Most of us have grown up with the power of positive thinking. We've been warned about negative outlooks and what popular psychologists call "catastrophizing." To have a successful outcome when facing a problem, we're told that we need to avoid the bad and focus on the good.
But there is another point of view. The leadership guidebook, Great by Choice,1 discusses the responsible need to practice "productive paranoia." In other words, worry a little bit because there are things that can hurt you. (The book, Don't Sweat the Small Stuff, by Richard Carlson, is also useful in its own way, but sometimes the small stuff isn't so small.) Julie Norem, author of a highly counterintuitive book called The Positive Power of Negative Thinking2 suggests that upbeat strategies don't always work. In fact, they may make some people—those who are naturally anxious—more nervous than ever.
Perhaps some of us would agree with these "positive pessimisms:"
Never put off 'til tomorrow what you can avoid altogether.
He who always finds fault in his friends has faulty friends.
A man's best friend is his dogma.
All's fear in love and war.
It's not the money, it's the principal and interest.
Two can live as cheaply as one, for half as long.
You can't judge a book by its author.
For some people, the only thing that can bring a sense of calm is to directly contemplate negative outcomes. This deliberate, structured focus on dark contingencies is called "defensive pessimism." It sounds Jewish, I know, but is it healthy?
Norem's approach can be reduced to a three-step mental protocol. Imagine that you are being asked to give a public speech, something that produces anxiety in most people. The positive power of negative thinking encourages you to:
Approach the anxiety-producing task with lowered expectations, betting that it will go badly. Commit yourself to the idea that the talk will be an absolute disaster. Visualize a complete failure.
Imagine in detail all the ways in which it will go awry. Picture yourself losing your notes at the last minute, tripping on the way to the podium and being heckled by your colleagues. Feel the shame when they laugh at you.
Now, map out ways to avert each catastrophe. Make an extra set of notes, wear comfortable shoes and watch your step, and prepare some self-deprecating remarks to turn the crowd back to your side.
Of course, for true optimists—people who like to get excited and pumped up before a challenge—this defensive pessimism routine will probably produce more anxiety, not less. But for anxious people, Norem argues that this unusual method can offer a sense of control, however limited, over uncomfortable circumstances.
Maybe she is right. Maybe there can be positive power in negative thinking. At least that's the approach Joseph comes to embrace in this week's Torah portion, Vayeishev. It isn't easy. Here's an optimistic nice guy, a dreaming, positive-thinking naïve sort who so annoys his brothers that they conspire to throw him into a pit and leave him there before relenting and selling him to some merchants headed for Egypt. "Let us [rather] sell him to the Ishmaelites," says the most sympathetic of his siblings, "then our hand will not be on him; after all, he is our brother, our own flesh" (Genesis 37:27).
To get through this experience, Joseph will have to go through an attitude adjustment. His natural optimism will not work when he is sold into slavery. Now imagine if Joseph had tried to use defensive pessimism as a strategy. How might he have spoken to himself? Perhaps a dialogue like this:
"I'll never see my family again, so I better embrace my new friends."
"This could be the most difficult time of my life: I must develop a strong faith."
"I will probably be tempted to abandon my faith and principles: I better develop a strong sense of ethics and morality."
"My life is over as I know it: I better think about how to reinvent what is left."
Is this not a kind of proactive pessimism—a deliberate, structured focus on dark possibilities? And yet, Joseph does more than simply contemplate negative outcomes—he also cooperates with God in the ongoing shaping of his story.
When facing potentially awful outcomes we should remember that working with God is essential. The development of skills, ethics, morality, and faith is the way we form a partnership with providence and align ourselves with what God is doing in the world. When Joseph was dragged down to Egypt, he remained faithful to God, strong in the face of sexual temptation, hopeful in prison, and wise in his dealings with Pharaoh.
Joseph's discipline and wisdom enabled him to become the second most powerful man in Egypt, no small thing.
This is providence then as well as pessimism. We prepare for rough times, but we also partner with providence.
Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen, Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck—Why Some Thrive Despite Them All (NY: HarperCollins, 2011)
Julie Norem, The Power of Negative Thinking (New York: Basic, 2002)
Rabbi Edwin C. Goldberg is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Sholom in Chicago, IL. He is the coordinating editor of the new High Holiday prayer book, Mishkan HaNefesh (CCAR). He has a doctorate in Hebrew Letters from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and has published five books, most recently Love Tales from the Talmud (URJ Press) and Saying No and Letting Go: Jewish Wisdom on Making Room for What Matters Most (Jewish Lights).
Sigmund Freud asserted that our dreams are a gateway to our unconscious thoughts and innermost desires.1 They could be an affirmation of our strengths, or even a doorway to our fears and insecurities. When the discovery of rapid eye movement (REM) emerged in 1953, it became increasingly clear that the quality of our sleep directly corresponds to our dreaming.2 With this in mind, one could argue that Joseph was an extremely well-rested individual and that his dreams revealed much about his personality.
We quickly learn in this week's Torah portion that Joseph, Jacob's favorite, has high hopes of grandeur and superiority. One day, Joseph insists, his family will bow down to him perhaps when they need help most. Joseph's outward narcissism serves as the catalyst for his brothers' increasing jealousy. The dreamer, then, is set on a journey that results in a realization that ego-bound optimism comes with a price.
I wonder, though, whether or not Joseph's early outward expressions of positivity later become a mask clouding his fears of inferiority and insignificance. Even the most restful sleeper who wakes up feeling renewed may be able to keep his fears and insecurities at bay through his dreams. Perhaps Joseph the dreamer, who embraces his role as Jacob's favorite and uplifts his lofty dreams, only does so to cover himself from his own shame.
The Joseph narrative reinforces the ongoing Genesis theme of sibling rivalry, with the younger brother always being preferred over the eldest. Cain killed Abel because Abel's sacrifice was accepted by God while Cain's was not. Isaac assumed the role of the son whom Abraham loved most, once his brother, Ishmael, was placed in exile. Even Joseph's dear father, Jacob, stole his brother's birthright as the result of his mother's prodding.
What is evident, then, is that Joseph, like many of us, is placed in the position of living up to the expectations of his family. Joseph's rise to fame in Egypt was not an easy trek, and Freud may have suggested that Joseph's ego was the result of some serious "daddy" issues. Indeed, Joseph's dreams eventually did fully come to fruition, but his grandeur and superiority were earned. Only after he was able to let go of the chains of fear and insecurity that once weighed him down, was he able to become—and be recognized as—a righteous man.
See Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Freud/Dreams/dreams.pdf
Rabbi P.J. Schwartz is Assistant Rabbi at Temple Israel in Westport, CT.
Vayeishev, Genesis 37:1-40:23
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 244–260; Revised Edition, pp. 244–262;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 208–232