Almost exactly twenty-six centuries ago, a man not otherwise known for his positive psychology sat down to write a letter to his coreligionists in a foreign land. The man was Jeremiah. The people to whom he wrote were the Jews who had been taken captive to Babylon after their defeat at its hands, a defeat that included the destruction of Solomon’s temple, the central symbol of their nation and the sign that God was in their midst.
We know exactly what the feeling of those exiles was. A psalm has recorded it in the most powerful way: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion . How can we sing the songs of the Lord in a foreign land?” (Ps. 137:1, 4)
This was, of course, what Jeremiah had predicted. But there is no air of triumphalism in his letter, no “I told you so.” What he wrote was massively counterintuitive. Yet it would be no exaggeration to say that it changed the course of Jewish history, perhaps even, in an indirect way, that of Western civilization as a whole. This is what he wrote:
Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper. (Jer. 29:57)
What Jeremiah was saying was that it is possible to survive in exile with your identity intact, your appetite for life undiminished, while contributing to the wider society and praying to God on its behalf. Jeremiah was introducing into history a highly consequential idea: the idea of a creative minority.