A Tale of Two Mazes

How do you navigate life’s changes? Accept them? Modify them?
See what Arielle did.


In two recent posts, Can You Spare Some Change and Don’t Be So Amazed, I discussed two approaches to change. Spencer Johnson, MD, in his Who Moved My Cheese, uses a powerful allegory to remind us that change is inevitable. Dr. Johnson maintains that instead of fighting it, it is most beneficial to acknowledge it, accept it, and adapt to it. He uses  a parable of people in a maze, who rely on cheese for their sustenance. Once the cheese is moved from its usual place, it is prudent for them to adapt to that change and search for cheese in another location.

In contrast, Dr. Deepak Malhotra, in his I Moved Your Cheese, argues that it is more helpful to handle change differently. Analyze the change, ask why it happened, and marshal your own strength to create a situation where you are in control of the change instead of being manipulated by others. In his counter-parable, he discusses a mouse that is in a maze and leaves the maze, where he is able to maneuver the cheese around the maze at will. He leaves the confines of his situation and becomes master over his own destiny.

Which approach works for you? Have you noticed that you feel more comfortable with one or the other? Perhaps part of a successful personal and professional life calls for using both approaches and knowing which perspective to apply to which situation.

The maze in Dr. Johnson’s parable might be seen as representing a circumstance where one is faced with change and does not want to exit. Resisting change might lead to anxiety, depression, diminished heath, and reduced functioning. Therefore, it is advisable to accept change as inevitable and adapt to it to survive and succeed.

On the other hand, Dr. Malhotra adds that it is often advisable to examine a situation carefully. Depending on factors such as the timing, one’s resources, or state of mind, one might realize that it is within her ability to approach change differently. She can analyze the change, contest it, or exit those particular circumstances.

Arielle Flumenstein (a pseudonym) discovered how to use both of these approaches while navigating a difficult experience that she faced. Arielle was an Orthodox Jewish woman who started dating for marriage at 19, as is typical in her culture. As she matured, she set her goal as finding a husband who would learn in kollel (an advanced Talmud study program) for at least a decade after their marriage. She did not want to be supported by either of their families, and was assiduous at finding jobs through which she could support her family. When she dated, she discussed her goals with her potential mates. They were impressed both with her dedication to her religious ideals, as well as by her work ethic. Within a few months of dating, she met Shimi. She noticed that he was extremely serious about his Talmud study and that he had life goals that were similar to her. A few weeks after their initial date, they got engaged. A few months later, they were married (these are accepted time frames for their culture). Arielle was content living her life dreams. She was working hard, but she felt satisfied that she partnered with a husband who was attaining their mutual religious goals.

A few months into their marriage, Shimi did not seem to be learning as well as he had been. He started waking up late, did not seem as energetic, and was difficult to have pleasant conversations with. Arielle spoke to an advisor that she was close to who advised her to encourage Shimi to make an appointment with a psychotherapist. After a few meetings with Shimi, the psychotherapist explained to Shimi that he was suffering from a disorder called dysthymia, a mild form of depression. Together with a psychiatrist, the psychotherapist and Shimi created a plan to deal with Shimi’s disorder. The treatment plan included both medicine and psychotherapy.

At first, Arielle found it difficult to swallow her situation. She could not imagine her husband needing to take medicine daily. She also found it hard to believe that he was making weekly psychotherapy meetings. She had not included that in her budget, schedule, or life plan. She made an appointment to speak to Shimi’s psychotherapist. As she talked with him about it he helped her understand that she was suffering from “cheese-itis.” She and Shimi had undergone a life change, which she was finding hard to accept. In several, subsequent meetings, some of which included Shimi, they explored why it was so hard for her to accept the change, and how she could deal with it.

In that scenario, it seems like it was important for Arielle to accept or adapt to the change. It would probably not have been beneficial for Arielle to simply question why Shimi contracted his disorder or leave her marriage. Indeed, Arielle accepted her and Shimi’s new life situation, and they became sources of mutual support together as their marriage flourished.

Fifteen years later, Shimi was still learning in kollel, and his knowledge and understanding of Torah had grown exponentially. He was no longer taking medication, but maintained biweekly appointments with his therapist. He was pursued for a position of Rosh Kollel (dean) in a local community kollel. Based on a response from his posek (rabbinic legal advisor), he discussed his history of a previous mental health disorder during one of his meetings with the board. One member of the board was outspoken about that history undermining Shimi’s candidacy.

Shimi was disappointed and returned home to Arielle to share what happened at the meeting with her. Together, Arielle and Shimi decided that they were going to prepare a presentation for the board about how common dysthymia is, and how it can be diagnosed, maintained, and approached. A theme that they were going to convey was that dysthymia and depression are not weaknesses, but diseases like the flu or heart disease. With professional help, they can be managed, monitored, and sometimes relieved.

Shimi met with the board again. At the beginning of the meeting, a growing number of members of the board were incredulous about Shimi’s candidacy. But, by the time he finished his presentation, he was offered the position on the spot. In this situation, Arielle and Shimi did not merely accept that the cheese moved, they “took the bull by the horns” and became masters over their situation.

Through life’s vicissitudes and psychotherapy, Arielle (and Shimi) learned that sometime one has to move with the cheese, and other times, one has to move the cheese itself!

One thought on “A Tale of Two Mazes”

  1. Wow, what a beautiful synthesis of the 2 approaches. So true and applicable. I really appreciate the coherent message, thank you Rabbi Maybruch!


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