Kate and William finally had their much awaited baby, and now the internet is abuzz with news of his arrival. Even the people online who claim to not care at all seem to care enough to tell others just how little they care. Why are we so obsessed with other people’s business? And if you’re not a Royals groupie, how about the people down the block who are adding on an addition or that kid in your kid’s grade who got the highest SAT score?
There are some of us who take interest in the lives’ of strangers because we’re sincerely happy for them and want to share in their good news. But sometimes we look at what the next guy has to compare it to what we have. There is even something darker that lurks within of many of us: we are interested in other people’s business because we take a perverse pleasure in hearing when things are not going so well for someone else. I believe it’s that thing that makes us struggle to look away from a train wreck: both the literal kind (i.e. rubbernecking) and the figurative kind (i.e. the latest celebrity scandal that people like to read about, post about, and talk about).
We all know that jealousy and enjoying someone else’s misfortune feels very wrong and is very wrong, yet there must be a positive way to direct our curiosity. According to Jewish thought, everything in the world can be used for the good or the bad. So how do we channel our inner yenta for a constructive purpose? As the great Rav Yisrael Salanter (the founder of the Mussar movement) said, “My spiritual needs are my neighbor’s material needs.” Or in other words, I can be busy thinking about other people, in fact, I am fulfilling a spiritual goal by doing so, but only if the purpose of my thoughts are in order to help those in need. The comedian Louis C.K., who I doubt has ever studied any of Rav Salanter’s works (and has probably never been quoted directly after him!) said something in a similar vein: “The only time you should look in your neighbor’s bowl is to make sure that they have enough. You don’t look in your neighbor’s bowl to see if you have as much as them.”
So, what’s a practical way to start using your curiosity about others in order to care for them? The next time you pass an accident on the side of the road – as you feel your neck start to bend backwards to catch a glimpse of the destruction – move your lips instead, and pray for the well-being of the people who were involved. A rabbi of mine once said, “Do you know why ambulances have sirens? In order to alert us that someone needs our prayers.” He instructed us to say Tehillim (Psalms) every time we heard an ambulance pass by. I have been doing that ever since.
I shared this idea with my kids, and my daughter’s pre-school teacher couldn’t believe it when my daughter, at only four years old, stopped playing in the middle of class one day in order to pray when she heard an ambulance driving by. It may be a royal pain to use your curiosity of others only to help them, but remember, it is the noble thing to do.