Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Truth About Tests

It is an important subject, yet spoken about with half-truths and superficial clichés. A “test”, an ordeal which puts our character to the test, is an unavoidable part of life. They are often turning points, moments in which greatness can be achieved. In a religious context, these tests are important because they are an opportunity to demonstrate genuine faith. Because of this, in many a sermon, tests are spoken about in reverential tones, as if it were a joy to be tested.

Unfortunately, it is dishonest to praise tests. Humans absolutely hate suffering. The Talmud includes a section extolling the rewards due to the righteous man who suffers. Immediately following, it cites three stories of Rabbis who are suffering, and each one, when given the choice, says “I want neither the suffering, nor the reward”. In a rare reversal, the Talmud’s romantic portrayal of the noble, pious man who accepts his suffering is immediately brought down to earth, when noble, pious men refuse to accept suffering. In fact, the very idea of a test means that the ordeal is horrible; if suffering were something people would freely choose, the test wouldn’t be very much of a test after all.

Even more superficial is the way tests are spoken about in contemporary society. Today, we are firm believers in psychobabble, the shallow clichés of afternoon talk shows and the self-help aisle in the bookstore. After any ordeal, one is meant to seek “closure”. Somehow, if they participate in a few miraculous rituals, they will be able to “move on” and forget their pain. Indeed, today only one test matters: whether or not a person is able to “move on” after a trauma.

This view ignores human reality. I find it upsetting when people visit shivas and try to dispense advice to the mourners how they can “get over” things. This type of advice adds insult to injury; not only is the mourner in pain because of his loss, but it’s also his fault that he hasn’t figured out how to “get over it”. And the reason why the mourner can’t “get over it” is that traumas are not mere inconveniences; they are critical life experiences.

This is why there is a custom to treat a Yartziet, the yearly anniversary of death of a relative, as if it were a day of partial mourning. This is an eloquent way of saying that the person is still sorely missed, and that a part of us will always mourn. By refusing closure, we show genuine respect for the experience of love and for those we have lost.

A true test is too painful to romanticize, too difficult to “get over”. Yes, tests are extremely painful. Yet, despite the pain, one can transcend one’s circumstances, and even utilize their pain to achieve remarkable heights.

Indeed, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes that the Hebrew word for test, “nissah” is related to the Hebrew word to raise up, “nasso”. This is because a test is not meant to merely be endured, but rather to raise one up to a higher plane.

I recently read an article in The Atlantic about Abraham Lincoln. The article described Lincoln’s lifelong depression, at times profound enough to give him suicidal impulses. Remarkably, his depression drove him to find a deeper sense of purpose, and to approach life with greater clarity and creativity. His chronic depression drove him to engage life more deeply, and to find a transcendent sense of meaning.

This is a genuine paradigm of how we should engage the tests we will meet in the road of life. There is no true closure after a trauma; the pain remains, no matter what one does. However, even though this is a horrible ordeal, our best choice is to reach for transcendence by suffering meaningfully, and enlisting our pain in the service of higher ideals.

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