Tolerating Being Loved

Jul 22nd, 2011 by Rabbi Simcha Weinberg in Holidays, Portion of the Week
Dr. George Valiant considered godfather to the field of positive psychology, asks, “Why do people tell psychologists they’d cross the street to avoid someone who had given them a compliment the previous day?”

To illustrate his point, he tells a story about one of his ‘prize’ Harvard Study men, a doctor and well-loved husband. “On his 70th birthday,” Vaillant said, “when he retired from the faculty of medicine, his wife got hold of his patient list and secretly wrote to many of his longest-running patients, ‘Would you write a letter of appreciation?’ Back came 100 single-spaced, desperately loving letters – often with pictures attached. She put them in a lovely presentation box covered with Thai silk, and gave it to him.’ Eight years later, Vaillant interviewed the man, who proudly pulled the box down from his shelf. ‘George, I don’t know what you’re going to make of this,’ the man said, as he began to cry, ‘but I’ve never read it.’ “It’s very hard,” Vaillant says, “for most of us to tolerate being loved.”

Valiant explains that positive emotions make us more vulnerable than negative ones. One reason is that they’re future-oriented. Fear and sadness have immediate payoffs – protecting us from attack or attracting resources at times of distress. Gratitude and joy, over time, will yield better health and deeper connections – but in the short term actually put us at risk. That’s because, while negative emotions tend to be insulating, positive emotions expose us to the common elements of rejection and heartbreak.

The Tribes of Reuben and Gad said to Moses, “If we have found favor in your eyes, give us this land as our portion. Do not make us cross the Jordan.” Moses was devastated. He viewed their request as a potential tragedy for the Children of Israel just ready to pick up 38 years after the tragedy of the Spies. We usually understand their motivation as a desire to settle down in a lush and beautiful area without having to wait until Israel was conquered and settled.

Is it not also possible that they wanted to settle immediately because they couldn’t tolerate being loved? They experienced great success in conquering the lands of Sichon and Og, everything was going well, and they felt vulnerable. Things this good never last!

Moshe’s concern was with their insecurity with positive experiences. He knew that Israel would experience a steady flow of miracles, blessing and success as they conquered the land. He also suspected that there would be some negative experiences and if he allowed these two tribes to surrender to their fear of failure, the other tribes would remember, and they would experience failures as rejection. They too would become insecure in God’s love for them.

Moshe was right to be concerned. If the Children of Israel had learned to accept the insecurity of love, they would have survived the fluctuations between success and failure over the next 700 years with equanimity. They would have been better prepared to accept the warnings of Isaiah and Jeremiah. They could have followed Jeremiah’s advice to surrender to Babylon, without feeling devastated by God’s rejection of them, and Jerusalem would have survived. The entire nation learned from Reuben and Gad and became insecure with positive emotions and experiences.

Are we any different? Are we not more comfortable with our feelings as victims of the world, negative emotions, than we are with feelings of pride and joy with all we have accomplished? We spend our time battling our enemies rather than focusing on the incredible experiences of rebuilding Israel. We have email campaigns every time we are  unfairly criticized. We are experts at defending ourselves. The only time I see a flow of positive emails is around Yom Ha’atzmaut.

This time of year, as we approach Tisha B’Av is the perfect opportunity to begin a Campaign of the Positive and declare our confidence in our accomplishments and positive experiences. The generations of the two Temples could not tolerate being loved. We can repair that damage by openly declaring our comfort in being loved.

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