What Was I Thinking?
Many people have thoughts, ideas, and opinions, but never pause to consider from where they originated. Naturally, everyone would like to believe that their opinions come from within, and not from outside influences. They would like to believe that they're "their own person". In truth, most people's opinions originate from outside sources. Those sources may be family or friends, because "everyone thinks like that" or, because they recently read an opinion on that subject.
The most common form of outside opinion comes from one's family. Opinions formed when people are children, have been with them for such a long time, that they're certain that those opinions are their own. In reality many of them were "handed down to them" from their parents. Why would adults, from the age of 5, believe Chassidish, Litvish, or any other approach, is the preferred form of Avodas (serving) Hashem, if their parents haven't made those beliefs the norm.
Even opinions that seem to be original, since no one else in the family has made those same decisions, can still be traced to parents. A friend became "extremely" Frum to spite his parents. Was that an original opinion or as a reaction to someone else's opinions. Overly permissive parents generally result from their having had their own very rigid upbringing. This is also not an original opinion. Both examples highlight how a person can believe that he has formed his own opinion without outside influences.
Even trivial topics such as sports teams are decided by a person's home town and not, as most people claim, because they understand that their team is really the best. If people would put some thought into where their opinions come from, they would find that the vast majority of their opinions weren't initiated by them.
Opinions formed from outside sources can be dangerous for four reasons:
The first is that opinions that weren't formed with the individual circumstance in mind, will most probably not solve the individual circumstance in need of correction. The second is that collecting opinions from everywhere, and everyone, will most probably mean that those opinions weren't "filtered out" for value. This will result in people having conflicting opinions, many of them non acceptable.
The third is that randomly collected thoughts are the equivalent of throwing something, without aiming it to go to a specific target. The chance of hitting a specific target is low. Similarly, random opinions, that are not "customized" and based on individual circumstances, will probably not succeed in achieving their targets. Great ideas that aren't customized become, at best, mediocre ideas.
The fourth is that even when individual opinions are positive, combinations of random opinions can become damaging. For instance, this thought, "parents should be very giving to their children," is a healthy thought. This thought, "parents should have very clean houses," is also a healthy thought. However, taking both to their extremes will create a conflict of priorities, if there isn't enough time to succeed with both. This can create the failure of both goals, which may cause guilt, and make them believe that they are failures.
In the two examples, the parents were convinced of the importance of both the cleanliness of the house, and the giving to their children, and accepted them both as equal priorities and equally true. When these two "true" facts, collide, as it often does in real life, the parents become confused or make destructive decisions.
This approach, that people should challenge all of their thoughts and attitudes as to their sources and values, can, and should be, extended, to our attitudes towards Yiddishkeit. Reb Simcha Zisel writes in his Sefer Chochma U'mussor that, "A person's goal in this world is to purge himself of pre-existing thoughts. He's supposed to replace them with the thoughts and attitudes that are found in the Torah."
People have various opinions regarding Yiddishkeit. Which Rav is better? Which approach to Avodas Hashem is correct? Individual thoughts, such as how to react to opportunities, tragedies, and the mundane events of our daily lives, are prescribed in the Torah. What many people believe to be the "right" attitude may be nothing more than something they're used to seeing in others.
To improve people's effectiveness in life, I always suggest that they pause and assess where each of their thoughts come from. I also suggest that they limit this process to significant thoughts and attitudes. (Otherwise you'll go crazy wondering why you prefer chocolate over vanilla.) Initially, this process may seem tedious. After a while, it'll feel liberating. It'll be great to believe in things that they've tested with their own thought processes. They may even be able to explain to others why they've chosen their personal opinions. Once there's an understanding as to why something is important, it becomes easier to prioritize it.
People may believe that it's important to have a clean home. Where did that thought come from? They may realize that it came from their mother. Once they appreciate the source, they may realize that the same mother gave less than the necessary attention to her children. Something which was without thinking a priority, can now be appreciated for its true value, possibly being important, but not important enough to "take over" other, greater, priorities. Without considering the source of the priorities,
it would never have been placed in its proper context. When they now consider which is more important, a clean home or attention towards children, it'll be easier to decide. Evaluating, and then challenging, one's opinions, allows people to re-categorize each one as either wrong, not important, important or very important. If this also including the Torah's attitudes, they'll find that the two different attitudes join into one harmonious voice, and life will be simpler and more successful.
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