Optimism is soul-deep
Dear Rabbi Fried,
In June, Time Magazine ran an article based on the book “The Optimism Bias” by Tali Sharot. The subtitle, which sums up the article, read “Those rose-colored glasses? We may be born with them. Why our brains tilt toward the positive … in spite of all the negative.” It outlines how, based upon so many negative life experiences, we should collectively be much more pessimistic about events and their expected outcomes, yet we remain much more positive than we should be based on reality. This article postulates that positive thinking is hard-wired into our brains. Optimism was naturally selected during our evolutionary process because without the anticipation of a future reward man would have giving everything up.
This article, though fascinating, did not make me happy at all. I am a very optimistic person, but would be greatly deflated to learn that all my optimism is simply a chemical reaction in a deep section of my brain. Does Judaism have anything to say about this?
— Reesa W.
I looked at the article and though intrigued by the suggestion, felt much as you did from this theory. To think my optimism, or anyone else’s, is simply the result of hard-wiring is not very optimistic!
I find it disempowering to think that our optimism is not the result of a conscious effort to be that way, and that hose who are depressed or negative is simply because of some malady or hormone dysfunction. Judaism has a lot to say about this, and though we don’t have much space here, I’m optimistic we can touch upon the subject.
According to Jewish thought, optimism and pessimism are included in the larger body of actions and thoughts about which we can and need to exercise free choice. The concept of free choice applies to things we are obligated to do, i.e. mitzvot, and deeds or thoughts which we are proscribed from performing, in other words, misdeeds. Which mitzvah would obligate one to be optimistic and proscribe us from being pessimistic?
The answer is the mitzvah of bitachon, or “trust” in the Al-mighty. The concept of trust is predicated upon the core Jewish belief in G-d’s unlimited power, giving Him the ability to affect the results of any given situation. Hence the Talmudic statement, “even if a sharp sword is raised above your head, do not give up hope for Divine intervention.”
The notion of bitachon is further based upon the Jewish understanding that G-d is all-knowing, and is fully cognizant of all our needs down to the most precise detail. He loves us more than anyone else and, though He’s busy with many others, never takes His eye off of any of us for a moment. This teaches us that whatever happens to us is ultimately, for the good. If the results of any given situation are not to my liking, I can still rejoice in that outcome because I know it is truly the best thing for me, whether I ever find out why so, or not. To live this way brings about serenity. You’re not nervous and worried what will happen which, in turn, leads to a life of optimism and joy.
This realization is “hard-wired” into our souls, which deep down contains a spark of G-dliness. It is our choice whether we tap into that wellspring of knowledge within ourselves and live with optimism and serenity, or to heap layers of darkness upon our souls and live solely with the realities of the physical world, leaving G-d out of the picture, and allow pessimism to take over.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.