Harvey S. Hecker Character Development Series: Why do we give voice to the negative instead of focusing on the positive?
The best moments of my life were when I felt the joy of emotionally bonding with another person. The pleasure of feeling a connection to other people is so great, that I have come to believe in the sort of emotional democracy that makes bonding even with a stranger on an airplane worthwhile. I am a connection junkie.
I hanker for the flash of something good and beautiful. It makes me more human, more aware, more inclusive and more real.
With that in mind, it is worth thinking through why I sabotage myself by occasionally cutting out or trivializing the positive side of what we experience when connecting with others. Why are we addicted to focusing on the dark side of the human spirit that is neither more observable nor more real than the good side? What is in it for us?
Diana was radiant. The day that Michael proposed, they sat in the park and mapped out their future. It was the best day of her life. Two weeks later her engagement party was held at the small, intimate restaurant that had been the venue of many of their dates. Two of her friends, Elena and Sandy, were deep in whispered conversation.
"What a match!" Sandy said.
"Don't get so excited," Elena warned.
Sandy persisted, "What do you mean? He's everything she was looking for and more. He's so attentive and considerate. He even helped her choose the menu."
But Elena wasn't convinced, "Don't you think that's a little, you know, controlling? I don't know if I should say something or not. It seems like a real red light to me."
Think About It
What was in it for Elena? Was she really just concerned about Diana? Was her conclusion, that Michael was controlling, the only rational one that comes to mind?
This takes us back to our question; what is in it for any of us when we chose to verbalize negativity? Why do we like negative or destructive speech that has no real purpose?
Let's take a look at our inner workings and learn to listen to our hidden agendas.
We sometimes think that if we don't say everything we feel, we are not being honest.
1. We confuse honesty with factuality.
Orchot Tzadikim (a famous book on Jewish ethics written by an anonymous author in the middle ages) tells us that the soul always knows the truth. It comes from the Source of truth, and for this reason truth resonates. Because of our love of truth we sometimes think (irrationally) that if we don't say everything we feel, we are not being honest.
The irrational aspect of this way of thinking is that we treat negativity and truth as though they are synonymous. "Letting it all out," and "saying it like it is," rarely means remembering to include everything compelling, good and enduring in a person or situation under discussion. In the example above, seeing the fiance as helpful is at least as honest as theorizing that he is controlling. In this case, the "evidence" is very flimsy. Even if it were solid, however, the person who needs this information is Diana, not Sandy. Elena's need to "tell it like it is" is sorely misdirected.
2. Discussing a problem feels like solving a problem.
Elena and Sandy have opted to play amateur psychologist. You can easily imagine how the conversation could progress.
"You know, I think that on some level she really likes this sort of thing. Her father really didn't have much to do with her after her parents got divorced."
"That really answers a lot of questions, Sandy. I always wondered why she was attracted to Michael to begin with. I never would go out with someone like him."
"I think she may have a tendency towards being borderline. You know, having no real personality except the one that you feel when someone molds you. I think that's what it is."
They could go on forever digging deeper into Diana's childhood, relationships etc. and with each layer they unearth, the "aha" response gives them the illusion of having achieved something real and valuable. The problem is that discussing a problem doesn't necessarily make the situation improve, even in cases where the discussion leads to valid conclusions. In fact, nothing of the sort is happening in this instance, since the "patient" is completely excluded from the treatment, and two women who have no qualifications, other than being avid readers of pop-psychology and self-help articles, are administering the treatment.
Recognition requires being cheered on by others. Significance requires doing something to make oneself a better person.
3. We like to talk so that people listen.
One of the soul's ten names is "kavod" which means honor. We all want validation of our importance because God imbued us with sensitivity to our own inherent significance. We want to make something of ourselves, and this desire is intimately entwined with our awareness of our own centrality in the scheme of things.
Tragically we are unable to distinguish emotionally between recognition and significance. Recognition requires being cheered on by others who are willing to be an enthusiastic audience. Significance requires doing something to make oneself a better person and the world a better place, which is of course much more complex.
Storytelling is entertaining and draws listeners, and at least for the moment the raconteur is the center of attention and feels the joy of recognition. "Elena, did you know Diana back in college?" If the answer is yes, Elena has it made. Sandy will be enraptured for at least the next ten minutes if Elena plays her cards right.
4. We find it hard to keep people human unless they are just like us.
Elena and Sandy found it painless to convert Diana into a "case." It is all too easy to step aside from the bond that unites us. Is this how Elena would tell her own story?
We have all seen the heart rendering photos of parents of criminals. They sit silently, pale and wounded at their son's trial. No, they don't necessarily believe that crime should go unpunished, nor do they always believe in their heart of hearts that their son is an innocent victim of life's circumstances, no matter how vigorously they defend him to the press or even to each other. The source of their pain is the profound empathy that is natural for them to feel towards their own flesh and blood. The more they gave him as an infant, and the more effort they put into somehow fixing their bad boy, the deeper their pain. This is because when they look at him they can't help but see themselves, their hopes and aspirations mirrored in his eyes.
The more dissimilar anyone is to us, the easier it is to detach and dehumanize him. It is for this reason that all armies train their soldiers to attack "the enemy" rather than anyone who has a name or a life of their own.
There are no qualifications needed to be a connoisseur of other people's lives.
5. If he is fat, I must be thin.
The cheapest way to feel superior is to present someone else as inferior. Sitting in judgment from the comfort of our armchairs, or in the case of Sandy and Elena the pseudo-antique ambience of a trendy restaurant, is a very comfortable pose. It provides us with the feeling of authority and superiority without the need to actually achieve anything. There are no qualifications needed to be a connoisseur of other people's lives or the nature of their choices and how much better you would have done if you were in their position.
6. Negative speech nurtures our fantasy lives.
When we were kids we all knew that we would grow up to be heroes. There are lots of eight-year-old firemen, astronauts, and even rabbis. There are few actuaries, computer marketers, or x-ray technicians. We love high drama as long as we are the heroes.
Negative speech can be first class theater. There are so many plots to choose from. There is "me against the bad guys," or "I saved him/her/them," or a myriad of other storylines which depict others as bad, clueless, pathetic and valuing your advice, help etc. This sometimes touches the part of our fantasy life that is almost messianic. A final version is, "I took risks, but it was all worthwhile." This requires much discussion of what would have happened, how it would have happened etc.
7. The best defense is a good offense.
Sandy and Elena are single. Diana is engaged. Intellectually we all know that being single is no crime, nor is it a melodramatic tragedy or even a symptom of failure. That doesn't mean that everyone who knows this rationally is wise enough to recognize these facts emotionally. Feeling like a loser is not necessarily the result of being a loser.
Our sages tell us, "Envy, desire and the wanting of prestige take a person out of reality." Our hearts tell us to defend ourselves against other people's successes. Negative speech is often an adult version of, "I didn't want that silly old lolly anyway." The problem is that the irrationality can get out of hand, and the emotional energy that should be spent on living our lives constructively is spent on tearing down others. Adapting world-class negativity towards "competitors" who don't even know that they are running a race with no rules, and no winners can never develop our self-esteem.
It is important to know where our desire to destroy rather than to build comes from. Understanding why we are drawn towards the negative will enable us to take the next step which is a radical change in the way we think and feel. We must learn to see other people as part of ourselves so that we feel success with their success and feel validated when they receive recognition.
The way this happens is by moving beyond feeling needy and vulnerable. These negative feelings keep us in the eternal posture of defense. The more we internalize how much God has given us, on every possible level, the more beloved, significant and validated we will feel intrinsically. When the cup is full it runs over. Our relationships become kinder, more forgiving, and most relevantly, secure enough to see and focus on the good in others.
About this Series
Aish.com is proud to present the Harvey Hecker Character Development Series, with new modules every month. We'll begin by exploring the two basic traits of Kindness and Discipline. We'll then explore other key traits including Gratitude, Empathy and more.
The series is dedicated in memory of Harvey Hecker, the former President of Aish International, who believed that changing the world begins with ethics and integrity. Mr. Hecker was a master at calmly and appropriately dealing with others, especially amidst challenging situations. He gave freely of his time and wisdom, showing honor and humility to all. His mantra: "Strive to do the right thing." We hope this series will honor his memory.