King Solomon elicited a challenge from his subordinates. He dared them to create jewelry that could both relieve sorrow and temper mirth. Most that heard the challenge saw it as insurmountable. Yet, one loyal servant thoughtfully produced a ring with simple phrase, “gam zeh yaavor – this too shall pass.” These words are both simple and brilliant; they pithily summarize the temporary nature of most experiences. King Solomon was overjoyed and handsomely rewarded his insightful subject.
When one is experiencing the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, or any feeling in between, it can be helpful to recall that many strong emotions are short lived. Even a situation that is prolonged will probably will not last for one’s entire life. “Gam zeh yaavor” provides a reminder that difficulties often blow over and opportunities don’t always remain.
Although King Solomon, or any other Jewish leader, is not actually recorded as having coined that phrase, its phenomenal ability to express a deep philosophical idea made it attractive to leaders such as Abraham Lincoln (here, in closing) and led to widespread use. Most would probably expect it to be found somewhere in Scripture or in Rabbinic literature, although it does not appear in any classical Jewish source. (For more on its origins and use in Jewish and non-Jewish sources, see this brief article by Dr. Shnayer Z. Leiman.)
Yet, sometimes “gam zeh yaavor” can provide an inappropriate allure. It can shield us from acknowledging and appreciating the facts and the feelings of the present. We can misconstrue “gam zeh yaavor” to endorse an attitude of ignorance and irresponsibility in the face of struggle. If we find ourselves in difficult circumstances, it can be significant to appreciate the gravity of the situation, explore means of ameliorating it, and move in that direction. It can be powerful and helpful to fuel ourselves with the knowledge that adversity usually blows over. At the same time, it is pragmatically and emotionally important to take the bull by the horns, analyze our responsibilities, and act to change our current reality.
This duality was personified by the behavior of Admiral James Stockdale, the highest ranking American to be held hostage in Vietnam. He was subjected to extraordinarily difficult prison experiences, and finally regained his freedom after eight trying years. Stockdale explained that he took a two-pronged approach to his life in captivity. On the one hand, he realized that he needed to remain brutally aware of his current reality. His life was next to meaningless to his captors and he needed to exert extraordinary effort just to remain alive. He had to have his wits about him and appear reasonably obedient to the guards. He had to exercise constant vigilance and devise his own methods of physical survival. At the same time, he hoped and imagined that one day the war would finish. He fostered confidence and optimism that he would survive and be united with his family. This dichotomy became coined “The Stockdale Paradox.”
Stockdale’s tempered optimism allowed his to survive his brutal imprisonment and return home. He eventually became a lecturer at the Hoover Institute at Stanford and was also nominated as a vice-presidential candidate. He was able to hold the beauty and sweetness of hope, yet did not allow it to shake his full awareness of the brutality of his reality. That balance is essential to thriving in life. Optimism can sometimes obfuscate reality, and realism can sometimes eclipse hope.
This dialectic approach also distills the basis of most psychotherapy. One usually needs to appreciate some aspects of his current reality to make therapy meaningful. It is important for him to acknowledge an impediment so that he can reach out and so he can internalize the discussions he has with is therapist. At the same time, he can usually most effectively engage in the psychotherapeutic process armored with hope that his situation can change.
There is great wisdom in realizing that “gam zeh yaavor.” There is also great importance in being aware and mindful of a current situation and its demands. Combining future perspective while embracing current reality can sometimes seem to take the sagacity of no less than King Solomon.