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Built for Action

Being alone with one’s own thoughts is such an unbearable experience to most people that they’d rather do an unpleasant activity – even give themselves an electric shock – instead. This was the surprising result of a series of studies recently published in the journal Science. Subjects were asked to remain alone in a room with no other diversions for a brief period, ranging from six to 15 minutes. Most reported that they did not enjoy the experience. When the participants were asked to submit to 15 minutes of silence in the privacy of their homes, most admitted to “cheating” by listening to music, reading a book, or checking their email.

In a twist on the experiment, the researchers then gave some participants an additional option: They could sit in the room and think, and they could also give themselves a mild electric shock by pressing a button. The majority of subjects chose the shock.

To some, the findings of this study are simply a reflection of our frenetic, 24/7, can’t-stop-for-a-minute-to-breathe culture. But the finding may also reflect the fact that as humans, we are not built for idleness. The need for action is hard-wired, so that even giving ourselves a shock is preferable to doing nothing.

This finding is congruent with the well-known statement in the Mishnah: “The action is the main thing.” A person can think beautiful thoughts but they will have no long-lasting effect unless he or she can find a way to put them into action. Chassidic teachings explain that the soul in heaven has all the solitude it wants to contemplate G-dliness. If G-d had wanted that, He’d never have created a physical universe. But all the spiritual worlds were simply the lead-up to creating this modest world of ours, where we can perform good deeds, physical acts that transform the universe into a place that G-d can call home.

We find an example of this in the laws of prayer. If a person merely thinks the words of prayer but does not say the words verbally, he does not fulfill his halachic obligation, but if he says the words without concentrating on their meaning, the mitzvah is fulfilled. Why is that? Isn’t prayer primarily in the heart? But our prayers must take root into the physical world and must be expressed by our physical lips – and thus, even a less-than-perfect prayer (an electric shock, if you will) is preferable to no action at all. Giving charity with less than a full heart is also preferable to feeling great sympathy in your heart but doing nothing to help.

This is not to minimize the importance of mindfulness and contemplation. However, the physical world is the focus. Are my positive thoughts having an effect on me or on others? Is anyone being helped by them? Only when thoughts lead to action do we fulfill our purpose in the world – to make it into a dwelling for the Divine.



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