Imagine you wake up one morning and suddenly notice that your hands are green. As you pull off your blanket, you see that your legs are green as well. Your heart rate speeds up as you realize that your entire room has turned green too! As you walk around, you’re shocked to see that everything in your house has transformed into the color green. You make your way to work, but time and time again, everything you see has somehow turned green. As you pull up to your office, you pass by a reflection in the mirror, and you stop dead in your tracks — you’re wearing green sunglasses!
While this story is fictional, it describes a deep spiritual concept: the nature of the human condition. We are all wearing conceptual and spiritual glasses, the lens through which we translate and experience the world around us. However, not all of us realize that we had, and have, the power to choose how we see the world. An athlete or avid sports fan might see everything through the lens of sports, somehow finding a sports analogy for every possible situation.
Yet, the ideal is for us to wear spiritual glasses as well, to see the world through a Torah lens, and thus, to see the physical world as a reflection of a spiritual reality. As Maimonides explains (parshat Bo), we must all strive to see past the surface, recognizing nature itself as miraculous. Our very existence, the fact that we have air to breathe, and the fact that we have the ability to think and feel, are all constant miracles. These types of glasses require constant polishing, constant attention and constant effort.
We are what we think about
We are what we think about; this is one of the deepest truths of life. Whenever you start to think about something, you’ll begin to see it appear in your life as well. Usually, you’ll begin to realize that it has been there all along. As the Torah explains through the story of Hagar, only once Hashem opened her eyes could Hagar finally see the well of water that had been there the whole time (Genesis 21:19).
In your own life, have you ever bought a new shirt, and suddenly realized that everyone has that shirt? In truth, people have always had that shirt, but in the past you’ve simply filtered this information out, since you weren’t looking for it. Now, however, you’ve begun to focus on this, and therefore, you’ve begun notice what has actually been there the whole time.
This is due to the reticular activating system in our brain, a bundle of nerves which filter out all unnecessary information. It is only once you focus on something, and deem it important, that will you begin to notice it. Just think about how many times you’ve walked past your neighbor’s house. Do you remember what the front door looks like or how many windows it has? If not, it’s probably because this isn’t very important to you.
The same is true for spiritual depth; only if you’re looking for it will you find it.
The underlying question: Why don’t people become great?
This topic is connected to one of the most important questions in life: “Why don’t more people become great?” So many people get inspired for brief moments but then continue living normal, average lives. What convinces us that we’re just normal and not destined for greatness? Have you ever seen someone extraordinary, whether a Torah sage, someone with exemplary character traits, or someone with an amazing marriage, and thought to yourself, “wouldn’t it be amazing if I could become great like that as well?!”
You might have even begun to imagine what your life would be like if you could achieve something like this. So what happens? Why don’t we act on it?
The answer: Self-perception
The answer is simple: We don’t have the empowering identity, the self-perception, to create a life of greatness. After all, what usually happens when we have that brief moment of inspiration, when we imagine a greater version of ourselves? A small voice (the evil inclination . . .) creeps out from the back of our minds, and whispers, “Who are you kidding? What makes you think you can do that? Have you ever done something like this before? You’re not cut out for that kind of life, you’re just normal, average!” You then reinforce your un-empowering identity and let the inspiration fade.
Yet, there is a way to prevent this. If you understand the power of self-perception, of identity, then you will realize that you don’t have to repeat your past. You can begin writing a new chapter in the story of your life. As the saying goes, “History is being read, but it’s also being written, by people with imagination.”
You can write the next chapter in the story of your life. The key to doing so is by understanding the power of identity.