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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).