3 Things That We Can Still Control, Even When We Feel Powerless

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The story is told of a young couple that moved into a new neighborhood.  The next morning while they were eating breakfast, the young woman saw her neighbor hanging laundry outside. “That laundry is not very clean; she doesn’t know how to wash correctly. Perhaps she needs better laundry soap.”  Her husband looked on, remaining silent.

Every time her neighbor hung her wash out to dry, the young woman made the same comments.  A month later, the woman was surprised to see a nice clean wash on the line and said to her husband, “Look, she’s finally learned how to wash correctly. I wonder who taught her?”


The husband replied, “I got up early this morning and cleaned our windows.”


I have been thinking about this story lately while observing and even feeling some of the tensions and judgment this moment in time has created.  History will undoubtably record the data – how many casualties, how many confirmed cases, how many recoveries, how many long-term illnesses, how many positives for anti-bodies.


But what will measure or tell the story of how many friendships were strained, how many engagements were broken?  What will quantify the sustained anxiety, both from fear of contracting the illness and from watching how others took it either too lightly or too strictly?  How can history accurately record or capture the months- long toll of high emotions and its ultimate impact on our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being?


When Covid first raged and our community, along with much of the country, was shut down, in a sense life was fairly straightforward.  Being compliant was responsible and respectful and those who weren’t were risking their lives and the lives of others.  But in the months of phased reopening and fluctuating numbers, we must admit that the reality is profoundly confusing.  To be clear, that is not to say this pandemic is over by any stretch or that we can let down our guard.  Vigilance, caution and compliance remain critical, in many cases to save or preserve lives. Nevertheless, by any measure, while we are far from at the end, we are also not where we were at the beginning. 


Certainly there is behavior that, even now, all would agree is irresponsible and dangerous.  But where exactly to draw the line between reckless and ruthless is much less clear.  Was sending children to camp (and now to school) fair or foolish?  Is it time for playdates and Yom Tov meals with distancing and precautions?  Should minyanim be held indoors, outdoors, or maybe not at all?


As a result of inherent ambiguity and competing or nonspecific guidance, “corona shaming” abounds.  Some are indignant at the carelessness of friends and neighbors, while others are appalled by how extreme the people around them are acting.  Given the stakes involved with nearly every aspect of this, it is hard not to expect and demand everyone to have the exact same attitude you do to this dreaded virus and the proper behaviors to avoid its spread. It reminds me of a famous comedian’s brilliant observation: “anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac.” 


While we as a community have adopted and continue to encourage safety protocols and policies, ultimately, we would do well to realize that as individuals there is so much we cannot control.  Communally, we must continue to emphasize, promote and demand compliance with safety policies, but as individuals, let’s not compound the challenges of this time by forfeiting our serenity over things and people we can’t control, rather choose to focus instead on that which we can.  Here are a few suggestions:


·      In describing the fifth habit of his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey writes, "If I were to summarize in one sentence the single most important principle I have learned in the field of interpersonal relations, it would be this: Seek first to understand, then to be understood." Before criticizing or judging the choices of others or the decisions of your Shul or children’s schools, first take the time to try to understand where they are coming from, how decisions were arrived at, and what informed them.  The Gemara (Eruvin 13) tells us that we follow the opinion of Beis Hillel over Beis Shammai because Beis Hillel would always listen to what Beis Shammai had to say and entertain their opinion before coming to their own conclusion.  You don’t have to agree with everyone or with every institution.  Constructive criticism is fair and should be welcomed, but only after first hearing and entertaining the thought process of the other side; as the Mishna in Pirkei Avos teaches, one of the 48 ways that wisdom is acquired is shemi’as ha’ozen, active listening.


·      What we see when watching others depends on the cleanliness and clarity of the window through which we look.  Before reacting incredulously to the behavior of others, ask yourself, how consistent are you with all your choices and actions?  Are you not making your own determination as to what is essential and what is non-essential? Do you not rationalize your exceptions to your own rules?  The Gemara (Bava Basra 60b) tells us, “Keshot atzmecha v’achar kach keshot acheirim,” which is usually translated as, “Correct yourself first and only then correct others.” Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests an alternative translation. The word keshot appears a number of times in the tefillah of Berich Shmeih — as in Oraisei keshot u’neviohi keshot — and it is translated there as “truth.” Based on this, Rav Hirsch explains, the mandate of our rabbis is to be truthful with yourself and only then examine others. It is said that when you point a finger at someone else, three more point back at you. 


·      We may be powerless to control others, but we can control ourselves.  We don’t have to feel or react with anger, anxiety, frustration, resentment, helplessness or hopelessness, no matter what is happening or how people are behaving around us.  The Torah tells us u’vacharta ba’chaim, the choice regarding how we spend our time, what attitude and demeanor we have, what we focus on, is up to us.  Never stop realizing that we control our thoughts and we regulate our emotions.  Don’t ever give the key to your happiness and serenity to others. 


·      With all the uncertainty and powerlessness, we can and must redouble our focus on prayer.  In addition to fundamentally believing that Hashem craves our prayers and responds to them, even if the answer isn’t always yes, there are also measurable health benefits to praying regularly.  Dr. David H. Rosmarin, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, says that research conducted on prayer shows it can calm your nervous system, shutting down your fight or flight response. It can make you less reactive to negative emotions and less angry.  Channel the frustration with others and the anxiety over what feels like an endless pandemic into drawing closer to Hashem, talking to Him, leaning on Him and even objecting to Him.  These Yamim Noraim, our davening will be more abridged, our singing more muted, and many won’t be able to participate in minyan at all.  But no matter where we are, now is not a time to be more casual or cavalier about prayer, it is a time to increase our fervor, intensify our concentration, and to dig deep to compensate for what is missing so that our tefillos can pierce the gates of Heaven. 


When looking out at the world, make sure to clean your windows first.  Do all you can to keep yourself and your family safe.  And then, make the decision that instead of perseverating over what you can’t control, you will focus on what you can.