How We Define Our Own Destinies
Dear Rabbi Jacobson,
In many of your writings I have read that each of us is responsible to be happy. Indeed, it is a mitzvah to have simcha (joy). You have eloquently explained that each of us is indispensable and worthy of being joyful. However I would like to ask you, especially now that we enter the month of Adar, a month of joy: Is it possible that some of us are just wired to be happier than others? It often appears that way. Some people seem to simply have a happy disposition while others just don’t.
The real question is this: Does our wiring define our attitudes and personalities or do our attitudes define our wiring?
Broader yet: Can our thoughts change reality? Do our feelings shape our destiny?
The possibility may sound preposterous, but the truth is that science now is embracing precisely this idea: That our reality is shaped by our thoughts. Or as it has recently been coined: Neurons get wired by the way they are fired. By repeatedly thinking about something a certain way, our minds actually get (re)wired to follow that thought pattern.
If, for instance, you think negatively about yourself, your neurons get hardwired with a negative self-perception, to the point that the negative self-image becomes a self-fulfilling reality, in which you can no longer distinguish between the initial thought and the reality it has created.
And once the neurons get wired into place, through habitual thinking, it becomes increasingly difficult to unwire yourself.
Yet, just as we have become wired a certain way, we can also become unwired, through persistent effort we can refire our neurons and rewire them with new attitudes.
Quantum physics takes this to a further extreme: We have the power to impact not just our neurons and self-perception but also the reality of existence around us. Indeed, many scientists argue that there really is no distinction between our thoughts and the reality around us. If, for example, a certain event has never entered the realm of possibility in your consciousness, then you will not be able to see the event even if actually is in your sight of vision!
Our entire concept of reality is actually turned inside out: We always thought that there is an objective reality “out there” which we then experience and try to comprehend. The truth is that it’s not reality that shapes our perception; our perception shapes our reality.
A Japanese researcher, Dr. Masaru Emoto, has demonstrated that human thought has the power to change the shape and expression of water crystals. Using powerful microscopes he showed that crystals formed in frozen water reveal changes when specific, concentrated thoughts are directed toward them. In his new book, The Hidden Messages in Water, he describes his findings, that water from clear springs and water that has been exposed to loving words shows brilliant, complex, and colorful snowflake patterns. In contrast, polluted water, or water exposed to negative thoughts, forms incomplete, asymmetrical patterns with dull colors.
A recent documentary called What The Bleep Do We Know? explores this issue, presenting extensive interviews with prominent physicists and thinkers.
In some mysterious way, on a quantum level, sub-atomic particles sense that they are being observed, and they are affected by the observer.
As the physicist John Wheeler explains: “Nothing is more important about the quantum principle than this, that it destroys the concept of the world as ‘sitting out there,’ with the observer safely separated from it by a 20-centimeter slab of plate glass. Even to observe so minuscule an object as an electron, he must shatter the glass. He must reach in. He must install his chosen measuring equipment. It is up to him to decide whether he shall measure position or momentum. To install the equipment to measure the one prevents and excludes his installing the equipment to measure the other. Moreover, the measurement changes the state of the electron. The universe will never afterward be the same. To describe what has happened, one has to cross out that old word ‘observer’ and put in its place the new word ‘participator.’ In some strange sense, the universe is a participatory universe.”
What’s fascinating about this is not the actual concept.
Mystics have always understood the universe as a participatory one. Indeed, the opening verses of the Bible make it very clear that the human being created in the Divine Image has the power—and the responsibility—to shape and transform the universe.
The amazing thing is that this so-called mystical idea—which seems so counter-intuitive to linear logic—is being recognized by science as an empirical fact. This only reinforces the mystical teachings (namely in the Zohar) that at the dawn of Messianic times there will be an explosion of wisdom – both above and below, Divine wisdom as well as scientific wisdom. And a wisdom that will reflect the utter unity between matter and spirit.
So now, are we wired to be happy or to be sad? Or do we control our wiring?
No doubt that many people seem to have a despondent predisposition, and others a cheerful one. Add into the equation the hurt and deprivation many have suffered in their childhoods it can almost appear impossible to overcome the dysfunctionality wired into our psyches. And any attempt to change things would seem futile.
All that is true, if we are bound to our wiring, like a computer dependent on its circuitry. However, we are not mere machines. We have the power to rewire ourselves, and to reshape even a daunting reality. Besides the fact that many of our demons are our own self-destructive illusions, even the ones that have some objective reality are also in our control.
Someone once came to the Tzemech Tzedek imploring that he pray on behalf of a certain individual who was seriously ill. The Tzemech Tzedek replied: “Tracht gut vet zayn gut,” think good and it will be good. Positive thinking can actually change the situation for the better.
Once upon a time this could have been taken as a religious statement, driven primarily by faith. Today it is becoming scientific fact that our thoughts define our realities.
As one great master once said: Some people think “why am I so sad because things aren’t working in my life.” The truth is that things aren’t working because you are so sad. People often believe that they are not happy because they have no joy in their lives. The truth is the other way around: By being joyous you become happy.
Which comes to explain the ultimate question: Will this world ever change and actually realize the purpose of its being – a world filled with virtue and love, with no more injustice and pain?
It almost seems like an impossible dream. When we witness the selfishness around and within us – with some researchers arguing that “the average human being is about 95 percent selfish in the narrow sense of the term” – you have to wonder how human inclinations will ever change? Of course, Divine intervention can achieve anything. However, we are told to not depend on miracles. How will things change naturally?
Robert H. Frank wrote in a recent article in the New York Times (Business, February 17), that we are influenced by our own theories. Our personal attitudes and beliefs about selfishness and giving directly impact and define our own behavior.
He cites an experimental study of private contributions to a common project, which “found that first-year graduate students in economics contributed an average of less than half the amount contributed by students from other disciplines.”
“Other studies have found that repeated exposure to the self-interest model makes selfish behavior more likely. In one experiment, for example, the cooperation rates of economics majors fell short of those of nonmajors, and the difference grew the longer the students had been in their respective majors.”
Frank concludes, that what is particularly troubling is that “the narrow self-interest model, which encourages us to expect the worst in others, often brings out the worst in us as well.”
Everyone is affected by the attitudes and expectations of those around us, and ultimately by the expectations we have of ourselves. If you have been inundated with a message that you are a lowly creature, or that we are all not much more than selfish beasts, especially if this position helped shaped you in your formative years, inevitably your “script” has been written.
I’ll never forger my shock when I heard for the first time someone tell me, in response to my question what he looks forward to in life, “I would be happy if I just did not get hurt in life. When a day passes and I come out intact, I breathe a sigh of relief and feel accomplished.” This individual was hurt so many times, that his threshold for “normal” and his expectation for happiness was: No damage.
Well, the good news is that within the disease lies the cure: Our attitudes and beliefs have the power to rewire ourselves and the universe—to higher the standard that we expect of ourselves.
We are not doomed and we are not static. Each of us has a vibrant spirit, and with will power, persistence and good support, we can unplug, refire and rewire our systems.
We have the power to not relegate our lives to watching others watch others watch others watching us – in one vicious cycle of “the blind leading the blind” spiraling downward, with producers accusing consumers of lowering the standards and vice versa; punctuated by the prerequisite hand-wringing “oh my, look how things have deteriorated,” with everyone winking at each other while scowling at Janet Jackson. How often do we hear producers arguing that the low standard of TV broadcasting is due to the demand of the consumers, and the consumers arguing, that “we watch what they show us,” and advertisers salivating either way as long as they get their product planted into our hearts.
Yes, we have the power to rewire ourselves—to rewire the very consciousness of existence.
The world will change when we change our attitudes. Expect more of yourself and you will become more. Expect more of others and they will become more.
All it takes are a few individuals who will stand up to the prevalent status quo. Instead of going with the flow and following the current, they will be truly “independent” and lift the expectations that we have of each other to its deserved place: That we live up to the Divine image within ourselves.
All it takes is you and I and a few other individuals. If ten of us can do, ten thousand can. If then thousand can, ten million can. After all, the six billion of us are merely six billion individuals like you and me.