The heart must face its tests. Only then can we discover who we really are and what extraordinary things we are capable of achieving.
– James O’Dea
No one gets through life without being tested, repeatedly. So when we come face to face with the terrors that can keep us up at night, how do we achieve grace under fire? “Vayishlach” contains the famous episode of Jacob wrestling with the angel. At long last, brother Esau is ready to exact revenge for the “stolen” birthright and has come with a small army to confront Jacob. In advance of that confrontation, Esau sent his “angel” to do battle with Jacob to weaken him before their encounter.
Jacob was no stranger to this dynamic, however. Clashing with Esau in the womb, Jacob’s earliest encounter with conflict began in utero. Born in the midst of a power struggle, Jacob lived a life that can be characterized as one challenging battle after another – more or less – what we would call “the human condition.” But is that such a bad thing?
The Dis-empowered Reaction to Stress
Some people engage stress by reacting in these polar opposites: they becoming super aggressive or even violent, or they abruptly disconnect. Others, however, take the middle road of passivity, where they try to avoid any form of conflict. Even at a cost to their well-being, vested interests or personal integrity, people who are frightened of conflict will cling to being “non-confrontational” to avoid difficult individuals or situations.
If you asked such people whether conflict avoidance works as an effective strategy, however, the honest ones would admit that it does not. Whether they become entirely passive or passive-aggressive, these folks are simply trading one form of suffering for another.
Similarly, have you ever noticed that the very people who complain so bitterly about wanting to be “free from suffering” seem so unbelievably attached to it? They insist that stress is an external and arbitrary imposition that keeps them from being happy – which is just so unfair! Offer them a solution, a new mindset, or a coping strategy, however, and they are not so quick to get on board. Oddly, we seem addicted to the very thing we say we don’t want.
Never Letting a Crisis Go to Waste
In “Vayishlach,” Jacob gives us a role model that takes the engagement with conflict to a new level of empowerment and transformation. In his earlier conflict with Esau, Jacob was not straight with his brother. (While it was pre-destined that Jacob would receive the first-born blessing, there is still much discussion amongst the Torah commentators criticizing how he went about getting it.) When it came obtaining the blessings for the first-born, Jacob did an end-run around his brother, which caused Jacob to have to flee for his life. Twenty years later, Jacob came towards his brother. In taking his family away from the household of his father-in-law, Jacob could have circumvented him again and avoided him entirely. This time, however, Jacob sent messengers to let Esau know he was coming. And in so doing, he set the stage for the encounter, because at last, he was playing it straight.
It wasn’t merely that Jacob didn’t avoid the conflict. Rather, he didn’t waste his time and energy resenting it, complaining or making it wrong. Instead, Jacob prepared himself to engage. While the text is translated as “prepared,” the term literally means, “repaired.” When Jacob centered himself with truth and integrity, he repaired himself. And so when this version of Jacob wrestled with Esau’s angel, he authentically engaged it “full-out,” and yet at the same time, he was humble. At the end of the nightlong struggle, when Jacob prevailed, he did something that seems to make no sense. Jacob asked the angel to reveal its name and to give him a blessing. Imagine getting mugged, and then asking the mugger for a blessing. How strange is that?
So what can we learn from this odd request? Consider this – if we confront a stressor with a direct encounter – face it, engage it and wrestle with it – then we can learn from it and even make it our teacher. It is then that it can become a source of blessing. Relationship expert, Harville Hendrix, re-frames conflict as growth waiting to happen. And as Viktor Frankl, said, “Suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.”
And so, stress will either open you up or shut you down. Those are the only two possibilities. If you choose to open up, you may stay engaged with the discomfort, but by wrestling with its meaning, you will see that there are lessons to be learned and that the pain can help free you to become a bigger, better and wiser human being. Like Jacob, you too can emerge from the darkness into the dawn of a new persona. Is that not a blessing?