My grandfather saw his life as if he had been born twice: Once from his mother’s womb and once from underneath a haystack….
During the ravages of World War Two, my grandfather found himself fleeing from a band of Nazis on foot. Out of breath, out of options, and even worse seemingly out of luck, he found himself in a farm field. The Nazis were approaching and he quickly buried himself under one of the countless haystacks in sight. Reaching the field and not seeing their desired victim, one of the Nazi’s picked up a pitchfork and began stabbing the stacks, suspecting that the target was hidden within one. It was at that moment that my grandfather considered his life as if it was over.
Many decades later, on his actual deathbed, he revealed this story for the first time to my father and his sisters. He implored them, “Don’t be sad for me when I die now. Do not think about the years ahead that I will never live. I made a deal with G-d from under that haystack decades ago that if he would extend my life even one day I would forever be grateful. And look how many moments, days, and years I got… dying now is something to rejoice over.” It is in this way that he saw his death as actually a tremendous success. He had lived on borrowed time from the Master of the Universe for decades, had seen children and grandchildren, had been granted a new life the minute he heard the pitchfork tossed away in frustration after all the haystacks the Nazis had chosen to stab were found to be empty…Can you imagine the silence in that field as the Nazis tread away? It was in that silence that my grandfather was reborn.
I was 13 years old when my beloved grandfather passed away and the story from his deathbed has clung to me ever since, like remaining bits of hay that can’t seem to be shaken off. It taught me the incredible tool of perspective, namely that we actually choose what we see. Just like the same piece of art can be in front of a group of people and each one sees something different in it, so too is life. After all, life is the ultimate artistic masterpiece and a group of people can have the same experiences and all see them and react differently. This is an invaluable lesson to actively teach our children. They can choose how they see situations, feel, and react to them. Life is not a stimulus and we the passive responders…..we are all active responders, and whether or not we think we are actively choosing our perspective, we actually are doing precisely just that every single moment.
The Torah shows us the same message manifold times, right from the first story of the Garden of Eden. In that archetypical Paradise, Adam and Chava had very little and yet they had everything they could possibly need. It was their own perspective focusing on the former rather than the latter which ruined everything- the unattainable apple made them suddenly feel that they were lacking when in reality G-d had created a paradise where they were lacking nothing and in which they had enough to focus on and enjoy for a lifetime. To make matters worse, Rabbinic tradition teaches that man and woman didn’t even last one day- by nightfall of his first day in the Garden they already declared their glasses as half-empty, ate the fruit, and were banished.
Other examples abound. Yaakov and Eisav, during their fateful meeting recorded in the Torah after a long separation, update each other on decades of their lives apart. Eisav describes his worldly lot as “Yesh li rav” (I have most of what I need)…. And Yaakov describes his lot as “Yesh li kol” (I have everything I could possibly need)’. It wasn’t that one had objectively so much more than the other- they just had different perspectives on their lives.
I try to talk to my children about this concept and help them challenge their negative perspectives whenever it comes up (unfortunately, more often than I would like). “I’m bored mommy, there is nothing to do!” “Is that really true that there is nothing to do? Can you name me 5 things that would be possible to do in this room?”.” Or “I never get to have the first turn!” “Is that really true? Or are you only remembering the times when you didn’t get the first turn? Can we think of times in this past week where you actually did have the first turn?”
Children are very prone to black and white thinking. Statements about always and forever are some of their main “go tos” and it’s important to gently guide them out of this habit. When they tell you, “You never let me stay up late” or “I will be small forever” you need to show them how this thinking is flawed. “Can you think of all the special occasions you have stayed up late for this year?” or “Did you know that I used to be small? Now look how tall I grew, but it takes time…” All-or-nothing thinking lends to people feeling hopeless and sad and so it is imperative to steer our children away from this flawed perspective as early as possible. And while you are at it, don’t forget to watch and catch your own all-of-nothing statements. Saying statements to our children such as, “You never listen to me!” or “You are always hitting your sister!” only teach them to exaggerate and say things in the language of extremes as well. The truth is they do (hopefully often) listen to us, and there are of course plenty of activities in their lives that don’t involve beating up on one particular sibling.
In the words of Helen Keller, “The seeing see little.” It’s all about perspective in life, and we need to both model and teach how shifting our view of situations can literally shift us from sadness to happiness (or at least acceptance). Sometimes, when you close your eyes and actively open your mind, you are able to peak through the strands of hay from under the stack and begin to choose how to see things. And that is the moment when you truly learn to see…
* Originally published in Times for Israel