Proactive or reactive?

I’ve had plenty of opportunities in the past few weeks to contemplate my weaknesses and misgivings: the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur inspire the practice of just that. It’s specifically a time of repentance and encourages real changes in our lives – a concept called “teshuva”. In Hebrew, it means “to return”, and I like to think of it as a time to return to the better side of ourselves. But, like anything else where improvement is involved, it requires honest introspection and good, hard work.

The terms that epitomize the paradox of self-improvement – in which we struggle, often unsuccessfully, to change our behaviour – are “proactive” vs “reactive”. Ponder for a moment words including the prefix, “pro” and we soon get a sense of its meaning: progressive, protective, proceed. It means, “for” or “on behalf of” and it propels us forward into the future and a better place. Interestingly, the word proactive was barely used before the 1930’s, rising dramatically after 2000. Clearly, we’ve become a society who knows about proactivity…but do we fully embrace this forward-thinking philosophy? How many of us fall prey instead to reaction? If we return to the prefix exercise, we might think of re-play, reply, repeat, reenact, resign – words that throw us back to the beginning and counteract forward movement or change. It reminds me of the movie “Groundhog Day”.

During my recent contemplative period, I began to examine the reactive vs proactive stances. For example, proactivity requires intention and effort: whether it’s in the context of a relationship, profession, or something as simple as a future trip. Reactivity can involve harshness, impulsivity, and lots of drama – not something we’re likely to forget or easily forgive. Similarly, with our health, we are more prone to be reactive – basking happily in the sun of good health, when present, and miserably unhappy and complaining when it’s absent. In fact, one of the great challenges of medicine is overcoming non-compliance and encouraging disease prevention for such conditions as diabetes and hypertension – where personal intervention and lifestyle changes can make a difference.

This dilemma seems to be the fault of our human evolution. Pessimism, that ability to foresee nasty results – like being eaten by a saber tooth tiger crouching outside the cave – was key to our survival so many tens of thousands of years ago. In our modern era, in which we believe in progress, we cling to that ancient proclivity as if our lives depended on it. Fortunately, they rarely do these days. Dr. Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association and the “father” of the positive psychology movement, addresses this issue in his book, “The Hope Circuit”. He declares hope, gratitude, and wisdom to be keys to mental health. I would argue that with mental health, comes improved physical health, so let’s further examine the pros of positivity and gratitude.

This brings me to a personal story and one that’s inspired by a dream. I’ve had a handful of dreams in my life that stand out so vividly that I inevitably interpret them as close to divine inspiration as one can hope for, or at least a “message in a bottle” for me to think deeply upon. This was one of those and had a context based on a family trip to Germany several years ago, ending in Berlin. Our last day was a visit to the concentration camp at Sachsanhausen, just a short transit by train beyond the suburbs of the city.

In the dream, our family was once again at a concentration camp – but this time, as prisoners. The camp was named “Emna”. It had two parts: one was an area with long, grey buildings with sharp edges and narrow slats for windows. We were told it was the “place of physical suffering” and pitiful cries and screams for help could be heard from inside. Overhead, like a movie voiceover, could be heard the words of the Nazi overseer who directed new prisoners. However, unlike Josef Mengele in WWII Nazi Germany, who decided who would live and who would perish, this overseer made the determination based on the presence or absence of each newcomer’s faith.  The place of “Emna” was the place of potential salvation – “emunah” being the word for trust or faith, in Hebrew. When I awoke, I had the intense sensation that accompanies “inner knowing” – specifically, that a God-inspired or “Universal” trust or faith, are lifesaving practices.

Emunah is a concept deeply studied in Judaism and there are many stories and teachings about the power and practice of daily gratitude. It’s not far off the mark from the psychological conclusions of Dr. Seligman and many other proponents of positive psychology. A thankful attitude may not change disease or cure cancer and it certainly won’t prevent the inevitable death of each of us – but it will change the course of our path and the way that we interact with every person and challenge in our lives. If we believe the teachings of the rabbis and other sages, gratitude mitigates harsh outcomes because it corrects this inherent human inclination towards negativity and pessimism and replaces it with the ability to see the intrinsic good in everything that we face. That’s the definition of salvation right there: deliverance from our deep, negative, and reactive selves. It’s the promise of something brighter.

Take home action: Take a minimum of ten minutes each day, to consider, ponder, and concentrate on specific things, people, and circumstances we are thankful for.

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