In a Perfect world
It’s a big, scary world, especially when you’re just starting to become aware of yourself and your place in it. Confronted by his own utter helplessness, the two-year-old develops a healthy desire to try to dominate his environment. He is determined to exert control over the forces around him. He wants to prove to himself that he’s stronger than they are.
It doesn’t take long for him to realize what a losing battle that is.
After a certain number of trials and tantrums and a long hard look at reality, our two-year-old begins to learn some painful but necessary lessons about who really runs things around here.
We grown-up two-year-olds go through much the same process. At every stage of life, we cherish a delusion that we can somehow control the outcome of our efforts. We make plans. We cultivate expectations. We build dream castles in the air and then wishfully hope to move in.
Then Time rolls on like a locomotive, bringing its inevitable cargo of challenges and disappointments. Gradually, we learn that the control we thought we held in the palm of our hands is actually hovering far beyond our reach, a kite at the end of a string. Sooner or later, we understand that it will always be that way. Any semblance of control we think we might have is an illusion.
Except for our control over ourselves. Our own attitudes and reactions are clay in the hands of the sculptor, and the sculptor is us.
It’s only when we shift the paradigm of our wishes from control over the external world to control over our inner one that we finally start to get somewhere.
The Torah tells us to walk in Hashem’s ways—and His ways are many and manifold. One of the myriad roles that He plays in relation to His creatures is that of Conductor.
Only Hakadosh Boruch Hu knows the musical score played by every single living instrument in His world… which makes sense since He composed the score, and continues to compose it each and every day. He writes and arranges the music of the world so that it plays the melody of His Will. Instead of wasting our strength in a ludicrous effort to try and wrest that job away from Him, it behooves us to imitate Him instead. To become wise and caring conductors in our own small worlds.
Whether we’re going through the numerous small crises of everyday life, or the hopefully very few huge ones, our role is to conduct ourselves in such a way as to produce the most beautiful music that we can. We do this by acting with dignity and treating others with respect. By understanding the needs and frailties of those around us, even as we lean on their strengths. By overlooking the former, and heaping praise and appreciation on the latter.
As the conductors of our personal worlds, our job is to take the sour and discordant notes of a painful situation and weave them into a song we can be proud of.
Of course, giving up the illusion of control can have its pitfalls. It can lead a person to feel out of control, helpless, the reeling victim of every passing blow. That kind of helplessness can so easily slide into despair.
The way to counteract that, I think, is to start noticing the little things. If you are sitting in Yosef’s cart being sold into slavery, pay attention to the sweet smell of spices. If you’re trudging through darkness, take note of the pinpoints of starlight filtering down from above. Hashem sews kindness into the fabric of even the most challenging ordeal. When we cultivate the mindset to notice them, we’ll have a sense of being cared for even in our bleakest moments. There is a light shining down from above. We are not alone.
In the midst of a clamorous battle, don’t fix your sights on ultimate glory or defeat. Rather, celebrate the small victories. Waiting to win the whole battle can be exhausting, especially since we have no idea whether winning is even in the cards. If we rejoice over each tiny triumph, we can live in a constant bubble of positivity even in the midst of an overwhelmingly negative situation. To do that, however, we need to notice. Let’s not be so focused on the darkness that we can’t appreciate the fine sparkle of chesed winking in the gloom.
Easier said than done, I know. When we’re full of pain, all we really want to do is lie down and wrap it around us like a well-worn blanket. There’s a tendency to brood in that circular, hopeless way, letting thoughts of “What if?” and “If only” dominate the landscape. This is a mistake. It’s a mistake because brooding is not your friend. When you focus on shadows, then shadows are all you’ll have.
This is where self-control comes in, prompting us to act and speak and even think in a way that may not come naturally. To notice the brocha even when the situation seems cursed. To celebrate small victories even if ultimate defeat seems inevitable. To swim when it would be so much simpler to sink.
In short, to rise above ourselves.
Aiming for control in a world that we can’t control is like trying to win a car race with no gas in the engine. Getting out and pushing the car with your shoulder is an obvious non-starter. We need a whole different form of locomotion. Maybe even a whole different race.
The goal is not to shape the world to our specifications. The goal is to shape ourselves to Hashem’s specifications. Doing that calls for being superb conductors of our personal symphonies. It calls for refining the chaff of our middos through fine-tuning our relationship skills. For embracing a higher ratio of tolerance to stubbornness, appreciation to argumentation, big picture to tunnel vision. A good conductor knows how to bring out the best from every member of the orchestra… including himself.
Most of all, it calls for living in a continual state of celebration over the bounty that’s being showered on us even when we’re feeling starved. May the tiny triumphs cast their modest glow in the darkness, until they overcome it completely!