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Wednesday, September 16, 2015

My Jewish Post on Success

Happy New Year, God willing. This is my Jewish post. I am a lapsed reform Jew, an atheist most days, agnostic after listening to a good mindfulness and the brain lecture*, but secular always. Or, secular almost always, with the exception of this particular time of year, the time of the High Holy Days when I attended Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. Some years I attend both RH and YK, and some years I come down with a cold and I skip RH and just go for YK because that's most solemn one. I join a small group of women friends who head to the synagogue, leaving their husbands at home, because their husbands want nothing to do with it. I don't really want much to do with it, but I go out of an element of superstition - you just never know, do you? Also, I like a chance to dress up a little.

In re: Judaism, I wanted to talk about this. I studiously avoided reading anything about the Holocaust or World War II for many years. Then I joined a book group, and suddenly, there were always books about these subjects coming up - because my friends are more socially conscious than I want to be. How to be a good person and pretend I don't need to know about these events? I had to read - I read. So it was inevitable that I come up against the seminal book  Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl once again. It was required reading in high school. Viktor Frankl was a Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist. It was one of those searing books that I was open to back then, along with that terrifying movie, I think it's "Night and Fog," that shows emaciated survivors and piles of shoes and bones that the Allies found when they freed the camps. You see a little of that, read a little of that, and you consider the value of changing your last name to something WASPy, like the husband's.
I don't know why it's sideways. But the book looms. 

Anyway, after all these years, I have been drawn back to the book. Since I’ve been gnawing along the edges of Meaning, Purpose, Happiness, and Success, it really seems time to tackle this one again.  I found it on our basement bookshelves. I opened up the acid-yellowed pages of my old paperback. There in the preface were these words: 
Again and again I therefore admonish my students both in Europe and America: “Don’t aim at success - the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out the best of your knowledge. Then you will life to see that in the long run - in the long run, I say! - success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.” 

Well. Jackpot. Dr. VF on success of all things. I should pay attention, because really, he should know. 

This was the preface to a new addition. In it, he is addressing the fact that his book had become an international best-seller. He had been planning to publish it anonymously, “so it wouldn’t build up any reputation on the part of the author.” I’m not sure what that means. I think he means he wanted to drop his book anonymously into the ocean of humanity and see if anyone noticed it - and not have people read it because of who authored it. But he might also have meant that he didn’t want to be associated with the ideas and events in the book professionally, since he was a psychiatrist and possibly wanted to remain somewhat neutral for his clients. And knowing your shrink has survived the concentration camps might give you a complex about your own problems and how they were really not that important in comparison.

However - and let’s be petty for moment. Petty and deconstructionist about this - however, Dr. VF did not publish his book anonymously, and it did become a huge bestseller, and not only it but he is a success because of his accomplishment. 

With that bit of pettiness out of the way, let me back up to what he says about success being a by-product. I actually believe that. “success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue,” Or at least the successful-feeling part, because in this equation, success is a feeling not an outcome. Like happiness, it’s an abstract noun in this sentence. And that abstract idea of Success is definitely a by-product of something. That something is some kind of action. And dedication. 

This seems to me to be particularly Jewish. There’s a superstitious element to recognition of good fortune that I’ve encountered among Jews. I’ve experienced it myself. We all want good fortune, career advancement, publication, or a happy home life. If you have any of these things you tend to downplay them. Maybe your children are basically good students and fine people. You shut up about it. You don’t look good fortune in the face. That would be asking for it. Whatever "it" is.

Why is this particularly Jewish? Is it in fact particular to Jews? In my experience, yes. But I speak from the inside, so to speak. It may simply be particularly human. Anyway, the point is that you don’t attract too much attention to yourself and your good fortune, because you know, historically, how quickly, totally, and easily these things can be taken away. And while I don’t know if I will be able to bear reading Viktor Frankl’s book again (even though I know, I really, really know I should), I did get far enough in that he says that every survivor of the Holocaust knows the truth: the best among them in the camps did not survive.  

Talk about Jewish guilt. 

I feel it's important to mention "God willing" here. In relation to the general superstition of keeping your mouth shut about your good fortune, there is "God willing." Let me explain. As I said, I’m an agnostic slash atheist secular Jew and yet I append “God-willing” to every too-boldly confident statement of future intent that comes out of my mouth. For example, since the 12th grader will be applying to college this year, I will say to myself to comfort and reassure myself, “She’ll get into a good college.” And then before the breath that brought forth those words dissipates into the atmosphere, I will add, “God willing.” It’s like a “knock on wood” reflex, an anti-jinx ritual. As if I’m challenging Fate or whatever to disprove my confidence. (Which is, sadly, actually not confidence, if you follow me here.) Sometimes I say it out loud. Sometimes I say it in my head. But you can trust me, Readers, I always say it. 

(As I type this, I am hearing my voice reading my words, and I’m reading in a Yiddish accent. Yes, I am. Oy. )

The point is this. Success is most definitely a by-product of a life full of meaning. A life of meaning has work that provides us with autonomy, mastery, and purpose. So, yes, indeed, one has to tack towards success. There is no direct sailing for it. But it is still okay, and important, and valuable, to consider success part of the bigger package. Call that bigger package well-being, as I did last week, or happiness, or self-actualization. It’s still a goal. And that is okay. It’s okay to admit it. Whether you clawed your way to survival during the Holocaust or not. Success matters. Dr. Frankl, you were a big success, and we thank you for that.

* These lectures trigger my agnosticism because they often end up saying there is much more to the brain and consciousness than we currently understand, which I then interpret to mean that there might actually be a sixth sense, another dimension, or some kind of ultimate meaning to the universe and our existence. A gal can always hope. God willing. 

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