Many of us are spending more time these days not only with our spouses and children but with ourselves. Unable to run around as usual, we may find ourselves paying more attention to our own thoughts, feelings, words and actions, including how we react under stress.
Have you caught yourself thinking, speaking or acting just the way your parents did? Or maybe, your knee-jerk reaction is the exact opposite from your parents?
Have you been slightly embarrassed to catch yourself imitating an expression or gesture of a celebrity or mindlessly repeating the “wisdom” of a pundit?
Your ‘Yes!’ reminds us of the mysterious power our parents exert upon our souls and the extent to which influential people impact our inner natures.
Whether in professional, social, or family settings, our instinctive reaction to challenging circumstances is unlikely to be the most productive one. Our susceptibility to being influenced by those around us can harm our lives because few of the occasions to which we need to respond grant us the luxury of lengthy contemplation.
We regularly react to events more because of how we’ve been shaped rather than by carefully analyzing them. How do we overcome this?
As usual, I seek guidance in a verse from Scripture:
Obadiah feared God greatly. And Ahab summoned Obadiah who was in charge of the household.
Or wait, is it this verse?
Ahab summoned Obadiah who was in charge of the household; and Obadiah feared God greatly.
Which version do you think is the real one? Surely, the verse first introduces Obadiah as God-fearing before relating how his boss summoned him?
Yet, the second version is true. (I Kings 18:3) This leaves us wondering why we’re told Obadiah feared God only after Ahab summoned him.
Ancient Jewish wisdom fills in the missing pieces. In response to King Ahab and Queen Jezebel’s wickedness, God inflicted famine upon their land. Ahab called Obadiah and said to him, “Even the wicked Laban was blessed by having God-fearing Jacob in his home.”
Laban actually announces his recognition of this reality.
…I have discovered through divination that God has blessed me because of you.
King Ahab continued, “Evidently you are not righteous because God is clearly not blessing me because of you.”
Therefore, the verse concludes:
…and Obadia feared God greatly.
God withheld blessing from Ahab because of his own shortcomings, not because of Obadiah’s.
Ancient Jewish wisdom contrasts righteous Obadiah with wicked Esau. Esau, raised by his saintly parents, Isaac and Rebecca, nonetheless became wicked. Meanwhile, Obadiah abandoned the pagan Edomites who raised him, converted to Judaism, found himself serving the loathsome Ahab and Jezebel, yet remained righteous.
Our backgrounds influence us one way or the other. We might rebel against them determined to be nothing like, say, our parents or we subconsciously emulate them. Esau rebelled against the virtue in which he was raised. Obadiah made himself immune to the early influences in his life.
An important difference is hinted at in their names. Esau in Hebrew means ‘ready-made.’ His name reflects his tendency to act instinctively and do his own thing. Acting instinctively, of course, is just another way of saying acting entirely subserviently or rebelliously to earlier influences.
Obadiah’s name in Hebrew means serving God. This reflects his tendency to evaluate his choices according to a Divine matrix and explains his rescuing a hundred prophets from Jezebel and saving their lives. (I Kings 18:4)
One of the blessings of children is that we (often shamefacedly) recognize our failings through them as we hear words or see actions that bother us, yet it is our own conduct our children are emulating. We can train ourselves to stand outside ourselves and evaluate our own speech and behavior as well. Each time we act according to the Divine matrix rather than responding to our instinctive feelings, we increase our future ability to respond to coming circumstances correctly.