Having Faith in Faith

itrustYou’re on a cruise ship – a sinking cruise ship – when you see you chance to leap to the safety of a rescue boat, and you take it.   From the security of the raft, you look back sadly as the ship rises vertically in the water before it’s pulled down beneath the surface. All of a sudden, you remember that with you on this vacation, were your three best friends, and with a sense of guilt and shame, you feel awful that in your moment of panic you totally forgot about them, and you pray that they are safe.   You are no hero; but you aren’t a criminal either, in that you are not responsible for their lives.

OK – now imagine the same scene. Only this time, as you look back at the sinking vessel, you suddenly remember that you brought your spouse and two children on this cruise. This time, can you justify forgetting your family because of panic? In his book, “Doesn’t Anyone Blush Anymore,” Manis Friedman uses this example to explain why we ask for forgiveness on Yom Kippur for sins that we committed from a “confused heart.” As Rabbi Friedman explains, when it comes to forgetting our relationship with God, we cannot offer the defense of “panic” or “confusion,” because, like the family on board the cruise ship, some relationships are too deep for panic. And yet we do it all the time.

The book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) starts out with Moses giving an overview of the events since the Jewish people left Egypt. In the retelling of one of the lowest moments of that period, the “incident of the spies,” (where the Jewish people were afraid of entering the Land of Israel after hearing the fearful report from the infamous spies), Moses pointedly reminded the people how they spoke slander against God. “Because of God’s hatred for us did he take us out of the land of Egypt, to deliver us into the hand of the Amorite to destroy us.[1] Really? As if the whole thing – the Ten Plagues, taking us out of Egypt, the splitting of the sea, defeating enemies in battle in the desert, the manna, etc. – was just a cosmic setup by a vicious deity, to be slaughtered by a different enemy.

The Mindset of Anger and Anxiety

In an excellent article, titled, “How Threat Emotions Cause Us to Misread our Partner,”[2] Dr. Lemmie unpacks the anatomy of the mindset of anger and anxiety. When we feel threatened, our limbic system is activated. We secrete stress hormones and direct blood to our core (to minimize blood loss) as well as oxygen and sugar to our limbs (for fighting).   Neural activity increases in our brains, generating threat emotions and, as a survival mechanism, we look for additional signs of danger. The adage, “better safe than sorry” causes us, however, to interpret neutral behavior or ambiguous threats as definite ones. Our thinking becomes narrow – we think in terms as “always” and “never,” because our brains are too reptilian, too primitive at that point for nuanced thinking such as, “sometimes,” or recalling instances when the opposite is true. We also overlay the past onto the present. When we have been previously hurt, we assume we are being hurt in the same way in the present – even though the person and the circumstances are completely different. To compound things further, as our rational brain function diminishes, we circle own wagons and come to the quick and easy conclusions that we are certainly in the right, and it is our spouse, partner, friend, family member, or God, who is our foe and who hates us.

Whipped into a state of fear by the spies, the Jewish people were flooded with threat emotions. Ironically, the ensuing cognitive distortion caused them to make the fatal error, sealing their death warrant in the desert. But was it fair to punish the Jewish people for their panic? Are we expected to put our blind trust in God and our relationships? Is that safe? Is that reasonable? Is it even possible? Or should some relationships be too deep for panic?

Unconditional Good Will

David Fohrman describes faith as a steadfast quality, an unflinching willingness to trust even as we confront our deepest fears. Moses wasn’t angry with the Jewish people for having been afraid, but for choosing to forget all of the instances when God was there for them. Says Rabbi Fohrman, “In Moshe’s worldview faith doesn’t come from nothing, it comes from observing things about your beloved that makes them trustworthy.”[3] Drawing from the Maharal, (the medieval Jewish commentator) Rabbi Fohrman explains the three prongs of a rational basis for faith in God: “If I know that you love me, that you feel empathy towards me, if I know that you have the power to help and I know that you really get what it is that I need, then I can trust you.”

It is at the moment of fear and panic where the challenge of faith of faith occurs. It’s a huge act of will to resist the temptation to slide into the primitive reptilian state of flight or fight, and instead to remain fully cognitively human, to acknowledge the fear and yet choose to trust the relationship. Says Rabbi Forhman:

Trust is always hard, to steadfastly place yourself in the arms of your beloved, even as your beloved reassures you that they will take care of you through the darkest night, through the greatest terrors, it is a tough thing. When you steadfastly place your fate in the hands of someone who loves you, when you abandon yourself to them, you achieve a dizzying kind of intimacy with them. That intimacy as rewarding as it is, is also scary. It is a kind of leaving yourself behind, a kind of merging unabashedly with another. There is no more hiding, what of my sense of self, am I losing it all to you?

That is the basis of real intimacy, the place of deep connection, growth, and transformation. Conversely, the cost of the anger/anxiety mindset is not just the loss or prevention of intimacy, but that it hardens us, eroding and ultimately destroying our relationship potential.  

Do not turn a blind eye, but a knowing eye to God and to the people in your life who have earned your trust. Learn the warning signals of being triggered. Take note when you hear yourself thinking or speaking about your loved one in a negative, harsh and critical light. Don’t take your own interpretations of events so darn seriously and stop mentally rehearsing your grievances. Be curious and empathetic to the feelings of others. Consciously recall positive instances and attributes and for goodness sake, get your gratitude going and give your loved ones the gift of unconditional good will and positive regard.

Don’t Kill Connection

While threats to survival may at times be real, when we allow paper tigers to destroy our relationships, then we are allowing a sense of panic and confusion to destroy that, which should be too deep for panic. Misapplied, our striving for safety generates the greatest harm of all: the loss of love, intimacy, and connection – just the very things that make life worth living in the first place.

[1] Devarim/Deuteronomy 1:27

[2] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/me-first-we-first/201203/how-threat-emotions-cause-us-misread-our-partner-4

[3] https://www.alephbeta.org/course/lecture/devarim-what-does-it-mean-to-have-faith

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How Warriors of the Heart Get It Done

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“The difference between peak performance and poor performance is not intelligence or ability; most often it’s the state that your mind and body is in.”  Tony Robbins

Grit. Moxie. Holy chutzpah. And now this – “Sisu” – one of the latest terms making the rounds in Positive Psychology circles. Sisu is a Finnish word that has no direct translation but embodies the qualities of bravery, empowerment, inner strength, and the crazy recklessness that inspires someone to take on something in the face of incredible odds (kinda like Pinchat the Zealot – before zealotry got a bad name).

I know this is not exactly an academic source, but I liked the definition I came across in the Urban Dictionary: “It doesn’t take Sisu to go to the North Pole; it takes Sisu to stand at the door when the bear is on the other side.” Unlike resilience, hardiness and the search for meaning – which are long game ventures – Sisu is urgent, the bold undertaking of a mission that could be kamikaze, were it not for a micro slim chance of success. Sisu is the very opposite of analysis paralysis. But don’t get me wrong; it’s not a fool’s errand, but rather a heroic and noble gesture for something quite worthy.      

Don’t Do This at Home

This week’s Torah portion is named Pinchat, after the man who acted heroically at a crucial time when the leadership was frozen with indecision and inaction.   In killing Zimri, who was engaged in a flagrant shocking public display of sexual immorality, Pinchat risked forfeiting his own life, for he acted without authority, and Zimri was the leader of his tribe.   There was neither punishment nor retaliation, however, for Pinchat’s brave and selfless act stopped a plague that God had brought against the Jewish men (for their complicity), and Pinchat was inducted into the lineage of the High Priesthood.

Unfortunately, some can misconstrue this episode as validating violence for a so-called “sacred cause.” The caliber of Pinchat’s character, his selfless agenda, and love of the Jewish people raises the bar way above most of our heads. There is an applicable lesson to be learned, however, for there are times when the elements of Sisu and the traits of Pinchat can serve us very well.  

Do This at Home – The 5 Second Rule

How many times have you had an instinct to call someone you haven’t spoken to in a long time, felt the urge to do an impromptu act of generosity big or small, thought of   telling the stranger at the checkout line that you thought her haircut was fabulous or wished you could have interrupted the person who was badmouthing a friend? How many times do you wish you could have acted, but didn’t, and then the moment was over, and the opportunity gone, sometimes forever?

Often, when we get the urge to do something (good, that is), our brain starts to come up with excuses or reasons why not it’s not a great idea, or no biggie if we let it go. We pass the homeless person on the street and while our first inclination may be to drop a dollar in his bucket, we know we don’t have easy instant access to cash, and really, it’s not a good idea to start to root around in one’s purse or wallet, after all, when you’re walking in the city you should never display money out on the street, I mean one’s purse or wallet could easily get snatched if you get distracted, and come to think of it, that homeless guy looked a little drunk or high, and…and…and by now you’re halfway down the block anyway. Oh well. You meant to help.

In an interesting book called “The Five Second Rule” by Mel Robbins, Robbins posits that the moment we have the instinct to act on a commitment or goal, we have a 5 second window of opportunity before the brain shuts us down. When we hesitate to act, the brain interprets that as danger or uncertainty, and it devises ways to be protective. When inspiration hits, states Robbins, before you hesitate you should immediately count backward 5-4-3-2-1 and then move physically. The backward count (as opposed to forward, where you can keep adding to the numbers) is finite and acts as a “pattern interrupt.” The point is to interrupt the ingrained patterns of thinking that keep you from acting and to train your brain to act while disconnecting from feelings that drag you down. After all, no one really feels like acting outside his or her comfort zone. And by moving, the change in physiology disrupts the inclination to remain inert.

I had drafted an email to someone asking for feedback on one of my blogs. Because I considered this person to be way above my pay grade, I was afraid to send it, and the email sat in my drafts folder day after day, where I would edit and revise it, ad nauseum, waiting for the bravado of perfect words.  An insomniac, I was listening to “The 5 Second Rule” as an audio book, and all of a sudden, I thought of this email and I got fired up with the courage to send it. Before my brain could convince me to wait until morning to send it (and then never), I counted 5-4-3-2-1 and then I immediately got out of bed, went to my computer and pushed send (without further reading or revising).  

Sisu the Moment

Emilia Lahti, who studies Sisu and how it applies to our lives explains: “It is not so much about achievement as it is about facing your challenges with valor and determination….Sisu provides the final empowering push, when we would otherwise hesitate to act.” The instant I sent that email I felt a sense of exhilarated freedom, because at that moment the power resided in me, not in someone or something else, and whether the individual I sent it to will ever read my writing or respond to me is pure incidental gravy.

Chances are something is popping up into your mind right now as you read these words and it doesn’t have to be heroic or death defying. It could be the apology you’re embarrassed to make, the medical procedure you’re delaying to schedule, or words of love you don’t have the courage to say. Before your brain can convince you of all of the reasons not to act, count 5-4-3-2-1 and then get up and do the thing your heart tells you that you need to do.

If he had thought about it even for a moment, Pinchat could have come up with lots of reasons to stay under the radar and steer clear of the conflict. After all, the conflict was neither his responsibility to fix nor his mess to clean up. Jewish history is filled, however, with people who followed their instincts without having the time to think it through, and they just did what had to be done. Had Pharaoh’s daughter not reached out the instant she saw Moses’ basket floating by in the Nile, he could have been lost forever. Had Nachshon not jumped into the Sea of Reeds, the sea may never have parted and we could have been slaughtered on the shore by the Egyptians.

Says Robbins, “The moment you move is the moment you discover your strength. The best time to do it is when your heart tells you to. Life becomes harder when we hold our greatest selves back by listening to fears and convincing ourselves to wait.”

Never leave something important unsaid or undone. With a little Sisu and the ability to count from 5 to 1, little acts of heart-based courage and instinctive acts of valor could transform your life and relationships in a big way.

 

References:

http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=sisu.

Mel Robbins, The 5 Second Rule: Transform Your Life, Work and Confidence With Everyday Courage, (Mel Robbins, 2017).

http://jamesclear.com/sisu-mental-toughness.

3 Ways to Transform Curses into Blessings

“Love covers up all iniquity.”

-Proverbs 10:1

indexFrom a Curse to a Blessing

“How goodly are thy tents O Jacob, thy dwellings, O Israel.” “Ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov mishk’notecha Yisroel.[i] This verse, which is this week’s Torah portion, Balak, is said upon entering a synagogue, is part of the daily Morning Prayer, and even if you don’t recite it, you may know it, as it is one of the most famous verses in the Torah.

And so, one would think that these words of praise were uttered by God, or by Moses, or at least by someone “very holy.” And yet, these words emanated from the mouth of a notorious Jew hater, Bilaam, who was hired by Balak, (the newly-appointed King of Moab), to curse the Jewish people in the desert.

Three times, Bilaam tried to curse the Jewish people, and yet each time, he blessed them instead. Prior to the first two attempts, Bilaam and God had a “conversation” whereby God either instruct Bilaam what to say or put the words directly into his mouth. Despite his pure hatred and single-minded intention to cause harm, Bilaam could only utter words of blessing and praise for the Jewish people.

Therefore, before the third and final attempt, Bilaam decided to take a different tact, since these “conversations” with God were not going his way. This time, Bilaam concentrated on the so-called faults and transgressions of the Jewish people, trying to discredit them so as to overcome God’s benevolence and whip up a host of spiritual negativity against the Jewish people.

A Godly Lens

And so, after he was all fired up, Bilaam lifted his eyes to blast the Jewish people once and for all with his “evil eye.” But when he raised his eyes and looked – truly looked – Bilaam noticed how the placement of the tents was designed for the utmost respect for privacy and dignity. He saw orderliness. He saw righteousness. He saw goodness. And he was moved. Incredibly, The Torah states, “He changed his mind to be like God.” And in so doing – even if it was a very temporary shift – Bilaam saw a new reality, a Godly reality, and his curses were transformed into blessings.

So, the question is, how could such words of praise come out of Bilaam’s mouth and of his own accord? It’s true but a not-funny joke, that if a notorious anti-Semite says something nice about the Jews – then it must be true. It’s just human nature – we have a hard time believing certain ideas when they originate from sources very close to us. After all, how credible is it when we sing our own praises? Thus, if a gentile praises the Jewish people, that’s good, but if a Jew-hater genuinely and effusively praises us? Wow – what could be better?

Loving Ourselves

Now let’s take a deeper look and find a lesson we can apply to our lives. Besides our tendency to discount positivity from close sources, I think that most of us have a hard time being kind and benevolent to ourselves.   When is the last time you checked in on the inner dialogue in your head and your running thoughts and feelings – about you? I decided to pay attention to my inner voice the other day, and I was shocked at how intolerant and cruel I can be to myself.

Many of us have a hard time liking ourselves. We think it’s selfish and egotistical. But if I don’t like myself – why should you like me? If I don’t value or love myself – why should you?   We are also afraid that if we have self-compassion or like ourselves, we would never change because we mistakenly think shame is the best impetus for growth. And so, we can become our own Bilaams – in effect, cursing ourselves. I can assure you, however, with 100% certainty, that shame and blame are never the paths to sustained change or growth. Ok, you may ask, so what is?

When Bilaam decided to “change his mind to be like God,” that’s when the transformation happened. That’s when the curses turned to blessings. I believe that’s the key. In our Morning Prayers, we acknowledge that the soul God placed in us is pure. Further, we are made in the image of God, and we have Godly souls. When we don’t judge ourselves favorably, we are insulting our Creator.

Seeing is Believing

Ponder this. The more I love myself – my real self, my Godly self – and the more order, righteousness and good that I see when I look inside, the more I will naturally align my actions to be congruent with that vision. So, may I suggest the following:

Step One: Notice the toxic inner talk. But please don’t criticize the inner critic or you’ll stay in the same loop. Have compassion and understand that it’s a habituated form of thinking. Don’t get hooked – it’s not you. Rather, it is a bad and unconscious habit, and increasing your awareness of this bad habit will help you break it

Step Two: Counteract the negativity with positivity – lots of it. In Five Steps to Better Relationships, I wrote about the Losada Principle and the Gottman Relationship Ratios. In a nutshell, we weigh negativity more than positivity, and so to maintain loving and benevolent and thriving relationships, we must offset critical or negative comments with three to five positive ones – or suffer the consequences. I never realized that it applies to our own self-talk as well! And so, every time you hear yourself making a negative comment to yourself, offset it with three to five positive comments that are constructive

Step Three: Give yourself permission to see yourself with Godly reality. As Marianne Williamson has says, “Maturity includes the recognition that no one is going to see anything in us that we don’t see in ourselves…. Joy is what happens when we allow ourselves to recognize how good things really are.”

And when we can live from this joyful place, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. Imagine a world where all curses were transformed into blessings, where we looked with inner and outer eyes that only saw order, righteousness and good – and not for a brief inspired moment – but as the natural state of continuous connection to our Source. Let’s start now.

Internalize & Actualize:

  1. Using the steps above, every day this week write down every negative thought you had about yourself. At the end of the week, look in the mirror and read them aloud. Pay attention to the language you use and the way you speak about yourself. If you wouldn’t say these statements to someone else, then stop saying them to yourself.

 

  1. Look through the statements you wrote down from the week. Take one that kept repeating or that was the harshest. Now counteract it with three to five positive statements. Write them below. Ideally, do this for every negative statement you made during the week.

 

  1. This one may be hardest as this may not yet be your reality. But the more you start to envision it, the sooner that shift will change. Write down how you want to see yourself and to do so, envision that you are speaking to yourself as a soul and not who you are in your body. If you could speak to your essence before you even came into this world, in your perfected state, what would you see and say?

 

 

 

 

 


[i] Bamidbar/Numbers 24:5.