Sunday, March 6, 2011

Feast or Famine

There is a story that describes how – after death – a certain soul is shown two different rooms upon its arrival in olam haba (the world to come).  The first is a gorgeous, oak paneled dining room with chandeliers, a long table, and high-backed chairs.  A feast is set with all kinds of foods, wines, and delicacies and a constant stream of servants approaches the table offering new dishes and extravagant drinks to try.  However, the soul is shocked to see that emaciated diners sit around the table, moaning and wailing with hunger.  Although there is a banquet in front of them they are starving because four-foot long forks have been attached to their arms.  Try as they might, the long protruding forks prevent them from putting the food into their mouths.  The soul rushes out of the room in horror and is immediately ushered into the second room.

This room is identical to the first one, with the same oak paneling, chandeliers, long table, and high backed-chairs.  There is a feast set, with servants bringing all kinds of food and drink.  Diners sit around the table with the same four-foot long forks attached to their arms, but instead of moaning and screaming with hunger, they are happily chatting and eating the banquet in front of them.  The only difference between the first group and the one in this room is that - instead of trying to feed themselves - they are feeding their dining partners on the opposite side of the table.

Often times the only difference between heaven and hell is our attitude and approach.  

Chassidic philosophy teaches that, sooner or later, a self-absorbed and self-centered personality will lead to misery because it runs contrary to the purpose of our births:  to partner with others in a mutually beneficial manner that will repair the deficiencies of the world (tikkun olam).  We are not designed to be closed off and indifferent to those around us.  Rather, this is an attitude that results from insecurity and fear.  Somewhere along the way, a greedy person came to believe that there is only one pie and that, “when your piece gets bigger, mine gets smaller.”  They have never learned or experienced that by working together there is more to be shared by all.

In the late nineteenth century, many people viewed the world through the lens of what is called Social Darwinism.  The notion of “survival of the fittest” was used to justify elite groups and powerful nations subjugating whole populations based on the belief that it was simply the natural order for the strong to exploit the weak.  This philosophy was the foundation for the colonization of entire continents and the fascist creed of Nazi Germany.  Even today, many people think that succeeding in this world is a “kill or be killed” proposition, even though the vast majority of relationships in nature are symbiotic rather than predatory.  

I have learned through my therapeutic practice that psychological and emotional health result from learning how to tear down the barriers between ourselves and the world and open up to new forms of cooperative relationships with those around us.  This can be a scary proposition for many because there is always the possibility of getting hurt when we reveal ourselves to others.  In order to have the courage to do this I would suggest that it is helpful to see the endeavor as something bigger than ourselves.  Learning to bring people into our lives in a healthy way should not just be for our own benefit.  Rather, it needs to be seen as actually fulfilling the mandate of our births.  It is a fact that people are better able to overcome difficulties and complete complex tasks when they are participating in a project that they see as bigger than themselves.

When we view our personal existence as purposeful rather than just a fluke of nature, then we can gain the courage to reach out to others around us and work together toward the common goal of bringing peace and bounty to this world.  Along the way, we will begin to experience this world as a feast rather than a famine.

1 comment: