These are Defining Moments

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When You & Your Children Look Back, How Will You Remember Them?

Last week, we finished streaming an episode of Behind the Bima and I was immediately gratified to receive wonderfully positive feedback in texts and emails.  For the most part. One person, whom I don’t know, chose to write a highly critical email.  When receiving criticism, I try to always ask myself, is there merit to what is being said,  even if I don’t like how they are saying it?  Is there truth to the message, even if I don’t appreciate this messenger or the messaging?

Often the answer is yes, and while I am far from perfect, I try to learn and, when necessary, to apologize or take responsibility.  But in this particular instance, the criticism was not only communicated grossly inappropriately, it was simply factually incorrect and way off-base. 

I quickly came to that conclusion and committed to move on.  But I couldn’t.  For the next few hours, and even into the next day, it wasn’t the compliments or positive feedback that occupied my mind or my thoughts, it was the outrageous email from a complete stranger. As disappointed as I was with the email, I was terribly frustrated at myself for perseverating.

It turns out, I am not alone. Researchers summarized dozes of studies that compared the impact of negative information and experiences against positive ones.  Their conclusion, and the title of their paper: “Bad Is Stronger than Good.” They found that negative information, experiences and communications pack a heavier punch and have a more lasting impact than positive ones.  It is why sports fans think more about the games their team lost than those they won.  It is why in diaries or journals, people spend more time reflecting on the bad things that happened than the good.  It is why runners remember the headwind they battled in one direction much more than the helping wind they benefited from in the other. 

And it is why we hold onto and think about criticisms and negative feedback approximately ten times more than compliments or positive comments.  Social scientists call it the negativity effect or negativity bias and almost all of us suffer from it.

I find myself thinking about this, not only because of that particular email and my reaction to it, but because of what we are all going through right now and the lives we are living.

In their fantastic book, “The Power of Moments,” Chip and Dan Heath argue that not all moments are created equal.  There are some moments, events, or experiences that we will remember for decades and others that expire and disappear, almost as quickly as they arrive or are experienced.  

In ten or twenty years, we and our children will look back at this time. Whether we are still recovering from the trauma of it or are nostalgic for the blessings and opportunities we made of it is being determined right now by our attitudes and behaviors. 

We will look back and say, "during this time we…" What will be the end of that sentence?  We laughed, we learned, we played, we prayed and we persevered?  Or, we fought, we yelled, we worried, and we despaired?

We must recognize and appreciate now that the negative experiences and moments, the frustrations, anger, worry, criticisms, and impatience will embed memories disproportionally to the positive flashes of fun, laughter, compliments, optimism, hope and faith.  To create the long-term feeling we want towards what we are living through right now, our positive moments must outnumber the negative ones at least tenfold. 

The Heaths write that defining moments shape our lives and we don’t have to wait for them to happen. We can create them.  In their research they found that defining moments are created from one or more of the following four elements: elevation, insight, pride and connection. 

Our timeless Torah and magnificent Jewish lifestyle promote and provide the ingredients for all four.  We elevate each time we daven, each Shabbos meal, each act of chessed, and with every encounter or imitation of the Divine. We encounter insight each time we study, share an idea, lesson, or learn a value or law. Is there a greater pride than being a member of the am ha’nivchar, the people charged with leading the way to repair Hashem’s world in His image? Lastly, there is no greater connection than being part of a covenantal community, living as anעם , a nation because we feel עם, together, bound and connected through our shared destiny. 

One of the true challenges of this time period is to still find elevation, insight, pride, and connection. Our usual methods appear inaccessible. We cannot elevate through minyan at shul. We may struggle to find the time or focus for insight. It can be difficult to feel pride, we feel like there is so much we can’t do anymore. And of course, the lack of connection is one of the biggest trials of this pandemic.

If we give into the negativity and concede, we will miss the opportunity to be resourceful and create defining moments. We can elevate our davening by connecting differently with Hashem than we would at shul – maybe davening slower, or outside, or focusing on a different sentence or paragraph each day. We can commit to a new area of learning, or regularly attend one of the hundreds of Zoom shiurim being held now around the world, and bring insight into our lives. We can take pride in our children and ourselves for overcoming challenges, persevering, and accomplishing things big and small. And we can and we must, still seek connection with our people – call that family member, FaceTime that friend you haven’t seen in weeks, reach out to someone and tell them you’re thinking about them or miss them.

Bad may be stronger than good, but we can be stronger than bad by flooding our homes with positive defining moments.