Do the Wright Thing

If you’re trying to build a business, sustain a marriage, raise children or if you’re engaged in any other long-term challenging project, there is a lesson to be found in the story of flight.

It was the fall of 1900;  Wilbur and Orville Wright were living in a tent on the barren windswept sand dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, about 75 miles southeast of Norfolk, Virginia and about 200 miles east of Raleigh, North Carolina.  Today you can easily drive to Kitty Hawk via the concrete Wright Memorial Bridge, but the Wright brothers had to take a hazardous two day sail in a leaky old schooner from Elizabeth City on the Pasquotank River.

Once there, everything was a challenge.  They constantly worried about their business and their father and sister back in Dayton, Ohio.  Drinking water, food, and supplies were hard to come by. The wind repeatedly demolished their tent.  But of course the wind was why they were there in the first place.  Each time their primitive gliding machines were damaged, they meticulously rebuilt them.

At that time, it was positively assumed that flying was impossible. Even the Washington Post categorically declared that, “man cannot fly”.  That was all there was to it.  The Wright brothers were surely engaged in a fool’s errand.  Traveling backwards and forwards between Kitty Hawk where they tried to fly and Dayton where their bicycle business needed attention, they struggled with failure after failure for three long years until they finally flew a heavier-than-air machine for the first time in human history on December 17th, 1903.

One can but imagine the countless disappointments, frustrations, doubts, and worries that must have plagued Orville and Wilbur year after grueling year.  They were alone, neither brother having married. They didn’t even have a coach, let alone a therapist.  They were mocked for their dreams and for their determination.  Yet there is no record of the brothers having suffered from depression or even from periods of melancholy.

Let’s see if we can understand the Wright brothers’ emotional equilibrium by traveling further back than a mere 110 years ago.  The first person who suffered from sadness was Cain.

…and Cain was very angry, and his face fell.
(Genesis 4:5)

Cain was the first person in history to think of bringing God a present.

…and Cain brought a gift to God from the fruit of the earth.
(Genesis 4:3)

He was quickly imitated by Abel who did the same, bringing his gift from among his sheep.  God approved of Abel’s gift but rebuffed Cain’s.  Consequently, Cain was very upset.

God immediately asked Cain what was bothering him.

And God said to Cain, ‘Why are you upset and why is your face so down?’ 

(Genesis 4:6)

Now that is a very strange question for God to have asked Cain.

Cain surely should have responded: “You ask why I’m upset?  You ask why I’m feeling down?  Isn’t it obvious to you, Lord?  I’m miserable because you rejected my gift even though I was the first to think of bringing You an offering!  That’s why I’m upset.”

With such an obvious answer, it is a strange question for God to have asked.  Even stranger is that Cain does not supply that obvious answer.  In fact, Cain says absolutely nothing in response to God’s question.  So God continues talking to Cain who seems to ignore Him and heads off to do away with his brother.

Ancient Jewish wisdom explains God’s question by explaining that the only time God permits us the indulgence of despair and sorrow is if there is nothing at all we can do to change our circumstances.  Under all other conditions, God prefers that we set about solving the problem causing the gloom.

…the Israelites lifted their eyes and saw the Egyptians chasing after them and they were frightened and cried out to God.
(Exodus 14:10)

And God’s response?

And God said to Moses, why do you cry to me, order the Children of Israel to march forward.

(Exodus 14:15)

The Israelites were scared and dispirited as they stood impotently on the shores of the Red Sea watching their foes draw nearer.  God permits them no emotional weakness or passive hand-wringing.  Instead, God directs them to take action to solve their problem.  This they do.  They start marching into the Red Sea and in response, God splits it.

One might have thought that one occasion when unmitigated sadness is allowed is during mourning. Yet ancient Jewish wisdom stresses that even then, after a short period, we should focus more on extolling the memory of the deceased than on immersing ourselves in sorrow.

The Hebrew word for ‘mourner’ AVeL is the same as the Hebrew word for ‘but’ AVaL.

                                                                                                                        אבל              אבל

mourning           but

Even mourning has a time limit and an intensity limit.  We might be in mourning, BUT the memories are good.  This is the end of everything, BUT life continues.  How can I continue living without that person?  BUT you can.  Even in the sorrow of mourning, after an appropriate interval, we are expected to reintegrate ourselves back into what is now the new normal of life.

It all becomes clearer now.  God asked why Cain was miserable because He expected Cain to do something about it.  God expected Cain to look into his heart and understand why his gift was rejected.  Cain should have taken the necessary steps to right his relationship with God and all would have been well.  God even gave him hints of how to accomplish this.

…if you behave better, you’ll be accepted…

(Genesis 4:7)

Like so many of us, Cain was immersed in his feelings. Rather than changing himself, he disastrously struck out at his brother.

The Wright Brothers succeeded by responding differently than Cain. They reacted to each setback, not with anguish but with action.  Each failure propelled them not to heartache but to exertion and effort.  So whatever grand life challenge we find ourselves engaged in, our response to setback and failure should not be a retreat to passive and self-indulgent sadness.  Positive action is the antidote.

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