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Toxic Positivity

By: Rav Mordechai Burg

I don’t generally go shopping. I am blessed to be quite busy and often lack time. Truth be told, I really don’t enjoy it. If I am being candid, timing is a convenient excuse. Besides, my daughter Racheli likes to get out of the house. She handles the shopping, and she’s good at it. In America it is not so bad. Wide aisles. Check out lines with working cashiers. Pleasant customer service. I don’t want to speak badly about Eretz Yisrael but here you’ve got to have strong elbows. Racheli was raised here. She’s got elbows. So when my wife asked me to go shopping on Friday morning to pick up a few last-minute items, I was less than thrilled. Friday morning shopping is the worst. People are in a rush. Aisles are much more crowded, and there is little room to begin with. And it was raining. I don’t like the rain. Some people enjoy the pitter-patter on the roof and watching children jumping in the puddles. I really don’t like getting wet. And the store was out of chicken which is why I went shopping to begin with. To sum up, I was in a mood. 

As I was heading to the checkout line, I saw my next-door neighbor running through the aisles. I knew exactly what had happened. He was at the checkout line and realized that he had forgotten something. We’ve all been there. It’s that awkward turn to the customers waiting in line behind you and the quick explanation that you forgot something and you’ll be right back. I got on line to checkout, and sure enough, my neighbor was in front of me.

In contrast to my meager last-minute shopping, he was doing pre-Pesach-level shopping. His cart was overflowing. Bags of Challah were hanging off the side. At the register, the bagging section was full of his purchased items, the conveyor belt was packed to the gills, and his cart still had plenty in it. He asked me if I was headed home. His car was in the shop, and he didn’t have a ride home. I’m a neighborly fellow and was happy to help out. I asked him if he was making a shalom zachor. Was there a Simcha I wasn’t aware of? My neighbor is a very modest person. He hides twice as much as he reveals. He’s the type that would be mortified if I mentioned his name in this article. 

He mumbled something about an organization in the neighborhood that helps out a couple of families for Shabbos. Shifting the conversation away from himself, he spoke about how this “one-woman show” (his words not mine) found out about a couple of families in the neighborhood in need and started her own mini Tomchei Shabbos. The number of families serviced has grown over the years. This woman has a group of people in the neighborhood who volunteer to purchase food at their own expense and then deliver the food to families in need. My neighbor had taken several families this week. I watched as the bill grew and grew. By the time he was done, the final tally was 1,813 shekel (and 64 agurot, to be precise). To the best of my knowledge, my neighbor is not a man of means. But families in the neighborhood are in need, and he is taking on the burden. Without any fanfare. With zero accolades. And frankly, no desire for anyone to know. I suspect he was uncomfortable even asking me for a ride because it would clearly lead to my knowledge of this chesed. Whenever I asked him what role he played in this “organization,” he kept shifting the conversation back to this “one-woman show” that does all the actual work. I share this story with you because it is a beautiful example of the chesed in our community. Our community certainly has its fair share of challenges, but overall, it is a wonderful place to live. 

Stories like these are why Meaningful Minute has been accused of spreading toxic positivity. Toxic positivity is the practice of presenting a relentlessly positive attitude, even in the face of negative or difficult circumstances, in such a way that it invalidates or dismisses the negative emotions or experiences of oneself or others. This can be harmful because it can prevent people from acknowledging and healthily dealing with their negative emotions. It can also create an environment where people feel pressure to suppress their true feelings and present a false cheerful facade. Toxic positivity can also be harmful because it can minimize or dismiss the experiences of those facing difficult or painful situations and make it harder for them to get the support and understanding they need.

But the truth is that one would be hard-pressed to find any evidence of toxic positivity on the Meaningful Minute platform. Those who engage with MM content will not find that they are being told to ignore or suppress their emotions in difficult times (the opposite is true). It is not a platform that minimizes the pain that those in our community are experiencing. It is a platform that actively seeks out the beauty in our community and that should be celebrated. A friend of mine once showed me research that pessimistic people actually have a greater grasp on reality. Still, he remarked, “But who wants to be married to a pessimist?” We each possess a personalized lens that frames how we see ourselves and the world around us. That lens becomes our operating system. It is how we ascribe meaning to what is happening in our lives. We can choose to perceive life as essentially good. Having a weltanschauung that perceives positivity in this world brings positivity to our lives. But, scientifically speaking, we are hardwired to perceive negativity. Negative experiences impact our psychological state more than positive ones because we are designed for survival. To ensure that we respond appropriately to negative experiences and that we remain on guard against potential threats to our well-being, we have specialized circuits in our brains that record these experiences deeply in our emotional memory.

In contrast, positive experiences are more quickly forgotten. The impact is that we naturally tend towards negativity and lose sight of all the incredible aspects of Hashem’s world. The bottom line is that maintaining a positive perspective goes against our design. 

I remember to this day the Friday shmoozen that I was privileged to hear as a young boy over 30 years ago in Yeshiva Darchei Torah from the Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Yaakov Bender. In his booming voice and imitable style, he would exclaim, “Count your blessings!!!” More than just imbuing an attitude of gratitude, he was teaching us to become cognizant of the beauty of life. The older I get, the more I appreciate those shmoozen. They were so psychologically healthy. The Rosh Yeshiva was teaching us that positivity is a choice. Though we may naturally tend towards negativity, we don’t have to narrate life that way. It does not need to become the lens through which we interpret the world. And no one can accuse the Rosh Yeshiva of not feeling the pain of another Yid. Very few people in the world are so acutely aware of the challenges in our community and fewer than that have taken leadership roles in solving the issues that arise. Another one of those famous shmoozen that we heard was the cry to be “nosei b’ol” – to feel the pain of others. Two things can be true at once. We can have a positive worldview that recognizes the goodness of this world and we can engage the pain that is very real. Sharing stories that highlight the beauty of our community does not mean that we are creating a culture of toxic positivity. Rabbi Bender told us that we are capable of counting our blessings and being nosei b’ol. In fact, I would venture to say that counting our blessings is what allows us to be nosei b’ol and vice versa. 

There is a well-known story involving the great Chasidic master Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev. Rav Levi Yitzchak encountered a Jew smoking on Shabbos and said, “Dear friend, perhaps you forgot that today is Shabbos.” The man replied that he was well aware that it was Shabbos. Rav Levi Yitzchak replied, “So perhaps you forgot or never learned that it is forbidden to smoke on Shabbos.” The man replied, “Of course I know it is assur to smoke on Shabbos!” With no excuses left in his arsenal, Rav Levi Yitzchak looked up to the heavens and addressed Hashem, “Master of the World, who is like Your People, Israel?! Even when I gave this Jew every opportunity to lie and mitigate his offense, he refused to do so. Where is such scrupulous honesty to be found in all the world?!”

Today one can easily imagine Rav Levi Yitzchak being ridiculed on social media. The social justice warriors of the Twittersphere would argue that his insistence on seeing the good in everything creates a toxic environment where people are not given permission to experience themselves as they actually are. That his relentless pursuit of positivity encourages others to present a facade and discourages them from getting the help they need. Nothing could be a more dangerous message in a world that can feel increasingly chaotic. More than ever, we need organizations like Meaningful Minute that shine a light on the beauty of Hashem’s garden. 

Rav Mordechai Burg

Internationally renowned speaker, educator, and author Rav Mordechai Burg is the Menahel of Mevaseret, Mashpia of NCSY Summer, Mashpia of Nitzotzos, author of Nitzotzos on Chumash and a senior Rebbe at Tomer Devorah and Bnot Torah Institute. His shiurim can be found on Nitzotzos.com

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