Thursday, June 13, 2013

We Didn’t Get Here by Complaining

Some people are only happy when they’re miserable.

The joke is told about the well known businessman who has a heart ailment, and is taken to the best hospital in New York. A few days later, he abruptly transfers to a small hospital best known for its mediocrity. When he arrives there, the attending physician is intrigued, wondering why this man has transferred from a world class hospital to his humble facility. So he asks his celebrity patient what was wrong with the previous hospital.

"Was the medical care not good enough?"

"No - the medical care was remarkable, with one doctor more brilliant than the next. I can't complain".

"Was the nursing care OK?"

"The nurses were absolute angels. I can't complain"

"What about the food and the rooms?"

"The food was exceptional, restaurant quality, and the hospital rooms were just redecorated. I can't complain".

Finally, the doctor asks: "So why did you come here?"

"Here…I CAN complain!"

Like most jokes, this one tells an awkward truth: many people feel their best when they have something to grumble about. Grievances and criticisms are their raison d’etre, and they’ll enthusiastically share their gripes with anyone who will listen. The curmudgeon hunts for complaints, and savors new opportunities to gripe. (We’re not talking about constructive criticism here; we’re talking about old fashioned griping, where the gripe is an end in itself).

In rabbinic literature two biblical characters, Datan and Aviram, are associated with each and every complaint the Jews had in the desert. This is the rabbis way of saying that for Datan and Aviram, complaints were instinctive, more a reflection of their character than their circumstances. Much like the man in the hospital, Datan and Aviram love to kvetch for its own sake; they are chronic complainers. And chronic complainers are only happy when they’re miserable.

Most of us know someone like this. And if we’re honest with ourselves, at times, most of us ARE someone like this. Complaining needlessly is a guilty little pleasure that we all enjoy, an emotional free parking space where we can be smug and self pitying at the same time. 

Complaining is seductive because it deflects responsibility from oneself. The complainer’s universe is controlled by incompetent people and immutable bad luck, with nothing more that the complainer can do. After all, what do you expect from them, when the “bozos in charge” ruin everything? In the desert, the complainers whine to Moses “Why did you take us out of Egypt”, content that they themselves carry no responsibility for their own future. After all, whatever goes wrong is Moses’/God’s/ Pharaoh’s fault.

Kvetching can also be very comforting. Buried beneath the constant stream of complaints is a dark background of pessimism; the complainer simply doesn’t expect things to be better. Each complaint is merely another thread in the fabric of pessimism, another way of establishing that life will always disappoint.  While negativity sounds shrill and bitter to others, it is in many ways very comforting to a pessimist;  the secret of pessimism is that the pessimist is never disappointed. When you expect the worst, very little fails to meet your low expectations.  Pessimism is an emotional shock absorber, a way of insuring that one is never really disappointed. The fact that the Jews who left Egypt are pessimists and complainers makes good sense; having survived generations of adversity where a promised redemption persistently failed to arrive, pessimism was the defense mechanism that allowed them to disregard disappointment after disappointment. Like other broken hearted pessimists, the Jews who left Egypt complained in order to diminish the pain of future disappointments.

According to stereotype, Jews are inveterate complainers, the people who have turned “kvetching” into an art form (and certainly, it's funny to poke fun at Jewish kvetching; just ask Jon Stewart). And as someone who works in the Jewish community, I can tell you that there’s truth to this stereotype. But beyond the jokes, the reality is quite different. Instead of just whining about 1,900 years in exile, we have built a Jewish state; instead of griping about the Holocaust, we have rebuilt a proud and successful Jewish community. Yes, we’ve had our moments of kvetching; but complaints were never the final word.  We have chosen to dream of a better future instead of dwelling on a disappointing past.

It could have turned out differently. After the Shoah, the Jewish world could have followed Datan and Aviram’s example and wallowed in complaints and pessimism.  But that’s not what happened, due to a cadre of heroes who chose to transcend negativity.

These men and women had broken hearts, but strong spirits. They persevered, building families, businesses and communities. They sweated and slaved and finally succeeded. And at times, they even smiled.

Those smiles may seem innocuous; but in actuality, when someone has every reason in the world to complain, smiling is very heroic indeed.

Lindsey, a young woman in our synagogue went on the March of the Living with her grandfather, a holocaust survivor. When she returned, she told this anecdote about her trip:

“I cried because for that small moment, it felt real……. I thought about those few minutes I spent beside my grandfather who had done this identical march 60 years ago in completely different conditions. We never really spoke much about his experiences in the holocaust except for this one incident. 60 years ago my grandfather and his father began the death march standing beside one another starving and in freezing cold weather…..(and then) it was my grandfather standing alone. My great grandfather was too weak to keep up with everyone so they shot him in front of my grandfather’s very eyes. It wasn’t this that made me cry either. It was the fact that when I was marching beside my grandfather, he was smiling at me. He had experienced this torture first hand, and yet when I, his only granddaughter, was walking next to him, he was brave enough and strong enough to smile.”

This courageous smile tells the story of contemporary Jewish history. In the last 70 years, the Jewish world has undergone a change of fortune unparalleled in human history.  But we didn’t get here by complaining; we got here with heroism, hard work, and….courageous smiles.

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