THE BLOG

Breaking (Through) Bad

09/26/2013 06:45 pm ET | Updated Nov 26, 2013

There once was a poor villager who scrimped and saved until he could afford a good and reliable horse to help him with his farming. Upon purchase the locals were duly impressed and commented on his fortune to which he replied "Not good, not bad, just is." As fate would have it, the very next day the prized horse broke free and ran away. The villagers were aghast and attempted to console him on the devastating loss to which he once again replied "Not good, not bad, just is." Sure enough, a couple of days later the horse came back...with another horse! The townsfolk could hardly restrain themselves in their shared joy for the man's luck and were struck when he once again replied "Not good, not bad, just is." A few days later, the man's son was riding on the horse, fell off, and broke his leg - preventing him from assisting with the harvest. His neighbors openly wept at this shocking turn of events (if only he had never gotten that crummy horse!). He repeated his phrase for a final time (so that they would finally get it) "Not good. Not bad. Just is." The very next day the army swept through town -- drafting every able bodied young man -- except the son of the man with the horse who had a broken leg...

This old story efficiently expresses how life is and why it's not so easy to label events as "good" or "bad." Inasmuch as it always depends on what happens next to contextualize what's happened, it's clear that we need to dial back the judgment of our predicament and await the next phase. How many times have we seen it, with ourselves and others -- a painful breakup is the prelude to finding a long-term, satisfying relationship. Periodically, a humiliating termination at work opens the door for the "dream job." And yes, oftentimes even these "good" events implode and present us with another round of "bad." What should be clear is that most events in our lives are, simply, beyond our control. The one aspect that we do control -- how we choose to react to what's occurring around us -- is the decisive factor as to how we will perceive and experience our lives.

Consider the experience of Viktor Frankl in the Holocaust. His family murdered, stripped all of his possessions and functionally enslaved -- he nonetheless managed to achieve a transcendental high:

"I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for the brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when a man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way-an honorable way - in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, 'The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.'"

Dr. Frankl heroically smashed through his physical and mental anguish to reframe his circumstances but was his pain (his "bad") ever (in an absolute sense) even real? Consider the effect of Novocaine on the body. I once had a doctor cutting right down the middle of my big toenail. I remarked to him that it looked extremely painful but fortunately as the drug was inhibiting my sodium channels (or whatever) the only negative effect was the queasiness of a friend who was with me. With drugs it's nothing, whereas un-anesthetized, it's torture - despite it's being one and the same event. Only my perspective on the event was changed. And even if it hadn't been, what exactly about it would have been "bad?"

Most of us ride waves of information -- up when we perceive the news as good and down when it's not. How, though, can we ever really know if things are "good?" Have you ever had the unenviable task of delivering seriously difficult news to someone -- like needing to fire them or letting them know about the death of a beloved friend or relative? There's a natural instinct to pause -- to leave them in their (relatively blissful) ignorance. In truth, things may not be "OK" at all but the recipient of bad news (before he receives it) simply lacks the necessary information to understand his true circumstances. On days when all seems sunny and bright how do we know when the evil reality will be suddenly sprung on us or, when all seems bleak, that the salvation is not just around the corner? Obviously, we do not, and cannot.

There are several exits off this ride. One is to take the attitude of the man with the horse - to neuter all that happens as having no particular import either way -- and there are great benefits to such an approach. There is, however, another way. I'd like to suggest that all that happens to us is good -- regardless of whether that good presents itself to us in a comfortable or pleasant manner.

Some theological systems struggle with the classical "argument from evil" -- the one that poses the question "If God is so good, why is there so much bad?" The prophet Isaiah provides insight to this second approach to negative events by teaching "I am the One Who forms like and creates darkness; Who makes peace and creates evil; I am God, Maker of all these." As should be clear, from this perspective there really is no darkness and no evil. Light only needs to be formed (read: it's already there), only the (appearance) of dark and evil needs to be created -- from scratch. Why would a beneficent Being want to create these things you correctly ask? Because that's what allows for the existence of free will. If good were as plain as day, everyone would instinctually choose it -- rendering us all un-free automatons. For free will to exist there must be a real choice -- both "good" and "bad" must be equally available for the choosing and seem to have equal benefits. In this fashion, humanity is given the opportunity to create ourselves - to become what we want and either earn or squander our perfection. This is the purpose of Creation -- and it is kindness itself. No "bad," no free will. No free will, no meaning. No meaning, no true pleasure. There's another story (from the Talmud) that re-frames the Horse tale from this improved perspective:

Rabbi Akiva was traveling with a donkey, a rooster and a lamp. When he arrived at his destination he was told the inn was full - to this disappointment he said "this too is good." He decided to sleep in the woods. Shortly thereafter a wind came and blew out his lamp to which he said "this too is good." Since there was no light the wild animals were unafraid to approach. One ate his rooster and another, his donkey. Left with nothing he once again said "this too is good!" The next morning he walked back to town only to discover the Romans had ransacked the entire town during the night. (Had his lamp been lit, they may have seen it and had his animals lived, their noises may have given away his position).

Beliefs have benefits -- some better than others. Consider them carefully as they have a massive impact on the entire course of our lives. (Anyone who is interested in a four part online workshop that teaches how to integrate these concepts into daily life is invited to contact me at ajacobs@aish.com).

Whence comes solace? Not from seeing,

What is doing, suffering, being;

Not from noting Life's conditions,

Not from heeding Time's monitions;

But in cleaving to the Dream

And in gazing at the Gleam

Whereby gray things golden seem.


-Thomas Hardy