Written by: Rabbi Avrohom S. Moller
How to Avoid the Pitfalls of “Stinkin Thinkin”
The colorful term “Stinkin Thinkin” was coined by Zig Ziglar, an American motivational speaker and sales guru in the 1920’s. His main premise was that goals and aspirations are realized when we aspire to make others happy as part of our goals, and when we are focused on the right things and are not focused on the wrong things. This is true at the personal level and at the communal level.
Some common “Stinkin Thinkin” pitfalls are:
Overstatement, magnifying the negative: Nothing is going right today. Nobody cares. I never get a break. My whole day/week/life is ruined!
Choosing to focus on small things: If I don’t get this ….., I’ll never be happy. Live for… My vacation was ruined because I didn’t get the car rental I had chosen.
Disproportionate reactions: I will block the whole lane of traffic because he cut me off. I’m entitled to act angry and rude because my order wasn’t ready when promised.
Making it all personal: If my …. would respect me, they wouldn’t … I know he has it out for me. I can tell she doesn’t like me from the way she…
Blaming: I was late because that server at the… was so slow. Someone moved my stuff that I left on the dining room table. My company can’t succeed because my employees are so …
The point is that faulty cognition and attitude feeds poor and unproductive behavior which than causes a downward spiral of self-reinforcing negative beliefs and behaviors.
With this in mind, let us turn our attention to the story of the מתאוננים, The Complainers. The Torah describes an episode in which the Jewish people were acting discontented. They had just spent a considerable amount of time (over a year) at Har Sinai receiving the Torah and the mitzvos and now they were heading to Eretz Yisroel. The אספסוף, riffraff, suddenly became overwhelmed with feelings of discontentment and a feeling of want, “…we recall the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost, the squash and melons, etc. Now our lives are barren with nothing but manna.” They succeeded in finding company for their misery when they involved others in their complaining. It came to a point that entire families stood by their tents crying with misery.
This was an absurd situation. They were pining for the “good ole’ days” of harsh slavery in Egypt because the food was better! The food wasn’t really free at all, but it was without any moral requirements. The manna was a delicious and miraculous food, but it came with divine accountability. If you were not on your best behavior, the manna fell far from your tent and everyone saw that. Nobody likes to be held accountable and that made them miserable. This made them declare that they missed Egypt and that their lives were wasted.
This is the power of bad attitude and bad self-talk. The Hebrew verb א.נ.נ , mourning, is always conjugated as a reflexive verb -להתאונן- to make oneself mourn. A person can suffer and be happy and a person can have everything and be miserable. That is because happiness really is a state of mind. If a person is focused on big ideas and the big picture, he will not lapse into pettiness and misery. If the Jews had not “run away” from Har Sinai and that which it represented, they would have retained their exalted status. When people threw that away and got focused on mundane and petty things, they talked themselves into being unhappy and discontented. This brought about a great calamity and a fierce response from Hashem in the form of a devastating plague.
The lesson is obvious. We need to stay focused on what is important, work hard, do the right thing and not wallow in self-pity about imaginary problems.
There is another important point in this story, the danger of mob mentality. We are living through it right now as our enemies distort the truth, vilify those who are acting morally and champion the vicious murders of innocents. There are so many people who don’t even know the basic facts of the matter, but they become drawn in by the rhetoric and join the chorus of condemnation and defamation of our people. We are prone to do similar things if we keep the wrong company and if we don’t think clearly for ourselves.
Let us stay the course, strengthen ourselves and do what is right. It will pull us through the challenges of the times.