Alice Herz-Sommer is a Holocaust survivor who nevertheless maintains an extraordinarily positive view of life:
Google her name and you’ll find numerous articles and videos.
She describes herself as “non-religious,” but her positive view of things lies at the heart of Judaism itself. “Why,” the rabbis ask, “does Torah begin with the Hebrew letter ‘Bet’ [B]?” “Because the same letter begins the Hebrew word “brachah” — “blessing.” One should look upon the world that way.
Herz-Sommer doesn’t deny that there’s bad in the world. One part of her “secret” (as it were) is simply to focus on the positive, without denying the negative.
Much is written from both the rabbinic and the medical/psychological viewpoints about “looking at the positive.” To put it tersely, it’s better for you and everyone else if you do.
Rebbe Nachman and Hasidut in general can be said to take it a bit further: There’s good in everything because everything is a “part of G-d” and has “G-dliness” in it. Therefore, there’s an inherent good in everyone and everything, however much it might be obscured. Find the “good” and you find the “G-dliness” (see Rebbe Nachman’s teaching “Azamra” on this, in particular). But the power of seeing someone who exemplifies it in their own life is all but irresistible.
Still, although she disavows herself as “religious,” she does what I would call a “spiritual technique”: She practices playing the piano for several hours every day, even at age 109, and has for most of her life — even while in a concentration camp. For her, practicing is far more than the dull drill that it was for me when I took piano lessons at age 9 (and only at age 9 for that very reason). When Herz-Sommer practices, carried away by the beauty of the Baroque, Classical and Romantic music she’s playing, it seems as if her attention dwells, through the beauty, on the Divine Good, without naming it as such. It doesn’t matter. A sweet apple tastes the same whether we call it an apple or not. Her innate positivity is re-charged and strengthened by her “practice.” Isn’t that why we meditate and/or pray? Would that we each came away from our own practice with the same inner joy as Ms. Herz-Sommer.
About 38 years ago, I was doing recreational music programs with senior citizens who lived in NYC Housing Authority buildings and projects. I remember two groups in particular — one in a building on Hoe Ave., near E. 174th St. (Bronx) and the other in a similar building about two blocks east of there, on Bryant Ave.
The group in the first building happened to be made up of women who had been life-long church-goers. Probably not all from the same church, they still all had a readiness to sing joyously. When I first came there, I tried having them sing American popular songs, as other groups of seniors had wanted to do. After a couple of weeks, they told me they only wanted to sing Gospel hymns. So, every Monday at 10 AM, I sang hymns and read Bible with them. They used to call me their “little Baptist minister.”
The Bryant Avenue group was of similar size and age, but none had been church-goers. They were always pleasant to me, but the underlying feelings of anger and sadness about life were palpable, especially in comparison with the Hoe Avenue group.
I learned from this: Happiness needs to be practiced every day. If you do, one reward is that it becomes more habitual; more easily invoked regardless of circumstances. Also, happiness needs to be actively stirred up in us — by singing, dancing or some other activity that effects us that way. For Herz-Sommer, it was practicing the piano and playing music that moved her.
Do you stir up your own happiness? How?