Where is Pollyanna When You Need Her?!

My book Letters from Planet Corona was recently reviewed in the Jerusalem Post and described as “Pollyanna on Steroids.” Several of my readers wrote in defense of the book, notably my son-in-law whose highly supportive letter was actually printed the following week in the Letters section of the Post, much to my great surprise. It appears that these readers had actually read the book, unlike the reviewer who clearly had not. Certainly, my book did attempt to gain wisdom from our long Corona experience (which hasn’t yet left us, unfortunately).  Yet, I certainly had also written of the anguish, losses, and disorientation of the past one and a half years. The reviewer made it clear that he could tolerate no mitigation of the negative nature of this period.  For the reviewer, being “Pollyannish” is a perjorative quality.

Today, however, I would be intensely grateful for a little bit of “Pollyanna on Steroids,” or POS. We have just entered the month of Av and are in the period of the Nine Days of deep mourning for the destruction of the Two Temples and for a way of life we have never known and can barely imagine. As Shabbat Rosh Chodesh ended, our family was confronted with the tragic and untimely death of Avi Wald, a”h, a close friend of all of my children and almost a part of our family for about 30 years. The connections between him and his family, and my family are multi-leveled. It is so very sad.

On another front, we are hearing of an intensification, once again, of Covid in our country as well as elsewhere, accompanied by the possible reinstitution of measures that we had hoped might be a thing of the past. The government is further limiting the entry of tourists for the rest of the summer. The tourism industry continues to hemorrhage, affecting the general economy and impacting seriously on the incomes of many tens of thousands of Israelis who work in that area.

Then, yesterday, came another terrible shock. I received a Whatsapp message for a tehillim group to daven for a couple in NY who had both contracted Covid and had been hospitalized.  I was devastated when I realized that these were my very close friends, Ricky and Hershey Dreyfuss. As of now, Hershey has mild symptoms. Unfortunately, my dear friend Ricky, who has serious background health issues, is on a respirator. I am feeling the month of Av very powerfully.

So, I could use an infusion of some POS-itive energy at this moment.  Which brings us to the question, “What exactly is wrong with Pollyanna or even with POS. Why would anyone think that attempting to find something positive in a difficult situation, or derive meaning from hardship or crisis, has negative connotations.  Two of our great sages, one the teacher of the other, were legendary for just those qualities.

The teacher was Nachum Ish Gamzu whose name is described in the Talmud as having grown colloquially from Nachum’s tendency to react to misfortune with unyielding optimism, in each case uttering a phrase that became famously attached to him: “gam zu le-tovah,” meaning, “this, too, is for the best.” The Talmud goes on to relate illustrations of this quality.

His student, Rabbi Akiva, was accustomed to saying “Everything Hashem does is for the good”.

 Once Rabbi Akiva was traveling with a donkey, rooster, and candle and when night came, he tried to find lodging in a nearby village only to be turned away. Although Rabbi Akiva was forced to spend the night in the field, he did not lament his fate. Instead, his reaction was “Everything Hashem does is for the best”. A wind came and blew out his candle, a cat ate his rooster, and a lion came and ate his donkey, and again Rabbi Akiva’s reaction was “Everything that Hashem does is for the best”. That night bandits came and took the entire town captive, while Rabbi Akiva who was sleeping in the field went unnoticed and thus was spared. When Rabbi Akiva realized what happened he said, “Didn’t I tell you that everything that Hashem does is for the best”?” If the candle, rooster or donkey would have been around, the bandits would have seen or heard them and I, too, would have been captured.

                        (from The Online Hadracha Center)

            Would anyone suggest that either Nachum Ish Gamzu or Rabbi Akiva was a starry-eyed “Pollyanna” who refused to accept harsh reality?  Or perhaps they were (horror of horrors) optimists.  In an article by Tom Gardner and Morgan Housel on the Linked in site, the authors note:

Despite the record of things getting better for most people most of the time, pessimism isn’t just more common than optimism, it also sounds smarter. The pessimist is intellectually captivating, garnering far more attention than the optimist, who is often viewed as a naive sucker.

It’s always been this way. John Stuart Mill wrote 150 years ago: “I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.” Matt Ridley wrote in his book The Rational Optimist:

If you say the world has been getting better you may get away with being called naïve and insensitive. If you say the world is going to go on getting better, you are considered embarrassingly mad. If, on the other hand, you say catastrophe is imminent, you may expect a McArthur genius award or even the Nobel Peace Prize.

            For the record, in the book, Pollyanna, which both introduced and immortalized its eponymous main character, her positivity and optimism fail her towards the end of the book when, due to an accident, she becomes paralyzed. Although she regains her “Pollyannish” outlook, as well as the use of her legs, by the end of the novel, the point is clear. It’s nearly impossible to always be upbeat and optimistic, always finding the hidden positive and meaning in all situations. Today, I am feeling that quite powerfully. Still, I hope, and am rather confident, that the yearning for meaning and the accompanying search for it will return in time. Very soon, I hope. Or, Mr. Reviewer, is that too Pollyannish?!

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