Tuesday, April 5, 2011
Receiving People Cheerfully
In Pirkei Avot, Shammai states, "Receive every person with a cheerful expression" (Ethics of the Fathers 1:15). In other words, our demeanor should always be as friendly as possible. Obviously, this takes a considerable amount of effort to consistently achieve, but there is a practical reason for doing so.
Rabbi Israel Salanter once confronted a fellow scholar who had a worrisome look on his face. He asked why he was displaying such an unfriendly demeanor. It happened to be Aseret Yemei Teshuva (the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), and the man told him that he was concerned about the upcoming days of judgment. Rabbi Salanter replied, "But other people will not realize what is bothering you. They might well think you are upset with them. If you want to feel worry in your heart, that's your concern. Your heart is a reshut hayachid (private domain), and what you feel there is known to you alone. But your face is a reshut harabim (public domain), and nobody has the right to cause damage to public property."
As a general rule, behavior follows attitude. If you're in a good mood, you are more likely to engage in good behavior. If you're in a bad mood, you are more likely to engage in bad behavior. It's a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. But is it possible that our behavior can influence our attitude? According to Jewish wisdom, the answer is yes.
There is a principle known as mitoch shelo lishma ba lishma - something initially done without sincerity can ultimately lead to sincere performance. In this case, acting pleasantly for a considerable amount of time can indeed lead to that kind of behavior. Is it fair to be rude to others until our feelings are willing to cooperate? Of course not. So until they are, act happier even though it might be done insincerely. In the end, we'll be the better for it.
People tend to have the ability to act as though everything is fine when dealing with perfect strangers despite the fact they are in a foul mood. For example, if someone happens to be answering the door or a phone call, they can usually reverse their mood on a moment's notice. Yet, we often won't extend that same courtesy to those closest to us. Once again, consistently engaging in this kind of conduct takes a lot of effort, but it illustrates the power of behavior to influence attitude.
If you find it hard to smile often, at least try to present a friendly demeanor. If you find it hard to present a friendly demeanor, then at least explain to the other person that your foul mood has nothing to do with them. For a better understanding of this whole topic, simply put the shoe on the other foot. When do you feel most welcome around other people: when they have a serious look on their face or when they smile?
It's not easy taking the high road, but as Jews, that's the only road we should take.