Hi Rabbi Lapin and Susan,
I remember that you’ve talked about dealing with anxiety and stress in previous ‘Ask the Rabbi’ columns, but I’m wondering if you have any more advice for what we are going through in today’s COVID-19 crisis?
You are right that we have written about stress and anxiety previously and you are also correct that there are special circumstances now.
A crisis grips the globe and reverberates in our own homes and in the homes of everyone else. Our own work and that of others have been curtailed and the resulting financial stress casts its own pall. People we know and love are suffering from health complications and health workers are stressed. There is more than enough to keep us awake at night.
Ancient Jewish wisdom gifts us with three timeless truths for troubling times.
First, in normal times we train ourselves, and those we are privileged to raise, not to be focused on the present. Some things, like giving away money to others with less than we have are uncomfortable to do, but we do them because our obligation to our past and the teachings of our parents compel us. Other things like exercising, eating wisely and saving money are burdensome but we do them because of our obligation to the future. We do certain arduous things today so that you will be able to do other desirable things in five years’ time.
However, times are not normal and much of our thinking must focus on getting through today. Asking oneself, “How will I possibly make it for another three weeks of this?” is a mistake. It can feel overwhelming and hopeless. Instead, tell yourself, “I just have to get through today. Things are changing day by day and tomorrow I will deal with tomorrow.” We love this quote from Corrie ten Boom: “Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.”
Upon being dispatched on his mission at the burning bush, Moses asked God what name shall he use for God when telling Israel of their forthcoming redemption. Ancient Jewish wisdom explains that God said, “Tell them I will be with them in future ordeals and oppressions as I am with them in this one in Egypt.” Moses pleaded with God and explained that there is no benefit in telling them now of other trials and tribulations that lie ahead. In crisis times, it’s enough to deal with today. God accepted Moses’ request and replied, “Tell them just I will be who I will be.” (Exodus 3:13-14)
Right now, each day of making it is a triumph. Pat yourself on the back, try and get a good night’s sleep and tomorrow will be tomorrow.
Second, it’s worth remembering that God created us for a reason. Just as we earthly parents love seeing our children follow in our footsteps, so does our Father in Heaven. He loves seeing us, His children, mastering our emotions and behaving courageously and generously. There is something deeply satisfying in accomplishing a challenging task. Winning an athletic contest, even completing a jig-saw or crossword puzzle puts a glow on our souls. In crisis times we are in a brutal contest with our lower, more animal selves. Acting with others in a Godly way will be strangely satisfying. There is strength in being able to give, even if it is something as simple as making a phone call to an older relative that reduces our feeling of helplessness.
Finally, start now to train yourself to become a generalist. Understand that crisis times can seldom be fully comprehended by experts and specialists. The infantry commander on the ground sends a message back to HQ, “The most important thing right now is more artillery.” Meanwhile, the naval commander communicates, “Nothing matters more than fuel for our ships.” The bomber pilot radios back to base, “If we can’t overcome enemy anti-aircraft fire, all will be lost.” It then falls to the commander-in-chief to determine how to allocate resources and where to focus effort. Each of his warriors told him the truth, but it was the truth as he narrowly saw it.
In his book, The Psychology of Science, (Jewish) psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote: “…I remember seeing an elaborate and complicated automatic washing machine for automobiles that did a beautiful job of washing them. But it could do only that, and everything else that got into its clutches was treated as if it were an automobile to be washed. I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail…”
Understandably, right now, doctors with a lifetime invested in their medical careers see one truth. Economists see another truth. Historians may see one more, and so on. Newspapers, television, and other media are ravenous for content and will happily publish information be it from the infantry, the navy, or the air-force. Your job, as commander in chief of yourself and your family, is to be a generalist and using data from experts and specialists try to integrate it and arrive at an accurate picture of the overall battlefield. Then you are in a better position to determine strategy. For today.
Going through a difficult time with others focuses our attention on the fact that our lives are interconnected with others and we need to cry out to the Lord not only for our own needs but also for His other children.
In one of our previous answers to a question about stress and anxiety we wrote:
Have you ever tried to open a door using the wrong key? No matter how much you jiggle the key or how irritated you get, the door won’t open. You need to try another key.
Our culture suggests that life should be stress-free. We think in terms of entitlements. We expect life to be easy and enjoyable with a fillip of excitement added on demand through side activities we choose to indulge in. That is the wrong key for life.
Life is actually a challenge. While we are on this earth, we are challenged to constantly make choices, each one of which forms our character. One of the constant choices we have is whether to face life’s difficulties courageously or fearfully. Do we feel victimized and helpless every time something goes wrong or do we ask God’s help to meet our challenges? Is our default emotion dissatisfaction unless something makes us happy or is our default emotion happiness?
We aren’t ignoring that there are real and terrible trials in life…Our first suggestion would be to ‘get a new key.’
We also wrote: …one of the most powerful portals to happiness and optimism is gratitude.
Make the first words out of your mouth as you wake up, “I am grateful before you, Living and everlasting Lord, for returning my soul to me with graciousness; your faith (in me) is great.” This prayer from ancient Jewish wisdom, which in Hebrew starts with the words, “Modeh Ani,” opens the door to greet each day with gratitude and a recognition that God is on your side cheering you on to make correct choices throughout your day. Stress and anxiety have less room to roam when you have such a Partner at your side and you look forward to a day of responsibilities, challenges and commitments that you can fulfill rather than entitlements that you should receive.
We aren’t minimizing the health and economic concerns we are facing. These are compounded by not being able to get together with those we love and, for those dealing with children, with needing to be endlessly energetic, creative and loving. Yet, being grateful is still our primary advice.
Please limit your news-watching. Don’t let yourself be seduced into the universe of the Cassandras out there telling you the world is coming to an end. Keep up an exercise regimen and healthy eating. At one and the same time, there are tremendous technological opportunities for growth such as virtual museum tours, classes and lectures, but don’t spend your day looking at a screen. Keep your sense of humor front and center along with your Bible and your prayers.
May the Lord guard you from all harm; He will guard your life (Ps 121:7)
Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin