Los Angeles Jewish Home's Blog

Facing the Future with a Smile - Letter from the Rabbi

I'm looking forward to a good 2014. Are you? Or are you more of a pessimist? Some people look to the future with a positive sense of how life will be; for others, thoughts of the future fill them with fear and anxiety. I had a group discussion with residents the other day about what it meant to be an optimist or a pessimist, and whether our attitude to the future affects how we live our life.

As some residents pointed out, there are situations where a level of fear about the future may be appropriate, and may lead to taking useful precautions. For instance, it would be foolhardy to let a small child play with a pot of boiling water bubbling on the stove. And many people are careful not to spend too much time in the sun without protection. But taking proper precautions in a situation where the danger is real does not make one a pessimist — just a careful person.

However, if we are always fearing that the future will go wrong for us (or for those we love) — for example that every small ache and pain is a certain sign of the most horrendous illness, or that whatever we set out to do, we are sure to fail — that really is a picture of a pessimistic nature.

On the other hand, if one's natural assumption is that things will turn out right, it's as though one is facing the future with a smile. It is perfectly possible to be a careful person, taking note of dangers in our path, and still hold a rosy view of the future. Indeed, isn't our future more likely to be rosy if we take sensible note of real dangers?

One resident pointed out that being an optimist or a pessimist makes a significant difference to how we live our lives. An optimist is much more willing to try things, to take risks. Life is expanded that way, and can feel like an adventure. Pessimists, on the other hand, would be more likely to avoid unnecessary risks, and stay with the activities that are most safe and familiar to them.

So why am I thinking now about attitudes to the future? Is it just that we are about to embark on all the unknowns of 2014? A bigger reason is that I am at an age when it's impossible to ignore the fragility of life. With each further step I take into my seventies, I am ever more aware of all the things that can turn out in unwelcome ways. If being optimistic means believing that those things won't happen to me... well, how can I possibly be confident of that? Working at the Home provides a constant reminder of the hardships that accompany getting older — and of our residents' courage in facing those challenges.

And yet, looking into the unknown future, I do feel optimistic. I have come to think there are two kinds of optimism. The first kind of optimism is a trust that for many years the future will hold lots that is good and little that is bad. We can affect that only in limited ways; for although we may have some influence on how life treats us — like the way we eat or exercise — we know we cannot control life's events.

While I pray for good in the future, I know that in the real world I cannot rely on it. This is where the second kind of optimism comes in; and this one is up to us. While we have little control over what happens to us, we do have quite a lot of control over how we respond to life's happenings. If the first kind of optimism is about our trust that life will treat us well, the second is about our trust in ourselves — that we will not let life's events knock us flat. (A pessimist, on the other hand, might believe he would be absolutely devastated by the events he fears.)

So here I am on my life journey. So far it's gone pretty well, but what of the future? And what do I mean when I say I am optimistic? Well, I do trust that things will go well; more importantly, I also trust in my ability to deal positively with what life sends me. It's not a magical belief in a good future. It's a trust that I have the resilience to live a life that is positive and fulfilling with the circumstances that come my way.

May we all have a 2014 full of good, and the ability to meet the year's challenges with a smile.

Rabbi Anthony Elman Rabbi Anthony Elman is the Skirball Director of Spiritual Life at the Jewish Home and also serves as Rabbi of the Home's Grancell Village campus. His professional background is multifaceted, encompassing the fields of law, social work, and psychotherapy. Rabbi Elman has been with the Home since his ordination and graduation from the Academy for Jewish Religion-California in May 2007

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