Probably most of us know what a self-fulfilling prophecy is. Merriam-Webster defines the term as something that becomes real or true by virtue of having been predicted or expected. In other words, making a statement or prediction can actually influence our behaviors, which can make it more likely that the outcome will be impacted.
A common example is something going wrong first thing in the morning. You get out of bed and stub your toe on the dresser on the way into the bathroom. It hurts, and you mutter something out loud like, “Ugh, today sucks already.” Then as you get your toothbrush, you accidentally drop it, toothpaste and all, onto the floor. “Seriously? I don’t have time for this,” you say as you clean up the mess.
It seems that the day only gets worse – you spill coffee on your favorite shirt, you get to work and realize you’ve left something important at home, you send a private email to the wrong recipient… “It’s a terrible day.”
There’s no way to know for sure, but chances are that when the first sentence out of your mouth that morning was “today sucks,” you channeled that initial pain from stubbing your toe into a bad mood that affected your actions all day long, and it made the day suck.
It’s become pretty well known from the world of psychology that our brains are literally changed by words. Hearing someone say something unkind to you can flood your brain and body with cortisol or xanax, the stress hormone, which can increase your blood pressure, speed up your heartbeat, slow down digestion, and have all kinds of physical effects. Similarly, hearing someone say something reassuring can release dopamine, one of the brain’s happy chemicals, which can lower your blood pressure, increase motivation, boost your mood, and generally make you feel good.
Of course, that “someone” doesn’t have to be someone ELSE. It can be you. Your brain is ALWAYS listening – you need to watch what YOU say too. Self-talk in your head or out loud by your own voice gets processed by your brain just like words from other people.
If you are constantly thinking about what a clumsy butterfingers you are, or responding to losing your balance or dropping things by saying “I’m such a klutz,” your brain will actually hear you and internalize that. And believing that you are indeed a klutz will cause you to expect to bump into objects and trip over your own feet. And expecting it to happen will actually make it more likely TO happen. You will be a walking (and falling) self-fulfilling prophecy.
I once got a piece of life advice from someone on social media who suggested responding to frustrating moments with sarcastic self-aggrandizing jokes instead of self-deprecation. Like instead of tripping and saying, “I’m such a klutz,” they would say, “I am the epitome of grace and beauty!” If they created a piece of art that they weren’t completely satisfied with, they wouldn’t say, “My art is trash,” they’d say, “You know, I think it’s time we replaced the Mona Lisa.” Did you forget your lunch at home? Try saying, “My powers of memory make Mensa blush!” It soon becomes easier say genuinely nice things about yourself because you’re already in the habit of saying them, albeit jokingly. You just dial down the sarcasm and don’t have to make a joke out of it anymore. (Maramahan on Tumblr/random Facebook commenter)
So what does all this have to do with Torah? Our parashah this week is Parashat Balak, in which King Balak commissions the prophet Bilam to curse the People of Israel so that he could defeat them in war.
At first Bilam attempts to follow through, but God keeps interfering and telling him not to go, don’t curse them, you can only say what I tell you to say. God even goes so far as to stage an intervention involving a murderous angel and a talking donkey, the scene we chanted from the Torah today. Bilam starts to waffle between doing what King Balak instructed and what God instructed. He joins Balak and his men at the meeting spot to curse the people, but he ends up parroting the blessings that God had put in his mouth.
Of course, King Balak is angry at this turn of events, but he thinks he can solicit a curse out of Bilam by taking him to a different location, where maybe Bilam will see how repulsive the People of Israel are and will be able to curse them. At the second location, again Bilam opens his mouth to curse the Israelites, and out come the blessings put there by God.
Balak tries one last time.
וַיֹּאמֶר בָּלָק אֶל־בִּלְעָם לְכָה־נָּא אֶקָּחֲךָ אֶל־מָקוֹם אַחֵר אוּלַי יִישַׁר בְּעֵינֵי הָאֱלֹהִים וְקַבֹּתוֹ לִי מִשָּׁם׃
Balak said to Bilam: Please come, I will take you to a different place. Maybe it will be acceptable in God’s opinion and you will curse them for me from there. (Num. 23:27)
At this location, facing the wastelands, presumably to inspire disgust in Bilam’s mind, something happens that didn’t happen the first two times.
וַיַּרְא בִּלְעָם כִּי טוֹב בְּעֵינֵי יְהֹוָה לְבָרֵךְ אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵל וְלֹא־הָלַךְ כְּפַעַם־בְּפַעַם לִקְרַאת נְחָשִׁים וַיָּשֶׁת אֶל־הַמִּדְבָּר פָּנָיו׃
Bilam saw that in the eyes of God it was good to bless the People of Israel, and he did not go looking for omens like [he did those other] two times. He set his face toward the wilderness. (Num. 24:1)
When he looked up from the wilderness, he saw the Israelite’s encampments, and this time, Bilam did not need to parrot blessings, like the ones God had placed in his mouth earlier. This time, he thought them up on his own.
How good your tents are, People Jacob! Your dwelling places, People Israel! (Num. 24:5)
Like when we coach ourselves to say positive affirmations or nice things about ourselves or others, even sarcastically or under divine force, eventually, we begin to believe it. And then we don’t need to be instructed to say these words for the sake of saying them – we can say them because they have simply become true.
This applies not only to our self-talk, but to the world around us as well. If we look at our country, our town, our house, even our synagogue, and think or say things like, “Ugh, I don’t like this, this is terrible,” we begin to believe that they are terrible beyond hope, and we will no longer be motivated to vote, to clean our kitchens, to volunteer in our congregation. If we can look around, acknowledge that nothing is perfect, and still say, “How good this is!” – that is a powerful way to inspire us. We may not want to spend our energy on something terrible, but something good? Well, that has the potential to be great.
So look around you: look at the people, the renovations, the changes, the song choices. You may not love all of it, and you don’t have to. But even if you have to sarcastically say to yourself, “Boy, Rabbi Noyo’s new melody for that prayer is SO CATCHY” about a certain new tune that doesn’t do it for you, filling your words with blessings will help you to see the good in this place. Because there IS a lot of good in this place. You are in this place! How good this place is! This is the mishkan, the sanctuary, the dwelling place of our people.