A problem is only depressing if we think we’re stuck with it
he Covid vaccine was developed with unprecedented speed. Less than a year after the first confirmed cases of the virus, the FDA approved emergency use of the vaccine.
It was a clear case of necessity being the mother of invention. Many of the greatest innovations in medicine and technology have come as the fruits of pandemic or war. Nothing awakens the amazing ingenuity of the human mind like the need to solve an urgent problem.
Urgent physical problems are not so difficult to spot. What most people fail to see — or more often, choose not to see — are our spiritual problems.
In Tachanun, we recite the words of Dovid Hamelech: “Grant me favor, Hashem, for I am weak. Heal me, Hashem, for my bones shudder.” This isn’t just a metaphor. Spiritual weakness and spiritual illness are actual things. They’re no less real than physical ailments, and no less dangerous.
Getting angry all the time. Chasing after honor and recognition. Ingratitude toward others and toward Hashem. Wasting one’s time. The list of spiritual ailments in the world goes on and on. And whereas many people may enjoy good physical health, it’s hard to find a person who has no spiritual maladies.
The spiritual diseases that wreak havoc on humanity aren’t new. They’ve been around from the very beginning. So why hasn’t the world developed cures, vaccines, or at least treatments for them? Why do we go on living with our spiritual problems year after year without any progress?
The answer, more often than not, is because we ignore our spiritual problems. They depress us. If we dwell on them, we despair. On Yom Kippur we feel contrite, but within a week or two, we push our faults out of our mind. We rationalize that Hashem doesn’t want us to be downhearted, after all.
That’s definitely true. Hashem doesn’t want us to wallow in despair and self-critique. But awareness of our spiritual weaknesses shouldn’t drive us to despair; it should rouse our minds to find a solution!
Most people are capable of finding solutions to their problems. When it comes to physical or financial difficulties, we prove remarkably creative in a pinch. We could bring our creative powers to bear on our spiritual problems as well. But first, we would have to feel the pressing need to do so.
Necessity is the mother of invention. We find creative solutions when we find our backs against a wall. But when it comes to facing our spiritual faults, most of us don’t really feel we’re in a serious plight. Even if we manage to recognize our shortcomings, we don’t exactly feel that we can’t go on living with them anymore.
The first step toward finding solutions to our spiritual problems is to realize how critical the problems are. The response to this should not be merely setting a goal. Someone who finds himself in mortal danger doesn’t say, “I have a goal to survive.” His response is much more primal than that. He is responding to a desperate need, not setting a target. This should be how we approach our spiritual dangers.
Anger, envy, the pursuit of honor — these are illnesses that destroy people’s lives. Korach was a person of enormous spiritual stature, but his character flaws cost him his life in This World and the World to Come. The results of spiritual flaws aren’t always so dramatic — but they’re tragic nonetheless.
It’s never pleasant to acknowledge that we have a problem. But once we’ve done so, it shouldn’t be depressing; it should be empowering! A problem is only depressing if we think we’re stuck with it. But if we believe we can find a solution, we’ll be surprised how innovative we can be.
I met a man who told me how he transformed himself from a fearsome tyrant into a beloved father. He used to come home from work and take out all his frustrations on his children. He expected to enter the house after a long, stressful day and be treated as the king of the castle. But as soon as he stepped in the door, the whining, crying, fighting, and mischief made his hair stand on end. Day after day, he found himself bellowing at his kids.
I can’t go on like this, he told himself. His first step was small but effective. He left work 15 minutes earlier every day, and made a pit stop for a large coffee and snack before heading home. Just coming home feeling refreshed made a noticeable improvement in his mood.
But that wasn’t enough. He decided he had to make a personal change. He realized that at social events, he could be the life of the party. He enjoyed creating a positive vibe and raising the spirits of those around him. He decided to apply that skill at home. Every day, before he stepped through the door, he made up his mind to try to bring positive energy to his family.
The results were incredible. In place of tension, his arrival brought an ambience of peace and calm into the home. When the children saw that their father was happy to see them and eager to listen to them, they stopped their battles and came to share their day with him. Of course, now and then he slipped up after a particularly stressful day, but his chronic anger was gone.
That man didn’t invent a complex method of psychological therapy. He simply thought about his problem, and applied his mind to finding a solution.
This problem-solving approach can save us from any problem in ruchniyus, not just from character flaws. When I was in yeshivah, I suffered greatly from my inability to remember the Gemara. My friends remembered the Gemara, Rashi, Tosafos, the Rishonim, and Acharonim, while I struggled to recall even the first few lines of the sugya.
“Do chazarah,” my friends told me.
I tried to follow their advice. I read the text aloud, again and again, trying to hammer it into my brain, but to no avail.
“I have to remember!” I told myself. “I can’t go on like this.”
I gave my problem a lot of thought, till I realized that I have a great memory for stories. So I decided to try to focus on remembering the “story” of the sugya, instead of the text. The hava amina, the machlokes, the proofs back and forth, the final outcome. I started to see the Gemara as an exciting story, with an intriguing plot and fascinating conclusion.
Very quickly, I began to remember the sugya clearly for the first time. And by learning in a way that suited me, I began to understand better as well. I then took my newfound way of learning to other areas of Torah as well, like mussar and machshavah. Now people are surprised by my creative ways of learning the complex structure of ideas in these texts.
“I’m just trying to understand the story,” I tell them.
Just like necessity has sparked the greatest innovations in the physical world, it can and should lead us to find solutions to our problems in ruchniyus — if those problems really trouble us. Learning mussar is the best way to make ourselves troubled by all our spiritual shortcomings. But we need to work on what truly bothers us at the moment.
Take ten minutes to think about one spiritual problem that bothers you the most. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a character flaw or a difficulty in davening or learning, as long as it really troubles you.
Don’t try to come up with a solution on the spot. Keep the problem on your mind, and look around in your life to see what tools you have to solve the problem. If we start to live this way, we’ll find that great breakthroughs in our spiritual lives are surprisingly close at hand. —
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 918.
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