I recently read Roz Chast’s memoir about the senescence and death of her parents entitled, “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” The title refers to her parents’ strident refusal, even in their mid-90s, to discuss their failing bodies and to prepare for the inevitable. The book is a brutally honest memoir by their daughter of the ways that she too avoided but then engaged with the pain, frustration, and sorrow of her parents’ final years.
It is hard to blame anyone for wanting to avoid discussing the “unpleasant” parts of life, even though responsible adults and also children are generally better off when confronting the reality before them with candor. Two researchers, Peter Dodds and Chris Danforth, have developed what they call a “hedonometer” to monitor pleasure in millions of human expressions (in print media, Twitter, etc.). The most widely reported result so far is their “Geography of Happiness,” but as John Tierney discusses this week in the Science Times, they also show that people have a persistent tendency to frame their lives in positive terms, even when discussing negative events. He writes, “When terrorists commit an atrocity, we quickly respond with prayers and donations for the victims. Journalists covering the devastation of an earthquake look for stories of heroic rescue workers and of victims found alive in the rubble. Even when a bad event is being described, there can be an effort to counteract its impact by using positive language.”
In other words, when horror confronts us, we have a strong instinct to find the silver lining—the redemptive elements even in catastrophe. The researchers speculate that this could be an adaptation—maintaining a positive outlook in life is an attractive feature that can help a person find a mate. But I suspect that this is also a strategy for maintaining mental health. When life seems chaotic and threatening, a person may be tempted to become inactive. Grasping for even small elements of hope can help a person become active so that they may address a threatening situation rather than waiting for it to get worse. Still, it cannot be a positive adaptation to ignore real threats and pretend that they don’t exist.
The common predisposition to ignore or soft-pedal painful realities is my “kavanah” or meditation while approaching Shabbat Zakhor. The Torah commands Israel to, “remember that which Amalek did to you on your way out of Egypt…don’t forget.” This command to remember was listed as a positive commandment by medieval mitzvah counters such as Rambam (Aseh #189) and the Sefer HaHinukh (#605). The Talmud and early Midrashim ask the reasonable question of what does it mean to “remember”? Can this be accomplished “in the heart”? The rabbis conclude that the end of the passage, which adds, “and don’t forget,” refers to the heart, so the first command must call for something more expressive—remember with your mouth and don’t forget in your heart. Thus, the command to speak about Amalek’s treachery explicitly in public, and in doing so, never to forget. Continue reading