Despite their prevalence, most people don’t enjoy negative emotions. We want to be happy, upbeat, and positive. Sadness, worry, and negativity are viewed as impediments to our success, so we try to suppress them. Happiness does indeed correlate with achievement, but the wholesale avoidance of negative emotions is fraught with problems. Additionally, there are adaptive benefits to negative emotions that cannot be attained through positive emotions. In their article, “The Bright Side of Being Blue: Depression as an Adaptation for Analyzing Complex Problems” Paul Andrews and J. Anderson Thomson, Jr. argue that even depression can be adaptive as it can assist in responding to complex problems, allowing the mind to reduce other distractions and focus on the challenge at hand. While such an idea requires nuanced application and sensitivity not to invalidate the harsh challenges that people with clinical depression may encounter, there is still a benefit to learning how to harness—and perhaps even cultivate—healthy negative emotions.
This framing helps us understand Akavyah ben Mehalalel’s opening teaching to the third chapter of Pirkei Avot.
Akavyah ben Mahalalel said: reflect upon three things and you will not come into the hands of sin: know from where you come, and where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give an account and reckoning.
From where do you come? From a putrid drop. Where are you going? To a place of dust, of worm and of maggot. Before whom you are destined to give an account and reckoning? Before the King of the kings of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.
Akavyah’s imagery is evocative. Precisely because we generally try to evade these ideas, we are encouraged to actively think about them and attend with special concentration (Midrash Shmuel). The verb used in Hebrew is “histakel,” which denotes meditation and the need for constant attention. Rabbi Yosef Yavetz argues that Akavyah is purposefully encouraging us to generate negative emotions in order to prevent sin. Sadness about the fragility of human nature and concern about the future, he writes, are better at keeping people mindful of their religious responsibilities than an overly joyful and frivolous mindset. As beneficial and desirable as positive emotions may be, they can have negative side effects as well. Negative emotions ground us and focus us on our obligations and the consequences of not living up to our responsibilities.
Rabbeinu Yonah delineates the somber message from each of Akavyah’s questions and answers and explains that if we meditate on our biologically humble beginnings that will help prevent us from being arrogant. If we deliberate over the fact that after we die our bodies will decompose, we will realize that pursuing physical and material pleasures is a futile endeavor. Finally, if we envision the fact that we will eventually have to account for all our deeds before God, we will be too ashamed to sin in the first place.
These negative visualizations can be particularly important when the long-term consequences of our actions are not immediately resonant. Studying strategies that help decrease cigarette smoking, researchers found a reduction in cravings when participants were instructed to think about the long-term negative aspects of cigarette smoking when they felt the urge to smoke. Any time they craved smoking, they were to focus on the fact that their breath would smell bad, their teeth would turn yellow, and that they would be at a greater risk for cancer and cardiovascular diseases (Szasz, Szentagotai, & Hofmann 2012). Because desires can be so powerful, Ruttan & Nordgren (2015) argue that to match the intensity of cravings, a strong counter negative emotion is required. They therefore encourage visualizing the long-term consequences of giving in to temptation in order to purposefully engender disgust or shame, for the purposes of counteracting the force of the pending temptation.
Some commentators, however, temper Akavyah’s advice. Rabbi Shlomo Kluger, for instance, contrasts Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s advice from Avot 2:1 with Akavyah’s advice here. There, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi encouraged us to reflect on three different concepts that will help avoid the hands of sin: “Know what there is above you: an eye that sees, an ear that hears, and all your deeds are written in a book.” Rabbi Kluger writes that unlike Akavyah’s overtly negative imagery, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi accentuates a more positive and uplifting meditation to prevent sin. Abarbanel further limits the applicability of Akavyah’s message, by pinning it against Rabbi Akiva’s statement in Avot 3:14: “Beloved is man for he was created in the image [of God].” Abarbanel explains that Rabbi Akiva directly disagrees with Akavyah’s approach of avoiding sin. A better strategy than contemplating negative elements, is to reflect on positivity. Contemplating how beloved man is, not how lowly, will help motivate us to overcome short-term gratification for long-term goals and values.
Sefat Emet goes so far to contend that even Akavyah isn’t advocating for the negative approach for all. He notes that there is a seeming redundancy in Akavyah’s formulation, as he first says to reflect on three ideas, and only afterwards formulates them in questions and answers. Sefat Emet argues that there are actually two sets of meditations for two sets of people. The first set of statements does not include any negative intonations and is the ideal deliberation for the righteous. “Know from where you come, and where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give an account and reckoning” can be understood as uplifting reflections. We are beings created in the Divine image, capable of doing great things, which can lead us to the Garden of Eden, and the opportunity to bask in the Divine Presence. The more sobering and fear-inducing second half of Akavayah’s statement, according to Sefat Emet, is only for those who are on a lower level and need to be shocked into compliance.
Relegating Akavyah’s message to being one opinion in a dispute, or limiting its applicability to certain people or circumstances, provides the necessary justification for those for whom this approach would be challenging or harmful to implement. Yet, for many of us, learning how to healthily incorporate Akavyah’s imagery for the purposes of engendering negative emotions, could be an invaluable strategy to help prevent us from physical, spiritual, and moral failings.