Character Development

Change of Perception – Rabbi Yitzchak Fanger

One cannot usually change reality. Even when one can change things, the task is often laborious and difficult. The reason for this is obvious: Our situation does not usually depend on us. Other people are involved in it and there are certain limits which are defined by the necessities of life.

However our perception of reality can be changed quite easily.

Anger and Criticism or Compassion and Tolerance?

On the New York subway passengers sat quietly. Some read a newspaper while others were occupied with their thoughts. Some people dozed off. The atmosphere was calm and tranquil.

At one station a man came on accompanied by his children. They were noisy and rowdy and almost immediately the mood changed in the carriage. The father sat down next to me and closed his eyes. It was clear that he was totally ignoring the situation. The children screamed at one another, threw items and even dared to pull the newspapers out of passengers hands.

The situation was impossible and despite this the father, who was sitting next to me, did not lift a finger and did not say a word. It was hard not to get annoyed. How could one understand such a thing? How could a person be so inconsiderate and irresponsible and let his children run wild and disturb all the passengers on the train?

It was clear that all the passengers without exception were fuming. In the end one of the passengers turned to him and addressed him respectfully and patiently. He said to him: “Sir, your children are very disturbing to me and to the other passengers. Couldn't you control them a bit?”

The man stopped spacing out and appeared just then to become aware of the situation. He said in a quiet voice: “You are right. I really should do something about it. We are coming back from the hospital now where their mother dies an hour ago. I don't know what to do and they too don't seem to know how to deal with this”.

Within a second the mood changed totally in the carriage and people's feelings changed accordingly. How is that? The objective situation was the same and the little brats continued to make noise and run wild?

Maybe the situation hadn't changed but people's perspective had changed- the same person did not appear to us like a selfish and crude person who did not care about his children's behavior or about those around him. The angry energy had turned into compassionate energy. The situation had not changed, only our way of perceiving it had changed, but the difference was enormous.

Changing the Paradigm

Do you want to change the paradigm?

Just a minute, before we change it, let's first understand- what is a paradigm?

The source of this concept is the Greek word paradeigmia which means form or pattern. Thomas Kuhn used the term 'paradigm' in his book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” which deals with the philosophy of science.

Kuhn proves in his book that nearly all significant patterns which have appeared in science have started with a cognitive brainwave- with an ability to think outside the regular and conventional patterns, to dare, to be creative, to look for alternative ways rather than the accepted ones.

Just as scientific revolutions begin with a cognitive adjustment, personal metamorphosis can also begin this way. Let us begin the small to big transformations in our lives with a change of attitude. Instead of crashing head first into a situation and getting hurt in the process, we ought to try and change direction and prevent unnecessary and painful collisions.

Confronting the Lighthouse

A warship had set sail to sea. Visibility was poor due to heavy fog and therefore the captain stayed in the bridge to keep an eye on all activity. A short time after dusk a lookout reported: “lights at starboard!”

“Is it fixed or moving behind us?” asked the captain.

“Fixed, captain”, answered the lookout. This meant that the ship was on course for a dangerous collision with another ship. The captain ordered a signal to be sent to the opposing ship: “We are on collision course, change your direction by 20 degrees.”

The other ship signaled back: “I suggest that you change your course by 20 degrees.”

The captain sent a tough message with the following words: “In my authority as captain, I order you to change course by 20 degrees.”

The answer which came back: “My rank is  corporal ( a lower rank than captain) but I strongly advise you to change direction by 20 degrees.

The captain got incensed, he felt that he was on the verge of exploding with irritation. He sent a strong warning: “I am a warship. Move direction by 20 degrees or bear the consequences!”

The answer he received was: “I am the lighthouse…”

It is unnecessary to add that the warship immediately changed course.

Sometimes the situation is a kind of lighthouse or wall which cannot be moved. However one's attitude and approach to that situation is in one's hands. We can change our thought patterns and if we want we can deviate from the way we have got used to acting and thinking.

We therefore must attain some flexibility in our thought processes.

Hey, you surprised me

A man came to Lod airport carrying lots of loaves of bread in his suitcase.

“What is this?” he was asked.  “What are you doing?”

“I am taking bread out of the country.” ( Motzi Lechem Min Haaretz) he replied…

One should be open to new ideas. There are things one is not used to, but they exist and can be very useful if you become aware of them.

Don't be Stubbornly Evil

“A person should be soft as a red and not hard as a cedar tree” (Taanit 20a)

Regarding the attribute of stubbornness a wise man once said: “Stubbornness is a disease without a cure.”

A number of commentators imply that the main reason for the wrath against the people of Israel in the desert after they served the Golden Calf, was because of their stubbornness and obstinacy. The verse says: And G-d said to Moshe: I have seen this people and they are obstinate, leave me and I will pour forth my wrath and destroy them..” (Shemot 32:10).

Seforno explains: An obstinate people- their neck is made of steel and they will not agree to listen to any teacher of truth and therefore there is no hope that they might repent”.

A stubborn person is always convinced that he is right and even when he finds that he was mistaken, he doesn't admit his mistake to others. In many cases he won't even admit it to himself. His stubbornness can blind him and he is unable to perceive things in a different way from that which he is used to.

Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski was one of the prominent Rabbis in Lithuania before the Holocaust and served as the head of the council of Torah Scholars. His genius and wisdom were legendary. It was said of him that he had achieved so much because he lived in a generation of older and greater men than himself, and since he was the youngest of them he couldn't say “accept my opinion”. He used to listen carefully to all the views and theories raised by one of the giants of Torah he met and his sharp acumen became even sharper until he had assimilated the genius of many wise people.

Rabbeinu Yona says in his commentary on Mishlei (14:14): “The hard of heart will have his fill from his own ways”- one who is hardhearted is stubborn and constantly relies on his own perceptions without listening to others and observing whether their ideas are better than his own, which would allow him to assess whether to ignore his own words and adopt theirs if they contradict his opinions. Such a person is always satisfied with his actions and content with his habits and practices, and never sees any fault in his mind or flaw in his thought processes, since he is perfect in his own eyes and does not need to use anyone else's wisdom or advice”.

If a person is set in his ideas and lives with preconceived paradigms in his head he will not develop properly. His stubbornness will prevent him from being exposed to different opinions and new ideas. If his original views were wrong then his in bad shape.

Of course we are not discussing positive forms of stubbornness, such as dedication to one's task and determination to attain certain achievements. Negative stubbornness is inflexibility which prevents one from accepting views and facts which he is not familiar with.

If we identify such inelasticity in our thought processes and in our general mode of behavior, we ought to work to try and improve the situation. When we are confronted with a wall, it is not worthwhile to try and bang our heads against it repeatedly. It would be preferable to open our eyes and try to see reality from a broader perspective.

Let's not be negatively obstinate!

We aren't always right and we don't always appreciate all the sides of the coin. It's worth learning to listen and to hear, to know how to accept when necessary, and to be creative. We might even surprise ourselves….


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