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Responding to the Ebola Crisis

As the psychologists noted in their conclusions about the public response to the Ebola crisis, human beings are drawn to the doable. Undertaking a project that seems doomed from the outset drains our energy and makes it difficult for us to respect any strides we have made

Responding to the Ebola Crisis

On a recent news program, a reporter expressed surprise that the public response to appeals for funds to combat Ebola was not meeting with success. The contributions necessary to launch a major research initiative on this global menace were falling far short of expectations. Authorities were especially astounded since the Ebola virus constitutes a very real peril to the entire world, and one would have expected an overwhelming response. Mystified, they sought the input of psychologists who might help them understand the source of this widespread apathy. After considerable inquiry, the experts determined that people felt that no matter how much they did, the problem was so enormous that their personal contributions, no matter how generous, would not even make a dent in it. The enormity of the need and the hopelessness of the situation undermined the public’s desire to help. The psychologists suggested that people are looking for efficacy. They want to contribute to an effort or plan that will work.

In the case of the Ebola outbreak, even if their money saved one person, they believed there would be thousands of others who would die. In contrast, donors responded more favorably to the hard-luck stories of individuals, for whom their contribution might make a difference. The psychologists concluded that in order to engage people in any effort, a hopeful picture has to be presented. This insight can be instructive to us as we take inventory of the resolutions we made during the Yomim Nora’im. In that season of soul-searching, many of us decided that we had to make some serious changes in our lives. We pledged that we would learn and daven with greater kavanah, speak less lashon hara and divest ourselves of jealousy and resentment. We would be more caring, loving, patient and kind.

We would be less judgmental, impulsive and negative… These many weeks later, we may be disheartened to find that our progress, at best, is disappointing. We are reminded of Chazal’s warning: “Tafasta merubah lo tafasta, if you grab too much, you hold on to nothing.” Taking small, incremental steps is unquestionably the most effective approach when one is focused on growth. The fact is that success breeds success. When our modest efforts produce good results, faith in our ability is rekindled, and we are motivated to move forward. Conversely, if we seek to overhaul our lives in one fell swoop, the enormity of the undertaking will overwhelm us and defeat us before we begin.  The Midrash (Parshas Nitzavim) gives two examples of this principle. In the first, two men enter a shul full of people studying Torah. They are informed of the immense body of knowledge contained in the Torah. One of them, a tipeish (fool), quickly becomes overwhelmed, reasoning that since there is no way he will ever master so much material, he is better off not taking up the challenge. He throws up his hands in despair and walks out. The second man, a pikei’ach (astute person), reasons that since all knowledge is acquired sentence by sentence, page by page, it behooves him—like every other scholar—to sit down and study, mastering whatever he can. The fool remains ignorant while the astute person thrives in his studies. In another parable given by the Midrash, two individuals see a tantalizing pastry suspended from the ceiling. The tipeish says, “Who can reach that high?” and leaves disappointed.

The pikei’ach says, “If somebody was able to hang it that high, then there must be some way to get up there.” He finds a ladder, retrieves the pastry and enjoys his prize. Consider the following scenarios:  Suri* bought into our culture’s obsession with thinness, which has spawned many new diets over the past few decades. She said that when she recently looked in the mirror, she decided that this was the year she was going to return to her pre-marriage weight. Suri reported, with considerable chagrin, that after a few weeks in her dayto-day struggle with a very restrictive diet, the image staring back at her in the mirror had been most uncharitable. Predictably, she began to feel like a total failure and was ready to abandon her resolve. I suggested to Suri that a much more modest, realistic, manageable approach over the long term would probably bring her better results than a short-term crash diet.Chani, a mother of six little ones, had resolved during the Yomim Nora’im to daven Shacharis every morning. When her family and household duties simply did not allow for it, she became frustrated and disconcerted. To her credit, rather than abandoning her resolution, she decided to modify her commitment, starting each day with the morning brachos and, if time allowed, adding one or two tefillos that she could invest with greater concentration. Chani recognized that every season in our lives requires different priorities, and that for a mother with small children, her avodah involved attending to their needs first. Gitty found herself in the “sandwich generation,” caring for children, grandchildren and elderly parents.

Her plan for the coming year was to donate time and resources to some of the organizations that had reached out to her for help. But it became clear in short order that juggling her many responsibilities would not allow for the level of input she had envisioned. Gitty sought daas Torah and was told that her instinct to cut back on her communal activities was correct. She was told that she was spreading herself too thin and that everyone—herself included— would suffer in the process. She was advised to commit to one modest project that would not add undue stress to her life.  Dassy was distressed because she had failed to carry out her commitment to control her stormy emotions. She had resolved on Rosh Hashanah never to get angry, to remain the picture of patience and calmness with her children, family and friends. The very first time she lost her temper, despair set in. She termed herself a lost cause, someone who was irreversibly flawed. Dassy had managed to ignore the many times she had succeeded in controlling herself; she took her first failure to mean that she was a “loser.” The common denominator in these scenarios is the unrealistic nature of each person’s resolution and her inability to take pride in small victories. Living a committed life involves growth; and growth, by definition, requires us to leave our comfort zone. But, as in all things, balance is necessary. As the psychologists noted in their conclusions about the public response to the Ebola crisis, human beings are drawn to the doable. Undertaking a project that seems doomed from the outset drains our energy and makes it difficult for us to respect any strides we have made. In contrast, moving forward small step by small step, making modest, measurable progress, is a much better guarantee that we will reach our G-d-given potential.