Thought For the Day, BBC Radio 4, Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner – 28/08/2019
It turns out that optimism is good for our health. A new study shows optimists can cope better with stress and so are more likely to live longer.
The epitome of British optimism is our summer music festivals which a quarter of adults attended over the last year, optimistically buying tickets in October, hoping or even praying for sun in August. Adult festival goers sometimes dress as broccoli, mermaids or just their best sequined selves, creating an alternative reality of pleasure but also, of purpose. Each year our family heads to Shambala Festival, which has a two part mission, “Adventures in Utopia. Act Now”. Utopia and action may seem mismatched – but these beautifully encapsulate a Jewish idea that the meaning of life is the unceasing, positive belief that we can and must change the world. Not only this, it’s a commandment, a mitzvah to joyfully impact on our world.
Optimism must be realistic. At Shambala, sessions on climate change confirmed the seriousness of our situation but an optimistic response, based on hope in possibilities and information about realistic responses enables and galvanizes action. You can’t change things if you believe that things can’t be changed. This is not blinkered naivety – we know that life can be excruciatingly hard, but we can consciously retrain our brains and our reactions and so our actions.
The 18th century Rabbi, Nachman from Breslev taught “that no matter how low a person has fallen, there exists an indestructible, even very tiny part that can regrow and can form the basis for new life.”
Our task is to find that indestructible part in ourselves, that essence that no misfortune can erase and to bind ourselves to it, to concentrate on it and allow it to make us happy. So even when we find ourselves in the deepest, darkest pit without the slightest trace of hope or light – still, we can will always find our way out if we focus on the pure, indestructible, redeeming feature that exists in each and every one of us, and use it to rebuild ourselves. The route to joyfulness is through recognizing our brokenness.
At festivals and weddings, the Torah commands us to eat, drink, be happy, dance, and relish life to the fullest. But Judaism teaches it’s not enough just to enjoy – it’s not holy hedonism, not just adventures in Utopia but also action. For instance, we’re commanded to be joyful on festivals but we also have to include and care for the stranger, the orphan and the widow.
Adventures in Utopia could be a possibility but, as they say at Shambala, only if we act now.
Listen to the programme here https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p07lsv99