So I did what a lot of people do, and I decided to open up at random a book written by a tzaddik and use that as a direct message from Hashem about how I should proceed.
People do this with the Chumash, the Lubavitcher Rebbe's letters, Rebbe Nachman's Likutei Moharan – anything written by either Hashem or one of His tzaddikim will work.
I chose Volume I of Words of Faith by Rav Levi Yitzchak Bender because his words always speak to me so meaningfully, and I always feel he's so full of love and understanding.
Page 133 turned up with the sub-heading:
Thinking of Tachlis Alleviates Harsh Devotions
"Tachlis" can be translated as "the Ulitmate Goal" – meaning, completing your own rectifications, sweetening and bringing the Geula, influencing Am Yisrael & the world positively (albeit invisibly), and earning yourself a fabulous portion in the World to Come.
Rav Bender starts off this section by discussing how holy men in his time were able to carry out such harsh devotions, like immersing in a roofless mikveh among chunks of ice. Or doing hitbodedut outside in a forest for hours in searingly cold weather while hopping from foot to foot just to prevent freezing to death.
The answer is:
The more a person is bound to Tachlis [Ultimate Goal], the easier it is for him to serve Hashem Yisbarach. Despite all the difficulties and toil, the pain and suffering – thinking of Tachlis turns it all to a good sweet life...
Despite how far we feel from this level, it is still a good goal to keep in mind.
Rav Avigdor Miller spoke a lot of focusing on all the wonders and pleasures of Hashem's world. Mesillat Yesharim spoke of how we are supposed to take pleasure in This World, even though that is very difficult for many of us, practically speaking.
But it is a beneficial goal.
It's a quintessentially Jewish idea at the root of our whole system of emunah & daas.
And this is the paradox we live in.
Rav Bender goes on to acknowledge that "The world is filled with pain and bitterness."
Correct! Couldn't have said it better.
For indeed there is strong bitterness in this world. It is there whatever you do...
Then Rav Bender says (pg. 134):
However, when one is bound to the Tachlis, he doesn't experience any bitterness and difficulty... It is possible to jump into a frozen mikveh, to rip raw wounds easily... Because the heart that is attached Above in a strong bond doesn't feel any pain.
Why the Heck is This Uplifting?
Many of us might feel like this is yet another level we can never reach.
Like, "Uh, binding myself to the Tachlis and attaching my heart Above in such a strong bond that I no longer feel any pain? Well, gosh. Yet another thing to just plain fail at again...thanks a lot."
But the truth is that knowing that the joy is out there can bring a glimmer of light to a long, dark, claustrophobic tunnel.
The truth is that people who have worked on connecting to Hashem, finding meaning in yissurim, and focusing on the Tachlis tend to be happier and deal with suffering better than those who don't do this at all.
Yes, they may still find themselves down in the dumps at times.
But they are still better off overall.
Furthermore, people who at least try to fulfill this idea find themselves not only behaving better, but actually feeling better in situations that used to stress them out.
People who at least work on binding themselves to the Tachlis (or whatever words they use to describe it) will tell you that there are situations that used to hurt them or really throw them off balance, and now those same situations either make them laugh or they respond with emotional equanimity.
Not with EVERYTHING, but I personally know people for whom this is true at least some of the time.
I'm not talking about repressing or lying to themselves or faking their outer behavior (although there is also value in the "fake it 'til ya make it" method).
I'm talking about regular people who affected such a real inner change in a particular area that their heart, their actual emotions truly changed (at least in some situations that previously used to knock them out of the game).
So whether or not we reach the level of "suffering without actually feeling any suffering whatsoever," connecting to this idea still can grant us extra light in our life, extra happiness, and more emotional equilibrium.
Connecting to this idea even a little can still make us better people, even if only in some small way (which is still a million times better than not improving at all).
The main way to do this, says Rav Bender throughout the book, is to talk to Hashem as you would a Best Friend who truly loves and understands you, and is always forgiving.
Why on Earth Do We Beg Hashem to Grant Tzaddikim a Good Reward?
In Shemoneh Esrei, we say, "V'Ten sachar tov l'chol habotchim b'Shimcha b'emet — And grant good reward to all those who trust in Your Name in truth."
Who are the people who trust in Hashem's Name "b'emet" – for real?
They are the people who live every moment with the Tachlis in mind. Their hearts are always connected Above.
And who are they?
But think about that for a moment.
Why on earth do we need to beg Hashem 3 times a day to grant TZADDIKIM a good reward?
After all, they're tzaddikim.
Of course they get reward! If they don't, then who does?
The answer is: They live in a state of sweetness.
Suffering doesn't pain them.
So how can suffering atone for them?
As Rav Bender explains: "not only do they not feel the pain of meaningless worldly suffering, they also experience good life."
What's more, we have further elucidation from Rav Yaakov HaLevi Dov (who attended the shiur from which this page was transcribed & apparently said the following in the middle of this shiur):
The idea here outlined is in line with a statement of the Rebbe:
The World to Come – we believe in.
But "This World" – those who have it good here – he does not see. Only Gehinnom...
Meaning, the average person goes through so much worldly suffering that it cannot really be said that he "lives it up" in a secular sense.
However, tzaddikim – who merit to live with constant awareness of Tachlis – are able to enjoy life while here too.
Because they are connected to what life is really about and they live on a higher plane...
And I don't think I'm anywhere near this level, and I still have my falls, but I do see that at least attempting to grasp onto this concept really does help at least a little.
And hopefully, people will take from Rav Bender's words whatever they're able, whatever level they happen to be at right now, b'ezrat Hashem.