News of the World

News of the World

There’s a subreddit called “Uplifting News” that annoys me. It’s supposed to be an escape from the humdrum litany of murders, wars, etc. that is the news cycle; “There are still good, honest, compassionate people in this world and this is a place to share their stories,” says its description.

Have some headlines from the front page on July 4, 2014:

9 yo forgoes presents for his birthday, asks for dogs to be saved from kill shelters instead

Starbucks Praises Barista Who Defended Breastfeeding Mom

16-year-old with 3 college degrees gets perfect SAT score

US Navy gets its first four-star female admiral

Okay, I get it. Great things are happening to some people, and other people are doing great things. It’s not uplifting, though, because it doesn’t deal with the source of the sadness. I doubt anyone rational listening to the evening news ever thought, “Wow, everyone on planet earth is either suffering or causing others to suffer.” In fact, the suffering is newsworthy precisely because it’s different and new, a bright light illuminating the grey, benign mediocrity in which, thank G-d, most of us get to live.

I am downcast (assuming, for a moment, that I’m not a masochist looking for misery) because good news happens to exist, and in an ideal world, good news must exist.

Great things only exist in some ways and from some perspectives. The nine-year-old is kind, but not necessarily all dogs should be saved from kill shelters, and one wonders if forgoing one’s own gifts at such an age is even healthy and what his motivations are. Starbucks praised behavior that is controversial and whose righteousness is up for debate; the sixteen-year-old’s smarts are good only for him until put to some altruistic use; people are happy that the navy has four-star admirals, and happy that it has a female one, but generally not both. If the news meets some arbitrary standard or perspective, it inspires us. It can just as easily not meet that standard, leaving us just as cynical as before.

Suppose you’ve never seen or heard of a triangle, and I show you some examples of all different sizes, angles, colors, and materials. The more examples you see, the more you’re certain that triangles have three sides. But you can’t know for sure. Perhaps what I’m showing you are atypical triangles, a particular subset that happen to all have three sides, but the next triangle in the series will have four sides. It is only when you decide from the beginning that “all shapes I’ll see that have three sides I’ll call triangles” that a triangle must, by definition, have three sides. Without this a priori determination, the most you can ever say is “all triangles I have seen have three sides.” This is much what science says about all physical realities, even incredibly consistent ones like gravity, e.g. “all unsupported objects I’ve seen around here fall toward the earth, and not away from it.” This is consistent enough to be relied upon, but never makes the leap to becoming a must, a Truth (perhaps all we are experiencing is an incredibly long run in a random process, like getting a hundred heads in a row when flipping a coin, especially since we’re prone to underestimating how common long runs are). It seems the world is not a good place because we see good things happen. If you look up “news” in the dictionary, the definition doesn’t say “good.”

By the way, it’s not that some bad news ruins whatever good we find. Even if all headlines were uplifting headlines, I suspect we wouldn’t be happy, for the reason that all human attempts at utopia end in disaster and our representations of a peaceful, happy world (e.g. Disney World) come off as sort of creepy. You don’t get mugged in the street in the Disney world, but you do feel trapped, because you have a potential for selfishness and evil, a potential unmoved by bright colors that festers under the watchful eyes of park security, enforcers of an inhuman order.

No, until it must be good, it isn’t. Until we must be righteous, we aren’t. The next piece of news could always be bad, and if it isn’t, we might feel driven to make it so. Just as one who says a triangle has four sides is a madman, so must be he who says there is evil in the world. We don’t just need more good things to happen; we need to see everything differently.

Tanya, over two hundred years old, says we need to be happy. Or, more accurately, that depression is evil, and one ought to embrace its alternatives, joy and something called merirus (lit. bitterness). Depression is lethargy, whereas joy and bitterness are mirror images, positive and negative energy fueling improvement with hope or regret.

The author’s descendent and successor says that merirus is not for our generation, and that we must focus only on joy and the positive. It’s not, G-d forbid, that Tanya’s advice is less true now; we have changed. When men were men, contrition was sobering and drove one to the right path. Today, remorse is more likely to build and build until it drowns us in fear and self-absorption.

The Rebbe could have stopped there, and left us with another uplifting headline – Jewish Leader: “Life To Be Lived Focusing On Positive Future” – and the departure from merirus would based on non-uplifting technicality, i.e. we happen to be weaker than previous generations; another piece of surface-level good news generated at random.

But the Rebbe doesn’t stop at the first reason. In the system by which the seven millennia of human existence correspond to the spiritual rhythms of the seven-day week, we live in Friday afternoon, a time to prepare for the cosmic Shabbos, the coming of Moshiach; traditionally, the time for stock-taking and regret is Thursday night, as far into the week as possible without interrupting Friday’s royal preparations. Since we live after Thursday, so close to the time of redemption, we ought to prepare for the future, to taste of it by living joyously in the present. Because when that day comes, the world will express only G-dliness, true perfection, and death will be swallowed up forever.

In other words, the Rebbe defines the triangle from the get-go. What is a world? A perfect place, a place without evil. That is the Truth, as absolute as the infinite G-d it reflects. And since our knowledge of G-d and His plan allows us this a priori definition of reality, the uplifting news can actually serve its purpose; every three-sided triangle aligns with what we know to be true.

The headlines of /r/UpliftingNews are not random breaks in a fierce story; they are the true intention of the Storyteller finally coming through to his audience because they must, because that is the point of all His trillions of words. The child’s altruism, the company’s praise, the teen’s brilliance, and the navy’s appointment pierce the illusion of randomness and technicality: in the world’s perfect state, people will be selfless, empathetic, and brilliant; femininity, with its greater inherent spirituality, will supplant masculinity as the main mode of existence.

All these things were recorded as the true definition of our world thousands of years ago. Pick up a holy book, and read all about it.

Image from Flickr. CC BY 2.0

9 Comments

  • PicoDellaMirandola

    September 14, 2014 at 1:49 am

    I didn’t get the triangle thing. The triangle must have three sides but the human being is never going to be good by necessity — he’ll always have the freedom to choose not to be good. No?

    • Tzvi Kilov

      September 14, 2014 at 4:44 pm

      Not always — the goal of existence is to reach an end-game devoid of evil. Perhaps there will be choice, but only among “good,” such that even the lesser choice couldn’t be called “evil” except in comparative terms. Thus, everything, including people, contain within them this capacity for good, and this is their ultimate perfection. To choose good in our times is not simply to negate evil in a game of 50/50 – it’s to actualize a potential that is in fact the ultimate purpose of one’s existence. Just like discovering a triangle with three sides is not finding this triangle in a vacuum, it’s instead a confirmation of the true nature of the triangle. Therefore the bad isn’t on equal footing with the good; it is a denial of a person’s true essence and is less real. Thus “good” news stories are uplifting; they are a step closer to something that already exists in potential, not something we appreciate in a vacuum. This, in a nutshell, is what I was thinking about when I wrote this. I think. =D

      • Eric Kaplan

        September 14, 2014 at 7:19 pm

        Two interrelated questions. 1)even now isn’t “evil” choosing a lesser good — say pleasure of candy vs health, or personal satisfaction vs community? 2) is the end goal an end or is it potentially endless process of self refinement?

      • PicoDellaMirandola

        September 25, 2014 at 11:41 pm

        YOU ARE AWESOME

  • PicoDellaMirandola

    September 14, 2014 at 5:49 am

    I didn’t get the triangle thing. The triangle must have three sides but the human being is never going to be good by necessity — he’ll always have the freedom to choose not to be good. No?

    • Tzvi Kilov

      September 14, 2014 at 8:44 pm

      Not always — the goal of existence is to reach an end-game devoid of evil. Perhaps there will be choice, but only among “good,” such that even the lesser choice couldn’t be called “evil” except in comparative terms. Thus, everything, including people, contain within them this capacity for good, and this is their ultimate perfection. To choose good in our times is not simply to negate evil in a game of 50/50 – it’s to actualize a potential that is in fact the ultimate purpose of one’s existence. Just like discovering a triangle with three sides is not finding this triangle in a vacuum, it’s instead a confirmation of the true nature of the triangle. Therefore the bad isn’t on equal footing with the good; it is a denial of a person’s true essence and is less real. Thus “good” news stories are uplifting; they are a step closer to something that already exists in potential, not something we appreciate in a vacuum. This, in a nutshell, is what I was thinking about when I wrote this. I think. =D

      • Eric Kaplan

        September 14, 2014 at 11:19 pm

        Two interrelated questions. 1)even now isn’t “evil” choosing a lesser good — say pleasure of candy vs health, or personal satisfaction vs community? 2) is the end goal an end or is it potentially endless process of self refinement?

      • PicoDellaMirandola

        September 26, 2014 at 3:41 am

        YOU ARE AWESOME

  • SF

    March 23, 2015 at 2:34 am

    @Eric – 1. a) that depends on whether we’re defining good in G-d’s terms or ours; what is the nature of the value of selfishness? b) the evil under discussion here anyway doesn’t seem to be such evils as instant gratification and selfishness but rather more global, blood-spilling evils… Correct me if I’m wrong; that’s the impression I got.
    2. Something tells me that’s a false dichotomy. Like somehow there is some sort of fusion of these two options you offer such that the even as the work doesn’t end, you still don’t feel like it is endless (tedious) work… Perhaps it is related to the idea in Tanya that discusses how every individual mitzvah unites the doer with G-d completely – and yet that doesn’t mean that you can’t continue to achieve deeper and deeper levels of oneness on deeper levels of self…