Does every cloud have a silver lining? Or are plenty of them filled with rain that slickens the highway and jackknifes the tractor-trailer?
There’s really no way to answer the question, because what if that tractor-trailer snarls traffic, making the lady 17 cars behind it late for her interview? And what if that means she doesn’t get the job and she’s so depressed she stops at her favorite bakery, where she runs into her high school boyfriend, recently divorced, who’s always carried a torch for her and is about to sell his startup, called Zappos? What I mean is: Do we live in a gam zu l’tovah world or not?
Gam zu l’tovah is a Hebrew expression that translates roughly to “Even this is for the best” — “this” being some rotten thing one is enduring, from a D in physics to a lawnmower-leg accident. Its origins seem traceable to Rabbi Akiva’s teacher, who went by the name Nahum Gamzu.
And so there’s a famous story (well, famous once you start Googling “gam zu l’tovah”) about how Rabbi Akiva went to a town where, as in either all ancient parables or inns, there were no rooms to be had. Unfazed, he camped out in the woods with his donkey, rooster and candle — whereupon a fox ate his rooster, a lion ate the donkey and the wind blew out his candle. Akiva figured this was God’s will.
Day dawns, and it turns out the entire town had been sacked in the night. Had Akiva’s rooster crowed, donkey brayed or candle shone bright, the sackers would have noticed him, too. So — you get the point.
It’s a perspective that can be very comforting, this idea that we DON’T have perspective when misery hits. And when I started asking around for gam zu l’tovah stories, everyone seemed to have one. Laid off twice in eight months, Eileen Roth decided to become her own boss — a professional organizer. Now she’s the author of “Organizing for Dummies.” Barry Maher left his job after a humiliating pay dispute, but was hired back as a consultant for more money. Second-year med school student Daniel Kalla was taking the test he needed to pass to be promoted. He’d never failed a test before. He failed that one. Depressed and terrified, he studied hard all summer and not only aced the do-over, but he feels he’s a more attentive doctor to this day.
And those are just the job stories. Then there’s sickness! Antoinette Kurnitz was filling up her tank at the gas station when the hose broke off the handle, drenching her in gasoline. “Burned my lungs severely, staph infections all over my body, was told that all had been done that could be done, that I was going to die from it,” she said. Her reaction was to get a job in a bookstore. “I loved books, and if I was going to die, it would be among them,” she said.
One thing led to another, and pretty soon she landed a job as a book publicist — a dream come true. She also founded the La Jolla Writers Conference. And by the way, that gas incident is now 18 years behind her. Could it really be that the best things in life start out as the worst and we just need to have faith that someday we’ll connect the dots?
Oh please, says Rabbi Kenneth B. Block, a chaplain with the Veterans Administration. “If you have pancreatic cancer, that’s not for the good. Brain cancer? Not good.“ He said he has yet to hear someone exclaim, “This is wonderful, I have pancreatic cancer! Now my family is going to collect life insurance!”
And there’s no reason they should. “In the real world,” the rabbi said, “what actually helps — and a more Jewish approach — is to say, ‘This is terrible. I’m going to do what I need to do and get the treatments I need to get.’” In other words: It’s human, even positive, to treat bad news as bad news. If you believe you are actually supposed to treat it as good news in disguise, you can end up feeling worse: Not only am I upset about the raccoon in the chimney, I can’t even take a step back and realize it’s part of a wonderful Divine Plan. Golly, now maybe I’ll change careers and become a successful exterminator! Or maybe I’ll write “Ode to a Rancid Raccoon” and become America’s poet laureate! Why can’t I see this problem as a terrific opportunity? Boy, am I unevolved!
But maybe the gam zu l’tovah idea is more psychologically sophisticated than it seems. That’s what Ted Falcon says. Falcon is a rabbi, public speaker (as one of the three “Interfaith Amigos”) and psychotherapist. “People who come in a little depressed are the hardest people to treat,” he said. “But if somebody comes in really upset, they’re desperate. They know they’re hurting. It’s easier to help somebody when they go, ‘Help!’ rather than just, ‘Eh.’”
Being pelted by life’s lemons can lead to the “Help!” Then, sometimes, something good begins. To pick just one, rather extreme example: I spoke with a woman, Sue Martin, who’d been so depressed she shot herself in the head.
Obviously that didn’t go as planned. Instead of dead, she ended up blind. But, she said, “Being forced to learn the skills that I needed is what pulled me out of the depression.” She went on to get a degree in blind rehab — a career she adores — and met her future husband, a fellow student.
So what was the gam zu l’tovah part? That she was so depressed she tried to kill herself? That she became blind?
The only dots I can connect are, that when she had to do something really daunting — get her injured life on track — she finally felt good. Not un-blind. Just un-stuck. And that seems to be what made the folks who lost their jobs, their health and their straight As feel better, too: working extra-hard to improve things.
It’s insulting to say that all bad things are really for the best, but it seems clear to say that taking action, sometimes out of sheer desperation, changes life for the better.
“You’ll get tired of making lemonade before the universe gets tired of giving you lemons!” warns Rabbi Block. No doubt. But maybe the whole plan is for you to get out the pitcher and stir things up.
Lenore Skenazy is author of the book and blog, Free-Range Kids (Wiley, 2010).