We've all heard about the sociology experiment ― better known as the Pygmalion effect ― where a schoolteacher is given a class of ‘under-achievers' and told that it is the honors group. Then, by treating them as ‘advanced,' they actually become so.
It's hard to believe that the mere power of suggestion could create such a dramatic turnaround. So I was always skeptical about this story.
Until it happened to me.
It started out like any regular day in Jerusalem. My afternoon appointment was in an unfamiliar neighborhood, so when I got to the general area, I parked my car, got out, and stopped someone to ask for directions.
"Go down one block, turn right, and then take your first left," said a nice, religious man.
I said "thanks" and was about to run off, when he gently took hold of my hand and said:
"I can't help but mention what a great mitzvah you've done."
I was startled. "What do you mean?"
He looked straight into my eyes, and for a split second I froze. "The mitzvah of honoring your parents," he said. "I can read faces, and I see this mitzvah clearly in you."
I felt as if the wind was knocked out of me. He was right on target.
Only weeks before we had moved my father's grave from the United States to Israel. My mother had very much wanted to do that, as it is considered a great merit to be buried in Israel. I undertook the responsibility for making all the arrangements ― which was time-consuming and emotionally draining. She was extremely grateful, and hopefully my deceased father was, too.
Still, I was skeptical about this stranger's comment.
"Thank you," I said, "but I'll bet you say that to everyone!"
"No," he protested. "I'll never see you again, and I have no reason to flatter you. It's simply true what I said."
I figured he'd made a lucky guess. And since I anyway take compliments with a grain of salt, I had the perfect comeback:
Okay, but can you tell me about the bad things I've done?
"Okay, fine. But can you tell me about the bad things I've done?"
He hesitated for a moment, as if not wanting to insult a stranger. But he saw that I truly wanted to hear. So he continued to hold his warm, soft hand in mine, and said:
"Actually, I do see something." He proceeded to name a negative behavior that I'd been particularly struggling with, and was threatening to become truly problematic.
"You were struggling with it. But then you fixed it."
Fixed it? Hah! I thought to myself. This man isn't so smart after all. Sure, he pinpointed my outstanding good deed. And sure, he zeroed in on my precise point of struggle. But he was wrong on one very important count ― I hadn't fixed it!
I went off to my appointment, and continued to think about my encounter with the holy face-reader.
And after much pondering, I reached a conclusion:
This man was so special, so caring, so sincere. And he thinks I fixed my problem. So how can I disappoint him? I can't just shrug off his hopeful, positive energy and continue with my negative behavior.
So I decided: He believed in me, and I'll prove him right! I'll stop my negative behavior right now. Cold turkey.
And just like that, I fixed it.
We have the freedom to flick the switch.
I thought about the schoolteacher with the class of under-achievers. It's true. If somebody truly believes in our ability, they can convince us to believe in ourselves, too.
And then I thought about how the Almighty deals with us as well. He believes in us. He knows we can do it. And He cares so deeply. How can we dare disappoint Him?
Sure, we sometimes get caught in a rut, a pattern of negative behavior. Yet we have the freedom to flick the switch, to turn 180 degrees to the path of good.
And so often in life we have the choice whether to put someone down, or to encourage them. An employer, a child, a friend, a spouse. Which way do we go? The words we say and the message we convey can make all the difference between someone spiraling downward in negativity, or soaring skyward.
It's a power we all hold. Even if we can't read faces.