In a Perfect World
One of the things that the Founding Fathers of the U.S. declared to be an “inalienable right” for every American citizen is “the pursuit of happiness.” Ever since, there’s no doubt that the average American has been strenuously preoccupied with just that: pursuing as much happiness as possible!
And since pain generally makes us unhappy, a corollary of pursuing happiness turns out to be avoiding pain. We’ve become very good at that, too.
When we talk about pain, we’re obviously not referring to the physical kind. That’s a no-brainer. But psychic or emotional pain looms equally large on the list of things we want to avoid. We shy away from anything that is liable to scratch, abrade, or otherwise lacerate our tender egos. It can reach the point where a person becomes deaf to all criticism, even from those he loves and respects. He is so committed to the ideal of feeling good about himself that he regards as an enemy anyone who even temporarily takes that feeling away from him, however good a cause.
Taken too far, this anti-pain stance can lead to a stance of extreme self-preservation, where nothing and nobody is allowed to get ahead of the paramount concern: looking out for Number One.
The instinct to pull back from anything that hurts is insidious, because it feels so natural that it can end up superseding other, more worthwhile goals and seriously messing up our value system. For instance, suppose someone asks you to do them a favor. They want you to go out of your way, to detach you from your usual routine and extend yourself past your usual boundaries. How do you respond?
The answer is not always so simple. Your value system says, “Yes! A chance to help my fellow human being!” But your body, perceiving the request as a source of inconvenient and perhaps even painful exertion, feels like shouting, “No way!” Which one wins?
In time, we can come to view any inconvenience as a source of pain. Affluent societies breed a sense of entitlement. Consumer ads are constantly urging us to buy a certain product, “because you deserve it.” For wonderful, deserving Me, “going without” is a tragedy, and self-denial a horror. To be a good American engaged in the pursuit of our own happiness means to build the most comprehensive cushion of comfort around ourselves as we possibly can.
Placed against such a context, going out of our way to do something for someone else, an action that will certainly detract from our comfort, is anathema. In actuality, when weighed against the possible or even certain inconvenience it will cause, the value of helping our fellow man ought to rise to the top. Sadly, it doesn’t always happen that way.
Running the Other Way
Emotional trauma can relegate a whole army of things to the category of “pain,” and therefore to be avoided if possible.
For example, suppose someone was in a car accident as a child, or even as an adult. For years afterward, sitting in a car that’s moving fast or too close to the car in front, can trigger a panic attack as the passenger entertains visions of an inevitable crash, r”l. Whether or not the facts warrant that panic is irrelevant. Regardless of the number on the speedometer or the actual distance between his car and the one ahead of it, the fear is there. And fear, as everyone knows, is painful.
To avoid that pain, the traumatized individual may feel compelled to avoid riding in cars altogether. Alternatively, he may prefer to sit behind the driver’s wheel, where he can control things, rather than in the passenger seat where he is helpless to prevent disaster.
Wherever trauma rears its ugly head, we’ll find ourselves racing in the other direction, trying to outrun the pain.
No Pain, No Gain
Interestingly, many of us choose pain deliberately! Not only that, but we do not view that choice as a contradiction to our inalienable right to pursue happiness.
Take an athlete, up at a ridiculous hour of the morning each day to train vigorously for his preferred sport, often for long, difficult stretches of time and frequently at the expense of his or her leisure and social life. And that’s apart from the discomfort of the demanding physical exertion itself. Why do athletes do it? Because the gain, in terms of fame, fortune or just plain personal satisfaction, trumps the pain.
They’re not saying that it doesn’t hurt. They’re saying that it’s worth it.
Also, they know that they can stop anytime they want. The choice is theirs to make. And that’s exactly what makes it so hard for us to be consistent in our spiritual responsibilities. There’s a sense of being forced to do something, rather than choosing it. This is so even though we stood as a people at the foot of Har Sinai and voluntarily chose to accept the Torah and everything it entailed. What a short memory we have!
The same person who’ll get up at the crack of dawn to pursue a beloved hobby, or run with eagerness to enjoy a favorite treat, may drag his feet when it comes to doing something whose reward is intangible rather than concrete, and mostly centered on a future we can’t see or easily imagine.
The Right Identity
There’s no question about it: people are allergic to pain. Whether it’s the trivial pain of inconvenience or the more profound one of recovering from a trauma, the minute our brain signals “Something hurtful ahead!” we’re triggered to run for miles in the opposite direction.
At the same time, we regularly can and do overcome that allergy when it comes to the things we choose to pursue. For a reward that feels worthwhile, we will not only not avoid pain, but will go so far as to seek out and embrace it. This is one of the most remarkable things about being human as opposed to an animal. It is possible for an intangible value to overcome the body’s powerful instinct for comfort and survival.
How can we make it easier to remind ourselves of the choice we made at Har Sinai, so that Hashem’s will, as the Mishnah (Avos 2:4) instructs, becomes our will?
There’s a lot of talk these days about “identifying” with something or other. People choose to identify with this group or that ethnic minority, this cause or that political stream. What it behooves us to do is to identify, heart and soul, with Hashem’s plan for our people and for the world.
Once we do that, His will becomes our own. And once that happens, we’ll find it easier to embrace the painful aspects of life as a Jew in exile. Knowing that the choice is ours, and that the reward is waiting.
In other words—it’s worth it.