Reality Begins in Your Head
The story is told of a follower of R. Menachem Mendel, third Lubavitcher Rebbe, the “Tzemach Tzedek,” whose son was seriously ill. He was advised to travel to the Tzemach Tzedek to ask for a blessing. With a heavy heart, he made the difficult trek to the Rebbe. In response to his request for a blessing, the Tzemach Tzedek pronounced five Yiddish words, which have been quoted by the Chabad Rebbes ever since: “Tracht gut vet zein gut—Think good and it will be good.” The Chasid took these words to heart, and during the entire homeward journey he strove to strengthen his trust in G‑d and visualize a good outcome for his son. When he returned home, he was shocked to see his son completely healed and back to his normal self.1A Bad Plan For many people, this kind of positive thinking is a difficult directive to take seriously. “Think positive” sounds like the naive content you’d find in a supermarket self-help book or an amateur new-age podcast peddling feel-good platitudes and banal soundbites. Besides, isn’t this approach dangerous? It can set you up for great disappointment! What if you visualize an excellent result and the positive outcome doesn’t materialize? Indeed, some scientists recently have pushed back against “positive thinking,” claiming that only focusing on the best outcome is not the most psychologically sound approach to life, given the high potential for failed expectations. A recent article in Scientific American2 suggested that imagining the worst outcome rather than the best is a more optimal way to live life, because if you envision and plan for the worst-case scenario, you will never be let down and can only be pleasantly surprised if you end up with a positive outcome. Similarly, Newsweek ran a much-publicized story3 titled “The ‘Tyranny’ of Positive Thinking Can Threaten Your Health and Happiness.” It reported the findings of motivational scientists who said that an insistence on positivity could cause people to blame themselves for their own sadness or failure to overcome adversity. However, the principle of “think good and it will be good” has been and continues to be an integral aspect of Chasidic philosophy in general, and a staple of the Rebbe’s Positivity Bias in particular. Could it be that the psychologists in these studies are addressing the ego, whose fragility they are concerned with protecting, while the Rebbe is addressing the soul, whose only desire is to sing and soar? It would behoove us to dig a bit deeper to uncover the essence of what the Rebbes have been saying for centuries.A Matter of Faith In a 1963 address,4 the Rebbe expanded on the philosophical and spiritual dynamic behind “Think good and it will be good.” He began by asking the obvious question: On what basis should one believe that the outcome will be good in the face of any challenge? Isn’t it presumptuous to assume that in every given situation we are always deserving of Divine grace? And what of the basic Jewish belief that there is a Divine order of reward and punishment that governs our world, making salvation dependent on righteous behavior? The Rebbe offered these words in response: When a person decides to place their trust in G‑d, believing that their current crisis will be resolved favorably despite facing a bleak reality, they have, in effect, risen above their own nature, which in turn elicits, reciprocally, the suspension of the Divine order, in which only the righteous are deserving of salvation. G‑d understands how difficult and even “supernatural” it is for a human being to believe sincerely—to the degree that he or she no longer experiences fear and anxiety—that an unpromising and even seemingly hopeless situation will have a positive outcome. Therefore, as a result and even reward for the extraordinary act of “thinking good,” G‑d deems the believer, who may be otherwise undeserving of a positive outcome, as deserving of an extra measure of Divine generosity in this instance. Ultimately, the efficacy of “thinking good,” according to the Rebbe, is indissolubly bound up with one’s faith in G‑d’s ability to manifest a positive outcome. This is the key difference between what the Rebbes are suggesting and what the studies cited above are critiquing. Someone who doesn’t place his trust in the infinite potential of a Higher Power is merely deifying their own limited thoughts. We will now explore a number of interactions in which the Rebbe further articulated this fundamental concept.Disciplined Practice, Not Magical Thinking While teaching in New York in 1957, a young man from Israel received a letter from home saying that his father had suffered a heart attack and was in critical condition. At a time when overseas phone calls were rare, the young man’s anxiety was deepened by the thought that his father may have already passed away. Devastated, the young man wrote a note to the Rebbe explaining the situation, ending with the words, “I don’t even know what to think at this point!” In his response, the Rebbe underlined the student’s final sentence and wrote next to it, “Shocking!!! Because the instruction of our Sages in such situations is well known: ‘Think good and it will be good.’ I await good news.” A few tense days passed, and finally the young man reached his mother by phone. “How is Father?” he asked. “He’s out of danger!” “When did this happen?” “Thursday night.” After hanging up the phone, the young man went to 770 for afternoon prayers. On his way out of the synagogue, the Rebbe turned to him and asked, “Nu, do you have good news for me?” “Yes!” he responded. “I just phoned home and was told that my father is out of danger.” “Since when?” asked the Rebbe. “Since Thursday night.” “And when did you begin to ‘think good’?” “When the Rebbe told me to do so,” said the young man. “And when was that?” the Rebbe pressed on. “Thursday evening.” The Rebbe concluded, “May such things never happen again. But you must always remember to think positively.”5Our Thoughts Limit or Expand Our Potential In another instance, a Chasid mentioned that he was due to have a very serious operation in a few weeks’ time, and he asked the Rebbe for a blessing that the surgery be a success. The Rebbe said pointedly, “Instead of asking that I pray that the surgery be successful, you could have asked me to pray that you not need to undergo surgery at all!” The Chasid immediately recanted, “Rebbe, I would like to ask for a blessing that I not need surgery at all!” The Rebbe replied:6 “It’s too late. I can only work with the faith you had when you entered my office.” In other words: “I can only work with the level of faith you have in G‑d, not with the level of faith I have in G‑d.”End of the World? R. Yehoshua Binyomin Gordon, of blessed memory, related7 that at a certain point in their lives, he and his wife faced a very serious challenge. At their wits’ end, they decided to write to the Rebbe for guidance. They drafted a ten-page letter explaining everything. On the day their letter arrived in New York, they received a call from the Rebbe’s secretary with his answer: Time and again in your holy work [as shluchim], you have imagined that the situation you find yourselves in is the end of the world, but then you saw how the situation flipped over and became visible and revealed good…. You must [in all cases] follow the command of the Tzemach Tzedek to “think optimistically, and things will turn out well.” The Rebbe’s prompt response was illuminating. In Rabbi Gordon’s own words: “This answer is a teaching that I try to remember every day—that as bad as things may look, they looked bad last time too, but everything turned out fine.” There are so many times in our lives when the worst outcome seemed inevitable. How many of those times took a different turn from what we anxiously expected? For many of us this is a recurring pattern of our negative thought processes. In the end, all that time spent stressing didn’t do us any good, not to mention that it was actually bad for our health. Thinking good in the face of perceived adversity is helpful and healing on many levels.Reality Begins in Your Head In the following response8 to someone who, it seems, had written several pessimistic letters to the Rebbe describing his life’s challenges, the Rebbe elaborated on the powers of both speech and thought to impact reality for the good or its opposite. In response to your letter, from which it is clear that I have not yet been successful at inspiring in you a spirit of optimism, despite having told you on numerous occasions that according to Jewish teachings, one should refrain from [verbally] introducing negative and melancholy ideas into the world, which is one way of averting the actualization of [negativity]. Based on the principle that verbalizing negativity can bring about negativity, the Rebbe once explained the sequence of verses that describe Moses’ second foray into public life: He went out on the second day, and behold, two Hebrew men were quarreling, and he said to the wicked one, “Why are you going to strike your friend?” And he retorted [to Moses], “Who made you a man, a prince, and a judge over us? Do you plan to slay me as you have slain the Egyptian?” Moses became frightened and said, “Indeed, the matter has become known!” Pharaoh heard of this incident, and he sought to slay Moses, etc. The Rebbe explained that the Torah records not just Moses’ fear but also his verbalization of the fear (an irrelevant detail, it would seem). It was speaking aloud his fears that caused Pharaoh to hear of the incident and want to kill him. And this [does not] apply [only] to verbalization—which, according to Chasidic teachings,9 contains the power to actualize, as we learn from the behavior of the Maggid [of Mezritch], who would verbalize his novel ideas in order to bring them into the world—but even thought [itself] has the power to effect actualization, as we see from the teaching of our Rebbes, “Think good and it will be good.” In this letter, the Rebbe elucidates some of the core Kabbalistic underpinnings of “Think good and it will be good.” As when the world was created, the process of actualization, where an initially spiritual idea and energy becomes manifest in physical reality, is just that—a process. The fruit of our experience and actions does not just appear out of nowhere. It is rooted in our speech (a common point made in Chasidic texts, as explored above, in Chapter 9, Lashon Tov), which is ultimately an expression of the seed nutrients contained within our thoughts that are planted within the soil of our souls.Reality is Unrealistic In our final example of the Rebbe’s application and elaboration of this teaching, we get a glimpse of the integral worldview that undergirds such a faith in the power of our thoughts to impact reality. While I am pleased to read in your letter the quotation about G‑d being the Creator of the world, Who also guides all its destinies, etc., this very good impression is weakened by the further tone of your letter, where you state that you want to be “realistic,” based on the prognosis of physicians regarding your condition. I want to tell you, first, that even from the realistic point of view, we must recognize the fact that very many times, the greatest physicians have made mistakes in diagnosis. Moreover, in recent times we see that new discoveries are made daily in the medical field, with new “wonder drugs” and methods, which have revolutionized medical treatment. Secondly, observing life in general, we see so many things that are strange and unbelievable that to be truly realistic, one cannot consider anything as impossible.10 ..Even medical opinion agrees that the stronger the patient’s faith in cure, and the stronger his will to get better, the stronger becomes his ability to recover. Needless to say, this is not said in the way of an admonition. But, inasmuch as by individual Divine Providence you have learned of me and I of you, I think I am entitled to convey to you the above thoughts, which I was privileged to hear from my father-in-law, of saintly memory, in similar cases. 11 If we think about the aspects of the celestial worlds that are necessary for Creation to exist at all for even a fleeting moment, not to mention all of the amazing medical and technological developments that humans are continuously discovering and putting to use, we can only marvel at the sheer unpredictable magnificence of life as a whole. Who knows what blessings are waiting to be revealed at any second? As the Rebbe points out, there are levels of faith. A person may believe that G‑d can create, but do they believe that G‑d can heal? Inasmuch as the world itself is so miraculous and unpredictable, which is obvious to anyone who looks deeply into it, wouldn’t an honest appraisal of reality make room for unexpected turnarounds and inexplicable interventions? From all of the above examples we can begin to understand why the Rebbe took the concept of positive thinking so seriously. From a psychologically practical point of view, there may indeed be a risk or downside to thinking positive, as the person may be setting themselves up for a massive letdown if things do not work out as they had hoped. From this perspective, envisioning worst-case scenarios might actually help avoid future suffering by managing one’s expectations. However, from a spiritual perspective—and this is precisely the challenge of faith—the exact opposite is true. According to the Rebbe, it isn’t that we must manage our thoughts to conform to or protect us from reality; the truth is that, whether we know it or not, we are molding reality in relation to our thoughts. It is better to think good!
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