Saturday, December 10, 2011

Struggles, Problems, and Mistakes

           This week I have watched two on-line videos about the same thing, but expressed in different ways.  The first was from a company called Pinkbat on a web site called simple truths.  In it, Michael McMillan explains that a pink baseball bat from his youth changed his entire perception of reality.  He doesn’t tell the story, but through a series of eye-tricking pictures, he explains that any problem we have is simply an opportunity.  He gives the example of Alexander Fleming, a scientist who found his Petri dishes covered with mold after some time away.  Instead of trashing his data and viewing the mold as a problem, he instead studies it and discovers penicillin.
McMillan explains the concept of perceptual blindness.  This is the idea that allows us to be confused by the picture of the candlestick that looks like silhouettes or the picture that might be and old woman looking forward or a young woman looking away.  We all have the tendency to filter out images and information that we do not want in our brains.  Once we realize the many different ways there are to distinguish things in this world, we become aware of the opportunities that exist if we could open up to them.
Watching videos on line and learning things from the internet can be an amazing experience.  We can learn new ideas and innovative thoughts that nobody has ever thought of before.  Or we can simply learn the lessons from Genesis in a new format. 
In the Torah portion we are reading this week, Jacob is confronted with a perceived problem.  He is on his way to meet his brother Esau.  The last time they saw each other was when Esau promised to kill Jacob, so you could say Jacob isn’t too thrilled about the upcoming meeting.  On the way to meet Esau, he spends the night alone on the bank of the Jabbok River.  He sends his family and servants and flocks and everything on ahead, and he is confronted by a “man,” with whom he wrestles for the entire night.  Now this seems like a big problem, but Jacob uses it as an opportunity.  They wrestle to a standstill, even after the man (who we know is an angel) wrenches Jacob’s hip at the thigh.
Jacob sees a problem, and he wrestles with it.  The word the Torah uses for wrestling is vaye’avek.  It is related to the very word for where he stands, Yabok, the Jabbok River.  He struggles all night, until he comes to a realization.  The angel asks to be let go, and Jacob asks for a blessing.  This is one of those strange moments in the Torah where it doesn’t seem to make sense.  When Jacob asks for a blessing, what should we expect the next words to be? Baruch atah, or may you be granted, something blessing-like.  Instead the angel says, “You will no longer be called jacob, but Israel, for you have struggled with beings divine and human and have prevailed.”
The angel teaches Jacob that in order to solve whatever he is struggling with, he needs a new perspective.  The angel lets him know that his struggle is actually a blessing.  It is a blessing that must be acknowledged with a change of name that embodies his new outlook.  Jacob, now Israel, takes this lesson and uses it on the Jabbok as well.  He changes the name from Yabok to Peniel.  Even the place of struggle becomes a place where God’s face can be seen.
The second video I saw was from the TED web site.  If you have never seen a TED video, they are absolutely worth your ten to fifteen minutes per viewing.  They are referred to as “riveting talks by remarkable people,” and there are over 1000 brief videos available for perusing for free.  One of the more recent conversations is by Stefon Harris, who plays a piece with his jazz quartet on the TED stage to prove a point. His thesis is, “There are no mistakes on the bandstand.”  He explains that the way jazz works is through syncopation and improvisation—the sense of rhythm that is unique to jazz, and the ability of the musicians to play off of one another.  It is the second aspect that allows for the idea that there are no mistakes on the bandstand.  If one of the musicians were to play a dissonant note, it could sound awkward and out of place, but only if the other musicians ignore it and play over it.  If instead the others pay attention to it and incorporate it into their own notes, they are turning a potential mistake into beautiful music.
He tells the TED audience that when, as a jazz musician, he hears someone play something different, his job is to “be patient, listen to what is going on, and pull from what is going on around me.  When you do that you inspire the other musicians and they give you more, and gradually it builds.”  In other words, allowing ourselves to work with the challenges life presents us is how we create something bigger than we originally intended.  We are all experts in our own fields.  We think we know everything about whatever it is that we do, and yet there is always someone from whom we can learn.  All we have to do is be in the moment, accept from one another, and let creativity flow.
Back to Jacob.  After his encounter with the angel he does meet his brother.  At first it looks like he is in for another wrestling match.  Esau runs at him, grabs him, falls on his neck and….kisses him, and they both cry.  I don’t believe Jacob could have allowed for his brother’s kiss if he had not encountered the angel first.  Imagine Jacob’s perspective.  He thought Esau wanted to kill him.  He sees Esau running, feels his brother grab hold of him and fall on his neck.  If he was not open to using his brother’s dissonance, he might only be willing to fight.  Instead Jacob and Esau cry in each other’s arms, apparently at peace with one another.  They later are able to bury their father Isaac together.
So whether we learn from Genesis or from the internet, the message still holds.  Throughout life we are presented with struggles.  When we encounter something difficult we have two choices.  We can see it as a problem, as a mistake, and fight against it, or we can pay attention to the possibilities it presents.  We can open ourselves up to new possibilities, and make beautiful music and engender strong connections with others.

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