Thursday, 05 Jan 2017

Written by Igor Zinkov

Five Thoughts for 2017

This week we celebrated the end of 2016 and the beginning of the new year of 2017. I suppose, some people might say “I’m glad this year ended” or “I’m looking forward to beginning the new year”. Indeed, there were many shocking moments in 2016. To begin 2017, I would like to share five reflections on the past year

2016 was…

…the year of bubbles

It’s inevitable that a modern person spends more and more time on the internet. Web search engines and news aggregators today are increasingly capable of generating personalised results. It means that content we find online is individually tailored to our preferences. It is based on sophisticated linguistic analysis of our search history, our email, and lists of our recently visited websites. Ultimately, instead of encouraging dialogue between different groups it just promotes so-called ‘filter bubbles’, in which internet users are more likely meet people with similar opinions. Some of the last year’s events in particular showed the extent of these bubbles. Polls made before Brexit and the US elections just demonstrated how separated people are from each other and how rarely groups of different opinions meet.

…the year of fighting cancer

This year gave the humanity hope in finding a cure from cancer. Israeli scientists were directly and actively involved in a number of  pieces of successful research which made breakthroughs in their attempts to cure breast cancer and leukaemia.1  This battle is still far from the end but doctors made yet one more step towards successful results.

…the year of extending horizons

There are many examples of hi-tech achievements of 2016. I’d like to focus on one particular breakthrough- the fact that self-driving cars and even self-driving trucks are not a science-fiction anymore. This year there were an increasing number of successful tests of driverless vehicles. 2 On one hand it’s going to be a big challenge for our trust. It is not an easy decision to let a robot be responsible for lives of millions of people around the world. On the other hand, it may lead to a massive decrease of car accidents since the driverless car could exclude human mistakes on roads. It still feels very unusual for me but the day of a massive application of self-driving cars is inevitably coming.

…the year of scientific achievements

Environmental activists constantly draw our attention to many issues. Global warming is just one of them and its certainly one that hasn׳t gone away in the past year. However one exciting development is that researchers have sped up a process of several thousand years to two years and a team from the US Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has turned carbon dioxide to rock.3 It may help to store dangerous elements in a safe and stable way.

…the year of new discoveries

One of the recent discoveries was made in space. A potentially habitable planet was found and currently some further research is being made on it. 4.

It was a very rich and intense year. It was full of both positive and negative events. There is a theory that it is better to have a positive attitude to everything, even if it is an artificial positive thinking. This theory is based on the assumption that our body can affect our state of mind. It means that we can change our mood by simply changing our posture. Thus, if one sits in a closed posture, according to this theory, he or she will more likely have a negative attitude to everything around. Similarly, positive thinking may be triggered by a fake smile.

This is challenged in Barbara Ehrenreich’s persuasive book ‘Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World’. In her book, Ehrenreich expresses a critique of this mandatory positive thinking theory. 5 She writes: “I would like to see more smiles, more laughter, more hugs, more happiness… and the first step is to recover from the mass delusion that is positive thinking”. She connects mandatory positive thinking with the negative impact of consumerism and individualistic culture. Ehrenreich thinks that disillusionment of this myth will help to make more people truly happy and successful.

Human behaviour is more complex than a black-and-white world. It is very easy to label any narrative as simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’. The best example is the Joseph story from this week’s Torah portion Vaigash (Genesis 44:18 – 47:27). Throughout this and the last Torah portions, we sense the hard tension inside Joseph. On the one hand he desires to revenge his unfair brothers. On the other hand, he cannot control his emotions and wants to reveal himself to them. Some Bible scholars see in it two different stories compiled together – one depicts Joseph’s anger towards his brothers (44:17), another expresses him as the compassionate and emotional person, which is revealed in his tears (45:1).

For me, this Torah portion is about the thin balance and complexity of human behaviour. We may choose to see Joseph as an ideal person who deserved all the achieved success in his life. We also may choose to see him as one who abandoned his belief for the sake of material comforts. Both of these are legitimate approaches to me. It’s OK to be sad, it’s OK to desire  revenge, but at the same time, it is normal to forgive and to move on from the obstacles of our past. It is all human, it is all acceptable and natural. Only when we allow ourselves to be human and to feel the whole range of human emotions, we will allow to our world to have ‘more smiles, more laughter, more hugs, more happiness.’

Let’s allow the new year of 2017 to become the new year of extending horizons, the new year of scientific achievements, the new year of new discoveries, and also the year with its own battles against diseases, and the year even with its own bubbles!

Shabbat Shalom and Happy 2017!

Igor Zinkov Student rabbi Leo Baeck College

____________________________________________________________

1Read more about the cancer cure: http://www.timesofisrael.com/breakthrough-cancer-cure-has-deep-israeli-roots/ and http://www.timesofisrael.com/israeli-breakthrough-drug-helped-cure-jimmy-carters-cancer/

2Read more about self-driving cars: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/2016/11/21/watch-how-teslas-self-driving-cars-see-the-road/

3Read more about carbon emissions:  http://interestingengineering.com/trapping-co2-stone-offer-energy-hope/

4 Read more about the planet http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/08/earth-mass-planet-proxima-centauri-habitable-space-science/

5 Read more about Barbara Ehrenreich’s ‘Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World’: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/jan/10/smile-or-die-barbara-ehrenreich