Jewish Thought

Self – Deception

My father-in-law, Rabbi Yaakov Yisroel Twerski, zt”l, passed away over 40 years ago. But despite the passage of time, the lessons he taught us remain fresh and inspiring. He was truly an extraordinary human being. In contrast to dignitaries who revel in public appearances, my father-in-law shunned the limelight. He seldom gave lectures or speeches. His genius lay in his ability to relate to people on a personal level. Everyone insisted that the “Rebbe” was his best friend. His daily activities consisted of visiting hospitals, comforting wounded hearts and being there for everyone regardless of affiliation, both in times of need and of joy. A famous woman once observed that it is not what you say or do, but how you make a person feel that matters. My father-in-law had the uncanny ability to uplift everyone who crossed his path. He was beloved and revered in every precinct.  One of his pet peeves was that doctors had adopted the practice of apprising patients of their conditions, holding back nothing. My father-in-law was terribly distressed by this philosophy of full disclosure. He maintained that giving patients a pessimistic prognosis was a virtual death sentence that robbed them of the desire to persevere and put up a fight.

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In his opinion, doctors were consigning patients to an inescapable fate and denying them hope, which is critical to a patient’s wellbeing. He bemoaned the “G-d complex” of the medical establishment. Who are doctors, he questioned, to pronounce a situation hopeless? What’s interesting to me is that the current literature is very supportive of my father-in-law’s argument. The mind-body connection is increasingly recognized as a major factor in healing and well-being. In a recent book entitled Kidding Ourselves: The Hidden Power of Self-Deception, former Wall Street Journal reporter Joseph T. Hallinan posits that perceiving ourselves as better, smarter and more powerful than we actually are can set us up for greater health, happiness and success. “When I started researching self-delusion,” he writes, “I had no idea that it could translate into real benefits.” One of these, he asserts, is that it gives one the illusion of control. Research suggests that control is essential to well-being. When a person feels powerless, stress hormones flood the system and wear out the body over time. One study found that workers who had little say over their schedules died earlier than people who could decide when to eat their lunch. Interestingly, he notes several ways in which the world conspires to give us the perception of control. Take crosswalk buttons, for example.

In New York City, most of them were disabled when traffic lights became computerized so they produced only a placebo effect; the “Walk” sign eventually appeared so people believed they had a hand in making it happen. The same thing is said of office thermostats. By some estimates, the percentage of fake thermostats in office buildings is as high as 90 percent! They were put in solely to give employees the illusion of control over their environments. Self-deception, Mr. Hallinan claims, is also a factor in a person’s work performance. The worker who is kidding himself with an optimistic view of his abilities actually outranks his more realistic counterpart. Why? The more optimistic one is, the more likely he is to seize opportunities and take risks.  He warns, however, that there is also a downside. Self-deception to an extreme can lead a person to feel invincible and “drunk with power,” and thereby to destructive behaviors.  The author’s conclusion is that believing in something, even though it cannot be empirically proven, gives one a greater edge to actually make things happen. Henry David Thoreau put it this way: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now, put the foundations under them.” Indeed, daring to dream does require lifting one’s feet above the ground, disregarding the “reality” of the situation. 

For us Jews, this concept is rooted in our being a supernatural people. At the inception of our peoplehood, Hashem lifted Avraham, our first Patriarch, above the stars and instructed him to look down from that transcendent vantage point. Our Sages comment that by doing so, the Master of the Universe was informing Avraham that he and his descendants would have the ability to rise above the stars and defy the astrological influences that govern and limit the rest of humanity. Countless powerful nations have come and gone, yet tiny Israel, one sheep amongst many wolves, survives and enriches the world with its spiritual and intellectual vitality. With the help of the Almighty, Who has placed us above the stars, we have persevered and prospered, frustrating the predictions of our detractors.  On a personal level, we, like all others, seek the illusion of control in our daily lives. The Torah respects this basic human need and directs us to the areas in which we can and should exercise control. The following Torah insight is particularly enlightening in this regard: When Moshe Rabbeinu questions whether the Jewish people will believe that he has been commissioned by Hashem to redeem them, Hashem asks him, “Mah zeh b’yadcha—What do you have in your hand?” Moshe replies that he has a “mateh,” a staff.

One of the commentaries notes that the deeper meaning of this exchange was that Hashem was asking Moshe Rabbeinu to consider the parameters of his power and control. Moshe’s insightful response was that the only thing “in his hand,” the exclusive area of his control, was to be “mateh,” from the root word “lehatos” meaning to turn in a given direction, a reference to bechirah, the ability to choose between good and evil. Additionally, a staff allows a person to point at the item of his choice. Hence the message to Moshe was that the only control given to man is in choosing the direction in which he wishes to go.  The ability to control our environment is wishful thinking and derives from self-deception. The only genuine choices and decisions we can make are in the spiritual realm, “the staff in our hands.” But when it comes to matters of character and ruchniyus, bnei Yisrael tower above the stars and control their destiny. Pronouncements and predictions of doctors and scientists of gloom and doom, or even those of a positive variety, need to be taken with a grain of salt. At the end of the day, we believers, the children of believers, know that G-d runs the world and as such, the possibilities are infinite.

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