In the previous chapter, we explained that even if an event takes place that could plunge a person into depression and sadness, he can remain b'simchah,
full of joy. Instead of allowing these negative qualities to dominate him, he has the potential to discipline his thoughts and divert his attention to another subject. Because he is not thinking about an incident, he will not experience pain or depression. He will be able to build the inner resources that enable him to overcome this challenge.
The question, however, remains: Is it not important that a person experience pain when things are not working out, for this will spur him to improve? If a person never experiences pain because he constantly distracts the mind with other subjects or avoids the issue entirely, the problem - be it something physical or something spiritual - will never be dealt with.
On a physical level, physicians say that pain can be a blessing, because when a person experiences pain, it makes him aware of a problem. It motivates him to go to a physician, undergo an examination, and enable the problem to be discovered. Then, as the old Chassidic adage says, "the knowledge of the disease is half the cure." When a problem is defined, it can be eliminated.
If, G-d forbid, a person never experiences any pain, the disease or malfunction will continue to grow. It is possible that by the time it is discovered, it would be too late to do anything about it. Therefore, the fact that pain brings the condition to the person's attention and thus enables him to deal with it, is obviously a positive quality.
Why, then, should we avoid emotional pain? Why not say that when a person feels pain about a certain event, it is positive - that the pain is a force pushing him to change? There is tremendous inertia when it comes to changing our personalities, and without such motivation it is questionable whether a person would in fact change.
A farbrengen is a gathering where chassidim sit together and sing Chassidic songs. Usually, an elder chassid speaks to his younger colleagues and encourages them to improve their Divine service. Once, a group of chassidim were sitting together in a dark basement, wrapped up in such a gathering. Another person was walking by and heard singing. Recognizing the melody, he called out, "Where are you? Where is the farbrengen?"
One of the chassidim called back to him and told him to come down to the basement. After taking several steps down the staircase, he hesitated because it was very dark. He called down again, "How can I go down there? It is dark. I cannot see where I am going."
One of the chassidim sitting by the table answered him, "Do not worry, if you sit here long enough, your eyes will get used to the darkness."
The chassid was telling him a simple physiological fact. When we sit in darkness for a time, our pupils expand and we can see better than we could when we first entered the room. But the elder chassid conducting the farbrengen wanted to focus on a different dimension. "That is precisely the problem," he told his listeners. "If you sit in darkness long enough, you get used to it. You do not realize the need for light."
This is why it can be positive for a person to feel pain in a given situation. If something hurts him, he will know that something is wrong, and this will push him to change. If, instead, he is allowed to remain complacent, he will make his peace with the problem without trying to solve it.
Whenever a person has problems - be they physical, financial, or spiritual - it is very important for him to recognize that there is a difficulty and to do something about correcting it. Why should we tell him to divert his attention and ignore the matter? Of what permanent value is such bliss?
On the other hand, sadness and depression are not always valuable. On the contrary, they are often paralyzing influences that rob a person of vitality and prevent him from solving the problems that present themselves.
Thus, it appears that there are two types of feeling bad: one that stirs positive change, and one that reinforces negativity. How can we recognize the difference between the two? In truth, when a person is experiencing feelings of remorse, regret or hurt, he may not be able to recognize which of the two types of feeling he is experiencing. Afterwards, however, he can tell by the results.
Let us take an example: A person is up late at night and thinks to himself, "There are so many things that I wanted to get done this past month. But I did not do them. This was not done, and that was not done." The person continues along this train of thought until he comes to the conclusion, "I am a failure."
All the pressure from the entire month piles up on him, and he feels miserable and depressed. And what does he do? He decides he cannot face the world anymore. So he dives into bed, covers himself with his blankets and goes to sleep.
Perhaps this is a slight exaggeration. The point is, however, that feeling bad can leave one drained of energy with no incentive to do anything except escape from the world.
The same situation - a person sitting up at night and realizing that he has failed to accomplish anything in a month - can produce a totally different response. Instead of wanting to go to sleep, the person can feel charged with energy and filled with the resolve that he will get the job done.
What prompted these feelings? His feeling bad about his lack of accomplishment. In this instance, feeling bad generated energy and vitality.
In the Tanya, the Alter Rebbe differentiates between these two types of feeling bad. The depression that dulls a person's sensitivity and should be avoided is termed atzvus. The type of feeling bad that spurs a person towards positive activity is referred to as merirus, "bitterness."
To differentiate between the two, a person has to ask himself: "Why am I feeling bad? Is it concern with the past or with the future?" If the person is upset about something that has happened, and all he can think about is how bad it was, then it is atzvus. There is absolutely no purpose in concentrating on such thoughts; the event is over. There is nothing to do about it. What the person should do is get all thoughts of it out of his system entirely.
If, however, when thinking about a problem a person is prompted to do something about it, then it is merirus; it is the kind of feeling bad that is valuable. True, the person feels regret and remorse, but his feelings are channeled in the direction of change. He keeps asking himself: "What can I do to correct the situation?" and "How can I see that it does not happen again?"
There is, however, a problem. Man is not a robot, and it is hard to discern the fine line that differentiates between these positive thoughts of regret and remorse and the undesirable thoughts of depression. How can we make sure that our negative thoughts remain directed to a positive purpose?
The answer again centers on mind control. We should regulate the amount of time we spend thinking about these things. This enables us to exercise control over our thoughts, instead of allowing these thoughts to control us. Bitterness is a positive quality, but only in small doses, and only at an appropriate time.
It can be compared to an antibiotic. An antibiotic is often a helpful drug that cures disease. But people take antibiotics in very small dosages, usually a teaspoon two or three times a day.
If you are drinking apple juice or orange juice, you may drink an entire cup or even two cups. And you may drink as often as you want. But we do not take antibiotics in such large quantities, and we do not take them very often.
Why not? Because antibiotics are fundamentally a destructive agent. It is true that they destroy the germs that are causing illness. But they can - and if they are taken too frequently, they will - destroy life systems within the body that are necessary for our health.
Therefore, they are taken only in small amounts. This enables the destructive activity to be controlled and to be directed to purging the bacteria-causing illness without affecting the well-being of the body as a whole.
Similar concepts apply with regard to remorse and regret. Feeling remorse and regret is itself a negative quality. Sometimes, however, it is effective in rectifying an undesirable situation. Nevertheless, because it is fundamentally destructive, it has to be regulated and employed within certain limits. Only then will it be controlled and directed toward a positive intent. Otherwise, it will lead to depression and will drain a person's energy.
To cite an analogy: There are activities that are very good and are considered to be great mitzvos. Nevertheless, if these same activities are performed at the wrong time or in the wrong place, they can lose all positive value, and even become negative. For example, eating matzah is a very great mitzvah. But when? When we eat the matzah on the night of Passover, at the seder. If we eat matzah at any other time, it is not a mitzvah. And if we eat the matzah on the night of Yom Kippur, it is considered a sin, a very severe violation of Torah law.
The same thing is true about fasting. It is also a very great mitzvah. But when? On Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. At other times, it is not as important. And if we fast on the night of Passover, when we are supposed to be eating matzah, we have done something wrong.
The same idea applies with regard to thinking about problems - whether spiritual or material - that a person must correct. There is positive value to such thought and it should be encouraged. But only at the right time and in the right way. Otherwise, not only are such thoughts not positive, they can become destructive.
How can such thoughts become negative? Here we can learn an interesting concept from the Hebrew language. The Hebrew word for "sadness" is atzvus. The Hebrew word for laziness is atzlus. They are spelled in a very similar way. The only difference is that one contains a beis and the other, a lamed.
What is the connection between depression and laziness? The connection works both ways. Depression leads to laziness. When a person is depressed, he is drained of energy. And this inactivity reinforces itself; the person becomes lazy.
The converse, however, is also true. Laziness leads to depression. A person allows himself to get depressed because it is an easier alternative. Otherwise, he would have to come to terms with the problem, to face himself and work out a solution. But that requires effort; and there is less work in lying back and feeling depressed.
Many times when a person is depressed, a friend will knock on his door and say, "Come on. We are going someplace. Do you want to join us?" And the person will refuse to go with them. The person knows that if he went along with his friend, he would definitely be able to pull himself out of his depression. He would start thinking about what is happening now, and that would take his mind off what is causing his depression. But he just cannot let go.
Why can he not let go? Because by staying depressed, he need not face the challenge of living.
When a person faces himself and confronts the problems he must deal with, it is not difficult to arrive at a solution. Many people say that they spend a lot of time thinking about a problem, but they can never arrive at a solution. Why is that so? Because at the outset, their thoughts were not directed toward finding a solution.
On the contrary, what they wanted to do - although they might not be aware of it - is to continue thinking about how devastating the situation is, and how if such and such would happen, it would be even worse.
There are times when we enjoy focusing on negativity. It is illogical. We know that these thoughts are not really relevant, that they will not bring us genuine satisfaction, nor will they lead to a practical solution. And yet we continue to think about them. Why? Because we are not ready to go out and face life. We would rather wallow in the dumps of despair instead of going out and trying to solve the problem.
If a person eliminated all that negativity and focused on one thing - how he can solve the problem he is confronting - he would be surprised to find that within a short period of time, he will conceive of several possible solutions to any given problem.
One of the mashpi'im (spiritual mentors) in the Lubavitcher yeshivah in Russia in the 1920's was R. Yechezkel Feigen. He would teach Chassidic thought, and from time to time, he would gather his students together and lead a farbrengen for them.
At one such farbrengen, he demanded a lot of his students. He told them that he wanted to see a deeper commitment to prayer, to study, and to personal development. His words were touched with intensity, and he addressed his students personally, showing them where they needed to concentrate their efforts.
They were deeply moved by what he said and many began to cry. Suddenly in the midst of the farbrengen, the person appointed as watchman came running with the news that the KGB was carrying out a search in the area.
This represented a real danger. Needless to say, such a gathering was prohibited; all of the participants could have been sent to hard-labor camps. Immediately, everyone began suggesting alternatives. One said, "Let us try to flee." Another suggested turning off the light, hoping darkness would serve as a cover. A third thought about putting newspapers and political science books on the table to show that they were involved in activities that the government would accept.
Thank G-d, the KGB never came to the room. They left the area as abruptly as they came, and the rabbi and the students were able to sit down to resume the farbrengen. The rabbi turned to his students and told them, "I just saw something very strange. I hope you can explain it to me."
The students looked at him quizzically and he continued, "Tell me, what affects you more, a difficulty in spiritual matters or a problem involving material things?"
The students were honest with themselves, and with him. Immediately, they replied that it was material things that affected them more.
"Why then," he asked, "was it that when I spoke to you about your spiritual well-being, everybody was crying, but when you heard that the KGB was in the area and your lives were in danger, nobody cried?"
One of the students gave him a puzzled look and replied, "What did you expect us to do, sit down and cry? What good would that do? We had to figure out a way either to get out or to hide ourselves before they came."
R. Feigen had been waiting for such an answer. "Oh, I see. When you had to act fast, you knew that crying would not help. Why, then, when it comes to spiritual things is it acceptable to cry?"
He repeated this concept and explained it until it sank in. The students understood that crying can be merely an excuse. It does not solve the problem at all. All it does is give the person catharsis. When, by contrast, a person is serious about making a change, he does not have time to cry. Every moment is precious and can be used to implement a solution. That is the way it is supposed to be.
In summary, what we are saying is that Chassidus teaches us that there are two ways of responding to negative factors - whether they be physical or spiritual. One is positive, merirus, which is translated as bitterness, and the other is negative, atzvus, which we have translated as depression.
There are four fundamental differences between the two: a) Atzvus has no life to it; it is the type of feeling bad that leaves one drained. The person loses his incentive to do anything. Merirus, by contrast, spurs energy; it has dynamism and life.
b) Atzvus perpetuates itself. The feelings of depression continue for a long time. With merirus, feeling bad is temporary. The positive drive it brings produces active feelings of achievement in a very short time.
c) Atzvus is not directed toward a practical solution. It is not a means to an end; it is an end in itself. One becomes satisfied thinking about how terrible everything is. Merirus, by contrast, is future-oriented and focuses on a solution and the future. The person asks himself: what can I do about the problem?
d) Atzvus leads a person to be more withdrawn and self-concerned. He thinks more and more about himself. The dynamism of merirus, by contrast, allows a person to think about others.
There are many ramifications of the difference between these two approaches. For example, a suggestion was once made to remember the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust by leaving an empty chair at the seder table Pesach night. Seeing that there is something missing at our seder table would cause us to remember the six million.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe disagreed with this suggestion for two reasons. Firstly, Pesach is a holiday; a time when we are not allowed to do anything that is associated with mourning and sadness. Even if he had appreciated the idea, the timing was inappropriate.
Secondly, the Rebbe emphasized that the suggestion put the focus on the negative. The Rebbe agreed that there should be an extra chair at the seder. But why, he asked, should it be empty? Let it be filled by a person who, had he not received this invitation, would not have attended a seder at all.
The Rebbe was not just offering a different suggestion. He was showing an entirely different approach to the issue. Instead of having our thinking about the loss of six million Jews result in an empty chair, he wanted that the emotion aroused be directed to a positive purpose.
What can be done to compensate for the loss of the six million? First and foremost, something positive. Take a Jew who is alive today and is on the way to total assimilation - he doesn't even seek to take part in a Pesach Seder - and make him feel part of the Jewish people. This counteracts Hitler's efforts and demonstrates that nothing - neither Pharaoh, nor Hitler, nor for that matter the openness of American society - can break the connection that a Jew shares with his spiritual heritage.
Let us take another example. One of the main concerns of many people who have changed their way of life and begun to observe the Torah and its mitzvos is kashrus. Once people begin keeping kosher and learn how important it is, many become quite upset about having eaten non-kosher food for so many years.
I know a number of people who wrote letters to the Lubavitcher Rebbe asking his advice regarding what they should do to atone for all the non-kosher food that they had eaten. They expected the Rebbe to tell them to fast a few times a week, to refrain from eating foods that gave them pleasure or to offer other suggestions of that type. The Rebbe, however, took a totally different approach. He told them to encourage and to educate other Jews to observe the laws of kashrus.
What the Rebbe was saying was: do not focus on the pain you are feeling because of your errors. Transform that pain into positive and productive energy. Reach out to another person and share your insights with him.
For merirus to be an effective tool in spurring us to improve our conduct, it cannot be left to spontaneity. Personal growth depends on a person's controlling his feelings, and that control does not happen spontaneously.
For this reason, there has to be a designated time when we think about the different problems that we have. Whether the problems are physical, financial or family oriented, we cannot allow them to haunt us all day long. Nor can we forfeit control when we think about them. We have to set aside a time when we are prepared to confront them.
Even spiritual failings should only be dealt with at a time set aside explicitly for that purpose. Chassidus talks about setting aside time to think about our spiritual well-being. It calls such thoughts cheshbon hanefesh, which literally means "making an account for the soul."
Various times are designated for this: daily - at the end of the day before going to bed; weekly - towards the end of the week, on Thursday night; monthly - on the last day of the month, which is known as Yom Kippur Katan, "a miniature Yom Kippur"; and yearly - at the end of the year, throughout the month of Elul.
These practices emphasize that, as mentioned above, there has to be a designated time to think about these matters. We cannot let these thoughts just barge in on us at any given time. We also see that the designated time is always at the end of the period in question.
During the day, a person should be active and productive, focusing on accomplishment. It is not a time to sit back and review situations; it is a time to act. When the day is coming to an end and he is preparing for the next day, he should stop and ask himself, "How did the day pass?" and "What can I do so that tomorrow will be better than today?"
The same concept applies to a weekly cycle, a monthly cycle and a yearly cycle. At the end, we should take stock of what we are doing, so that we are prepared for the new cycle that is approaching. But before the end of that cycle, we should be busy working, doing productive things that will benefit both ourselves and others.
On this basis, we can explain the conclusion reached in the previous chapter. A person should dismiss negative thoughts from his mind, that is true - but only when he is feeling depression, not bitterness. Even if he is feeling bitterness, but it is at the wrong time, such as when he is supposed to be at work, davening, studying or busy with the family, these thoughts should be dismissed.
At all times, we should be in control. We should bring the undesirable matter to our attention when we want to, and deal with it in the way we know best. This is a productive approach.
- (Back to text) Chapter 31.
- (Back to text) See Likkutei Sichos, Vol. 16, p. 272.