You’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.” 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,” 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.” 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.
 Devarim/Deuteronomy 1:27