right. Well, I skipped the part about following the rules and I'm pretty sure I don't always do what is right. But as a tov personality, when I am given a specific project I am highly organized. One of my talents is figuring out the most efficient way to get something done, or to make a system function. And I can put 110% of my concentration and energy into seeing a project through.  On the down side, I have a tendency to say “yes” whenever someone offers me a project, whether I honestly care about it or not, just for the fun of the challenge. These words have gotten me into so much trouble: “I can do that. I can do that... better!” Often I can. Sometimes though, I take on so much the whole pile threatens to come tumbling down.

I think I have the least of the bracha type it is possible to have. A bracha soul (based on Abraham, the man of the heart) is all about being extroverted and loving to be surrounded by people. I hate being surrounded by people! (Though arguably I have a bit of an excuse having spent a week with half a million people once.) Still I am rarely bouncy and outgoing, although I can occasionally fake it with one or two people (certainly not more – horrors!) for short periods of time. And the weird thing is, I like people. Just not everyone and not all the time. But being around people, as I said above, sucks the energy, and eventually the sanity, right out of me. That's why I prefer to go visit my friends rather than have them visit me. When I run down, I can run home... to the comforting quiet.

My body, on the other hand, is about 50/50 chaim and bracha. The chaim part is intuitive and empathic. I am very aware of what other people are feeling and sometimes being surrounded by negative energy, or even too much of any kind of energy, can make me physically ill. On the other hand, much as I hate to admit it, I am, as Lori says in one of her videos, a “lazy, lazy person.”  In the same way I can push myself when I am interested and involved in something, I can put just as much energy, in a manner of speaking, into doing nothing. And I love to sleep. I have just enough tov not to turn into a complete lump on the couch, but sometimes it seems a near thing.

I was surprised at how accurately this system described me. I've taken a couple of personality tests recently, all producing profiles more complicated than this. I can't say they were any better.

I have to remember to thank my friend for calling me a name. (j/k) Because I really am grateful to him. If he hadn't said what he did, I never would have learned all this.