Life is full of ups and downs; good times and not-so-good; times when everything is going according to plan and life is most rewarding and times when nothing seems to be going right. A person with a healthy mentality is usually able to accept that things aren’t always going to be perfect, and thus is able to get through the difficult times by focusing on the future and recognizing that the current predicament is only temporary. Any psychologist will tell you that having a positive attitude makes dealing with adverse situations so much easier.
People often associate optimism with denial. How can we be optimistic when reality is so clearly telling us the opposite? How can someone claim that all is well when the world is facing so many disturbing situations? War, violence, pandemic, economic meltdown, the dissolution of morals and ethics, and so on. What exactly is there to be optimistic about?
But there’s really more to dealing with a difficulty than simply saying “this too shall pass.” If all that’s getting you through troubling times is the hope that the future will be better—while certainly better than wallowing in sorrow—it may imply that while anticipating better times, the present is being wasted. If all you care about is tomorrow, then you will not focus on making today productive as well.
The Talmud tells of two sages who exemplified the trait of always having a bright outlook in life despite it not necessarily being self-evident: Rabbi Akiva and Nachum Ish-Gamzu. In fact, Nachum’s last name came from a phrase he would commonly use: “Gam zu letovah—this too is for the best.” He only saw the potential good within everything that occurred to him.
Rabbi Akiva’s phrase was, “All that G-d does is for good.” While similar on the surface, it carried a different message. Where Nachum only saw the silver lining in every situation, never for a moment considering that things were bad, Rabbi Akiva recognized that a situation was dire and nevertheless had faith that in the end everything will turn out well.
The main difference between Rabbi Akiva and Nachum Ish-Gamzu was how they viewed the present. Both had an overall optimistic outlook, but Nachum, who was perhaps more spiritual, only saw the good. Rabbi Akiva, on the other hand, was more down to earth and could not deny that on the surface things weren’t great, but his faith kept him going and allowed him to focus on bringing out the best in every situation.
When things are not going well for us, it can be tempting to run and hide, to wait for it to pass and hope for better times. We’ll sometimes even point fingers and blame our predicament on circumstances beyond our control or on people in our lives. But when we are able to turn negativity into productivity, to not only find the silver lining but to transform the adverse situation into a positive, that’s how we will continue to grow and thrive despite what the world throws at us. Sharing with others, caring for the needy, being the light in someone else’s life; these are just examples of how a dire situation can be more than just a way station to the future, but an actual source of positivity and holiness.
In fact, when we accomplish that, we should also be able to recognize the blessing that we were given, through the monumental opportunities handed to us, for us to be the reason the world becomes a better place. To the point that not only do we no longer see the darkness, it becomes all about the blessing, being grateful for finding ourselves in the right place at the right time. It could have been anyone, but G-d chose you to be the one to make a difference.