I’m a big fan of Seinfeld. Although the show is famously “about nothing,” many of the episodes explore basic existential issues that most of us struggle with. My favorite episode is titled “The Opposite,” which begins with George’s painful - and obvious - realization that his life is not working.
He meets up with Jerry and Elaine at their regular diner, and sighs, “My life is the complete opposite of everything that I want it to be.”
Jerry says, “Since all of your instincts are wrong, then the opposite must be right,” and suggests that George should do the opposite of his typical reactions.
George immediately realizes that this is a great idea. So, instead of ordering his usual lunch, he orders something totally different. Suddenly a beautiful woman, who ordered the same food, turns to look at him, and instead of indulging his usual habit of sulking and feeling unworthy, George walks right over to her. Now, instead of relying on his usual unsuccessful pick-up technique of pretending to more wealthy or more sophisticated than he is, George simply says, “I’m unemployed and I live with my parents.”
She looks at him with a big smile, and answers in a sultry voice, “Hello.”
Later, George takes the woman to a movie. Sitting behind them are two tough looking young men who are speaking loudly and kicking their seats. Instead of his normal reaction of shrinking in fear, George stands up and tells them to shut up. Stunned by this direct response, the men apologize and the audience cheers. Later, thanks to his new girlfriend’s connections, George has an interview with the Yankees, and meets George Steinbrenner. Again, instead of trying to flatter him, George confronts Steinbrenner, telling him off for doing a lousy job with the team. To his surprise Steinbrenner immediately hires him. Now, with a beautiful girlfriend, new-found confidence, and a dream job, George realizes the power of his new strategy.
“This is my religion,” he tells Jerry.
George’s “religion” is about identifying routine patterns of thought and behavior that don’t work, and discovering new patterns that allow for growth, freedom and prosperity. This episode came to mind because we are in a time of dramatic change, and we may be finding, in this new climate, that many of our routine ways of doing things and our typical reactions don’t work as well as we’d like. Although we may believe that our reactions to events are simply the natural, inevitable response to stimuli, George’s journey reminds us that most of these reactions are strategies that we’ve devised to protect ourselves, and that we always can choose to react differently. This path to growth includes four essential steps:
1. As George discovered, the first step to any meaningful change is to objectively look at your situation and, without blame or guilt, acknowledge that there’s a problem. We often hold on to thoughts and actions that don’t work because the fear and uncertainty that comes with change are greater than the promise of trying something new. We may need to dramatically come face to face with the reality that things simply are not working before we are willing to take the risk; then we’re ready to try anything to keep from going down that same dead-end road that we’ve been traveling. Once we've make this change, new opportunities appear that we could not have imagined
2. The second step is to be honest with yourself and with others about who you are; your inclinations, skills, strengths, and limitations. As George discovered when he attracted the young woman with his radical honesty, we are most effective, successful, and charismatic when we are honest about who we are. We tend to inflate ourselves when we feel that we are up against a situation that we believe we are not capable of handling, and so we try to appear different than we are, in ways that we think others will perceive as better and more impressive. By being true to ourselves, though, we can discover the innate voice, creativity, and resourcefulness that is unique to each of us.
3. George’s third step is to act with courage. He tells the two loud men in the movie theater to shut up, even though his natural inclination is to do nothing, or to run away. In this way, courage is not the lack of fear, but is a decision to do the right thing in the face of fear and danger. When we decide to face the things that we fear, we, like George, may find that they shrink when confronted head on; they appear to be threatening thugs but are, in reality, just a lot of noise and distraction that dissolve when looked at directly.
4. Finally, as an essential component in change, George learns to speak the truth. Instead of pandering to Steinbrenner, George candidly tells him what a lousy job he thinks the Yankee owner is doing, and is surprised to find out that the he’s rewarded for speaking his mind; that successful people actually want to hear the truth, even when - or especially when - it is difficult to hear. We may think that others don’t want to hear the truth (and, of course, many people don’t), but healthy people and healthy businesses embrace honesty.
As George learned, and as all wisdom traditions tell us, we can choose how we respond to the people and events in our lives, and create new ways that bring about positive change. This is what the Biblical Psalmist means when he urges us to “Sing a new song.” With objectivity, self-knowledge, courage, and truth, we can elevate ourselves and experience more confidence, freedom, prosperity, and connection. This, after all, is our true nature, as images of the Divine.