Learning to Discern Blessings From Curses

COMMENTARY: Humility helps us to recognize a blessing, while pride often sees a blessing as a curse.

Often, the distinction between a curse and a blessing is the difference between pride and humility.
Often, the distinction between a curse and a blessing is the difference between pride and humility. (photo: Dmitry Demidovich / Shutterstock)

I once had the honor and pleasure, though only for a brief moment, of meeting Rabbi Yehuda Levin, an Orthodox Jew who is a fearless opponent of abortion. At the 25th March for Life on Jan. 22, 1998, this wise “teacher” (which is what “rabbi” means in English) delivered a strong message with Old Testamentary fury to U.S. President Bill Clinton:

“President Clinton! President Clinton, for once lead the country in the direction of respect for life, for God ordained life and morality. President Clinton! Moses said to Pharaoh, ‘Let my people go!’ And we say to you today: Let our children grow! Let our children live!”

Conscious of his orthodoxy and his fidelity to the Old Testament, I hoped I was not being impertinent when I suggested to him that one of the truly important duties of a rabbi is to help his people distinguish between blessings and curses. He did not disagree with me. New life is a blessing, while sin is a curse. Moreover, one will be cursed if he does not recognize and appreciate his blessings. 

Prior to the 2015 release of Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk imprisoned for refusing to issue same-sex “marriage” licenses, Rabbi Levin stated, “On a theological basis, I am absolutely jealous of this woman — every minute she sits in prison to honor God’s name she obtains an immense heavenly reward.”

In this case, Rabbi Levin was suggesting that Davis’ prison sentence could be seen as a blessing. Indeed, God has implored us to recognize, difficult as it may be, the difference between blessing and curse and to choose the former: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse: Therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live" (Deuteronomy 30:19). Blessings have longevity, from one generation to another.

Rabbi Levin is speaking to a world in which new life and moral responsibilities are often mistaken as curses, while wealth, fame and status are regarded as blessings. Life would be easier if blessings and curses did not come in disguises. Faith in God is needed so that blessings are appreciated for what they are. Our ego can get in the way of discerning the blessings that God makes available to us.

Sir Alec Guinness, a Catholic convert, recounts in his book, Blessings in Disguise, a most extraordinary event in which something that seemed clearly to be a blessing was, indeed, a curse. It was in the autumn of 1955 when he went to Los Angeles to make his first Hollywood film. While he and a companion were standing outside of a restaurant, “a fair young man in sweatshirt and blue jeans came running up to them and introduced himself as James Dean.”

“I’d like to show you something,” he said, bursting with pride. “It’s just been delivered. I haven’t even driven it yet.” It was a sports car with a large array of red carnations resting on the bonnet. Sir Alec, however, did not share Dean’s enthusiasm for his shiny new vehicle. He said, in a “voice I could hardly recognize as my own, ‘Please, never get in it. ... If you get in that car you will be found dead in it by this time next week.’” Dean laughed at such an outrageous prediction. Exactly one week later, James Dean was killed while driving that very car.

The car, as it turned out, was not a blessing, but a curse. Guinness himself was astonished by his anticipation of the tragic event. It is not always easy to distinguish blessing from curse. Was Beethoven’s deafness a blessing in disguise because it allowed him to compose more undistractedly so that he could produce his monumental Ninth Symphony? Was Marilyn Monroe’s fame and fortune a curse in disguise because it led to her untimely death at age 36? 

We need faith in Providence to recognize a blessing as a blessing and a curse for what it is. “We failed,” said Gen. Robert E. Lee, “but in the good providence of God, apparent failure often proves a blessing.” Humility helps us to recognize a blessing, while pride often sees a blessing as a curse. We choose what we think will be an unencumbered life. As a result, we shield ourselves from uninvited blessings while allowing self-made curses to gain control of our lives.

Bing Crosby crooned to us a timely message in the 1954 hit film White Christmas: “When I’m troubled and cannot sleep, I count my blessings instead of sheep, and I fall asleep counting my blessings.” Our problems can weigh upon our minds and make it difficult to be calm. The negative experiences can override the positive ones. We should not forget our blessings, however, and accord them the primacy they deserve.

In Sonnet 60, the immortal Bard reminds all of us of our mortality: 

“Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore, so do our minutes hasten to their end.”

Time is running out for all of us. So critical, then, is the ability to recognize and put into practice our blessings, while recognizing but avoiding the curses that can ruin our lives. 

Rabbi Levin, Moses, Sir Alec Guinness, Robert E. Lee and, yes, even Bing Crosby have advice for us that we can take to heart: Be humble, recognize and live by our blessings and keep curses from coming into our lives. Let he who is blessed bless (Benedicat qui est benedictus).

Ivan Aivazovsky, “Walking on Water,” ca. 1890

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