The Density of Destiny

The Powerful Lesson of the Long Neck

We recently discussed different ways one can approach and encounter change. A method of acceptance and adaptation is outlined and illustrated in Who Moved My Cheese. An additional technique is to challenge and actively modify your situation and environment, as highlighted in I Moved Your Cheese. In the most recent post, I discussed that both attitudes might be valuable and complementary. It is integral to consider your specific life situation as you explore which of the models to internalize.

In a related vein, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, a foremost contemporary Orthodox scholar and philosopher, addresses this broad issue in his essay entitled “Kol Dodi Dofek” – Listen – My Beloved Knocks. In that beautiful composition, those same concepts take on deep meaning in dealing with suffering and evil. Rabbi Soloveitchik contrasts two approaches to evil, fate and destiny. Rabbi Soloveitchik articulates that the suffering of righteous people has been a question which the greatest of prophets, including Moses himself, queried of G-d.

Rabbi Soloveitchik expounds that Judaism provides an approach, not an answer. The approach urges one to differentiate between man being an object or a subject. An individual who faces a hardship can sometimes see himself as an unfortunate person acted upon by the unpleasant and unsavory events of life- an object. His reaction is to see the evil as his fate, where he is helpless, shocked, pained, and crushed. When one sees negative events as suffering that he is to endure passively, the result can be tremendous mental anguish, which may result in unanswerable theological or philosophical questions, anger, anxiety, or depression.

On the other hand, Rabbi Soloveitchik continues, Judaism advocates a different approach to evil, one which is silently heroic. A man might not be able to alter his situation. Yet, within the confines of his circumstance, he can aim to understand, plan, and regulate his actions and reactions, and perform within his situational boundaries, becoming an active subject. He can master his own behavior, calculate his behavioral responses, and analyze what the situation demands of him, transforming pathetic fate into majestic destiny.

The primary intent of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s philosophy is to explain that Judaism often mandates specific behaviors in response to emotionally difficult experiences. In his view, a Jewish man of destiny does not seek to modify a situation that he cannot, but examines what behavior the Jewish faith demands of him at the time. On occasion it can be introspection so that he improves his behavior, the recitation of the required brachah (blessing) on negative tidings, or observance of rites of mourning. One can rise to majesty by remaining steadfast in his religious beliefs and actions, and creating his own spiritual destiny within a physically immutable situation.

This approach can be broadened outside the realm of halachically (Jewish legally) demanded actions to explain a general response that one can espouse when he is faced with a struggle such as insufficient finances, poor educational opportunities, or difficulties in relationships. If the situation is incontrovertible, he must maneuver within its margins to accept it, deal with it, and create a best case scenario. In other circumstances, his most appropriate effort might be to challenge his circumstances and attempt to change them.

Sometimes, a man’s persistence and optimism demonstrate both his acceptance of change and his defiance of its supposed limitations. Consider this majestic manifestation of destiny, discussed by Dr.Viktor Frankl in a postscript to Man’s Search for Meaning (Postscript 1984 – The Case for a Tragic Optimism):

Jerry Long, to cite an example, is a living testimony to “the defiant power of the human spirit,” as it is called in logotherapy. To quote the Texarkana Gazette, “Jerry Long has been paralyzed from his neck down since a diving accident which rendered him a quadriplegic three years ago. He was seventeen when the accident occurred. Today Long can use his mouth stick to type. He ‘attends’ two courses at Community College via a special telephone. The intercom allows Long to both hear and participate in class discussions. He also occupies his time by reading, watching television and writing.” And in a letter I received from him, he writes: “I view my life as being abundant with meaning and purpose. The attitude that I adopted on that fateful day has become my personal credo for life: I broke my neck, it didn’t break me (note the play on words making a potential object into a subject –SM). I am currently enrolled in my first psychology course in college. I believe that my handicap will only enhance my ability to help others…”

If [suffering] is avoidable, the meaningful thing to do is to remove its cause. For unnecessary suffering is masochistic rather than heroic. If, on the other hand, one cannot change a situation that causes his suffering, he can still choose his attitude. Long had not chosen to break his neck, but he did decide not to let himself be broken by what had happened to him (again the object – subject change – SM).

After reading Frankl’s book and contacting Frankl, Long became a friend and then a colleague, of Frankl. You can see Dr. Jerry Long, Jr. and Dr. Viktor Frankl discussing some of their experiences together in this moving video. Long accepted that his cheese was moved, yet might be considered to have broken free of the maze that the cheese was in altogether, transforming what some might have seen as a confining, miserable fate into a heroic, magnificent, destiny.

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