I was stuck in traffic on Jewel Avenue, just a ways up the road from home. Four lanes narrowed into two, the off-ramps from the Van Wyck Expressway were rerouted, and a large man in a hard hat and work boots stood sentinel, randomly halting traffic with his little stop sign. Cars, trucks, and buses that normally cruised along this overpass now crawled meekly.
I’m okay with traffic in general, but not all traffic is created equal. My commute was almost over and I had been standing for over an hour after a tough day. “Why am I not home already?” I wondered as we crept along, while an abrasive jackhammer’s “ratatatat” rang in my ears as a guy unintentionally (?) nudged into me each time the bus lurched forward. I wished I had walked.
I don’t mind roadwork; I get it: They’re fixing the road (I think?). I mind not knowing why I’m going through all the trouble. If they had done a better job of explaining their purpose, how long the construction would take, why they were digging up the road, or why what was being done was an improvement, I think the ride would be that much easier to bear. I wanted a sense of progress, rationale, and a goal; what I got was an uncomfortable, awkward experience. Such is the NYC DDC (Department of Design and Construction).
I craved feedback. Feedback is a nearly indispensible element of all successful design. Whenever you hear a mouse “click,” see elevator buttons light up, or have that spinny-thing on the computer screen, you are experiencing feedback. These tiny elements are reassurances that tell the user something was accomplished. Feedback is quite ubiquitous, yet goes unnoticed on a conscious level. Just imagine how unsatisfying it would be if smartphones didn’t make that snappy shutter sound effect each time you took a picture.
We thirst for feedback; that’s why some people keep pressing that elevator button, lean precariously over the yellow line to peer down the subway tunnel, or keep checking their phone. Now, there’s nothing wrong with wanting feedback, but we must also realize that our demand for it has grown to the point where we now expect to know exactly how long our traffic delay will be, when our package from Amazon will come, what the weather will be like three months from now in Tel-Aviv, or how many calories we burned walking up the stairs (because you don’t trust that no-good elevator button). Those are just the more healthy examples. Here’s the thing: Feedback is a wonderful security blanket, but we are oversaturated with it and it has ultimately dulled our tolerance for uncertainty to the point where we forgot how great uncertainty is.
These and other forms of unhealthy feedback actually make us less happy. Sometimes the very uncertainty that we are dodging can be a truer, more direct route to pleasure. A study recently showed how subjects felt happier when they anticipated an undetermined outcome rather than when they expected the same stimulus. To put it another way, we are happier waiting for that box of whatever is coming from Amazon than we are the moment we have it.
Back to feedback, I wonder if our jonesing for all that information has hindered our spirituality. When we take those three steps back after praying, we’d like to see a light go off indicating if our prayers were accepted (red for “no,” green for “yes”). Please know that Hashem is not this bearded old man in an ivory throne room, hunched over his iPhone X, deciding whether to “like” our requests or not. And expecting this is wrong in so many ways, not to mention the fact that this kind of feedback would gut the whole experience of prayer because uncertainty is a key component. Uncertainty is an important ingredient to belief. When we pray, we need to trust that our requests are heard, trust that Hashem is listening, trust that Hashem is behind everything. The thing is, he works on his timetable, not ours.
We get a glimpse of this when we learn Sefer Sh’mos during the parshiyos of “Shovavim” [Sh’mos through Mishpatim]. In these readings, we see things start to sharpen for us as a nation; all those promises that Hashem made to the Avos, Yosef’s descent, settling in Goshen, the slavery, the suffering, the uncertainty. It was all by design, done with precision accuracy.
“KAPLOW!” Just like that, Hashem upended the status quo of Mitzrayim, dropped those supernatural makos, split the Yam Suf, and then identified himself to us as the Hashem who took us out of Mitzrayim. It was a touchstone experience that defined our nationhood and our future relationship with Hashem. Part of the goal of this chapter in our history is to serve as a reference point for all generations. We can trust in Hashem; He is there, He is watching, He is listening, and He is helping us.
Yeah, Hashem can be demonstrative, but he prefers to be subtle. He does give feedback – just not in ways that we are completely attuned to. If I had more space, I’d talk about mindfulness, emunah, and the great chasidic master, Reb Leibele Eiger. But for now, let’s learn from farmers. When a seed is put in the ground, nobody expects it to shoot forth instantly, fully developed. We are not in Gan Eden, and our reality is that there are no hot loaves of bread growing on trees. Things take time. When we pray or try to do something, remember: We are planting a seed that may not sprout immediately – or even in our lifetime.
I don’t believe in the DDC, but I do believe in Hashem. Our technology is helpful, but sometimes it’s just a neat trick to make us feel like we have control when we really have none. I look to these parshiyos and I remind myself that whatever Hashem does is good. There is uncertainty and I’m learning to embrace it. Let’s try to more happily anticipate whatever feedback we get from Hashem, because whatever we get, it’s for the best.
Simcha Loiterman is a resident of Kew Gardens Hills. He is available for speaking engagements and presentations or a cup of coffee and a good talk. He would love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org. He feels very strongly that you can learn from everyone because we all have stories to tell, lessons to teach, and can kindle a spark of goodness inside. He is currently pursuing a doctorate in “Life.” Visit his blog at thisisloit.wordpress.com to learn more of his ideas and opinions about our beautiful world.