These are fearsome times. From the moment we awaken until the time we close our eyes for the night, there is no shortage of alarming facts, reports and images that come our way from a multitude of venues: Twitter, Facebook, e-mail, the Internet, cable television….all bringing us grim news about Ebola, ISIS, global-warming, terrorism, pollution, economic meltdowns, gun-violence, substance-abuse and addiction, domestic violence; hate crimes and more and more and more.
The truth is that human beings have always faced fearsome times. It is because we have the dubious privilege of having access to instantaneous, 24/7/365 sources of alarming news that we can easily feel overwhelmed and frightened into inaction. In the face of overwhelming bad news many of us turn to the cocoons of self-absorbing pleasures and distractions. “Out of sight,” we tell ourselves, “means out of mind.” But few people I know unplug themselves completely from the sources that deliver disturbing news.
I recently learned something new about a favorite quote from Jewish tradition, one attributed to the Hassidic Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (1772-1810) that has been set to music many times over. The Hebrew version I was taught says: “Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tsar me’od; v’ha-ikar lo lifacheyd klal”. Translation: “The entire world is a narrow bridge; the essential thing is not to fear at all.”
On its face, it’s an encouraging message, is it not? Rabbi Nachman seems to be saying that part of the human experience is recognizing that the world can be a dangerous place and that we should strive to overcome our fears. Unfortunately, that’s far easier said than done.
Which is why I was fascinated to read something that came my way from my colleague, Rabbi Stephen Arnold, who noted that Rabbi Nachman’s famous teaching has been misquoted down through the centuries. The second part of that text actually reads, “v’ha-ikar lo l’hit-pa-cheyd klal”….Translation: “the essential thing is not to become paralyzed by [your] fear.” We cannot simply wish our fears away or ignore them; they often serve a critical function in our lives, warning us away from danger or prompting us to appropriate and necessary action. What we can and must do is resist the paralysis of will that fear can engender.
Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, teacher, author, poet and peace activist teaches:
Fear keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future. If we can acknowledge our fear, we can realize that right now we are okay. Right now, today, we are still alive, and our bodies are working marvelously. Our eyes can still see the beautiful sky. Our ears can still hear the voices of our loved ones.
We can fulfill neither our roles in the world as global citizens nor as committed Jews by ignoring fearsome realities. We have an obligation to be as well-informed as possible and to engage ourselves in responding to the world’s challenges as best we can. But that means that we are also obliged to engage in a form of “triage” as we encounter the day’s news. The Ebola crisis is truly frightening but, until such time as it may pose a direct threat to my well-being or the well-being of those I love, I must relegate it to a position on my “fear ladder” that keeps me from feeling overwhelmed by the knowledge that such a frightening disease exists. The sweep of ISIS and the threat it poses are absolutely real but my ability to effect that crisis is virtually nil. Far better to compartmentalize that particular fear and concentrate on those fear-inducing realities on which I may actually have some impact.
“Do one thing every day that scares you,” recommended Eleanor Roosevelt. The fears that we can manage–the ones we encounter every day, the ones close at hand–are the ones from which we can learn the most.
Like every emotion that helps define our human-ness–love, compassion, anger, lust, pride, empathy–fear has a role to play in our lives. Let us, however, take a cue from what Rabbi Nachman actually taught….in a world wherein fearsome realities are daily presences, let us strive to manage our fears and to summon up proportional responses and never lose sight of the powerfully beautiful and majestic world we inhabit.