Dealing with the Madness of the World: Rav D’s Ten Step Program

Hanukkah is here! Rich with historical, ritual and culinary meanings (who doesn’t love a latke?), Hanukkah always comes during the shortest and therefore darkest days of the year. It reminds us how a little light overcomes and banishes a great darkness. What an appropriate and much needed message that is this week. I hope you will join us for our celebrations here at Neveh Shalom.

The most recent terrorist attack in San Bernadino really shook up Laura and me. Attacking an institute that provides for the developmentally disabled went beyond the pale. I experienced such a wave of moral outrage. To tell the truth, I’ve really been feeling the weight of the world recently. Refugees, war, Paris, Israel, Pakistan, melting ice caps, species depletion, human rights violations, the new college censorship…

Sometimes the pain and suffering that surround us claim a greater hold on our psyches. When it does, it would be easy enough to give in to despair and let the blackness consume us. Yet that is not our way. We view life as the blessing and gift that it is. Ours is a tradition of hope.

In fact, Rabbi Nahman of Bratslov (1772-1810) had a counterintuitive saying that “there is no such thing as despair in the world.” ( ain yeush ba’olam) Really? Of course there is! What I think he was getting at is that we choose despair as one possible option, one emotional response to life. Despair is not some independent entity separate from our own perceptions. This is a fascinating concept, because when horror confronts us, we don’t usually think that our normal emotional response to it is a choice. It can feel more like an onslaught.

Nonetheless, I think Rabbi Nahman was on to something. We have the power to shape our perceptions and responses to the regular puncture marks of evil. This raises the question of how can we best respond to the immediacy of tragedy and horror so that we don’t get overwhelmed? Don’t we all want the goodness of our lives to win the day?

I want to offer some common sense suggestions, pathways and perspectives to this question, most of which you probably know. But as I like to say, wisdom isn’t knowing what to do, it’s doing what we know we need to do. I also would also love to write a future article crowd-sourced from the collective wisdom embedded in Neveh Shalom and invite you to send me your coping mechanisms and strategies for living a full, hopeful, productive and love-filled life. I look forward to hearing your suggestions.

Rav D’s Ten Step Program

  1. Play with your kids, take your dog for a walk, pet your cat. Sometimes we focus too wide, and let in too much from the outside world. Sharing simple moments of connection with those whose lives are more innocent can be restorative.
  2. Read a great book, go to a concert, catch a show. We all know that the news, by definition, presents us with a negative picture of humanity. Cultural production gives us the very opposite image–it can show us the very best of people, thrilling and moving us.
  3. Learn something new, outside of your normal areas of endeavor. As we age, there is a tendency to restrict our lives to familiar patterns. If you work with your mind, find a physical activity. If your work is more physical, find a more cerebral pursuit.Newness stimulates the brain, and a healthy, growing brain is a happier, more resilient brain.
  4. Take meaningful political action, volunteer in the community and give tzedekah. Our tradition famously reminds us that while we can’t fix all the problems of the world, we are still obligated to act. These actions also remind us that we are not powerless to effect change and thus teaches us that the best response to those who would destroy is to build. Helplessness is the bedmate of despair.
  5. Hike in nature, commune with a tree, take a walk in the rain. We have solid neural evidence that immersing ourselves in God’s natural world is healing. At the very least, look out the window.
  6. Exercise regularly and get enough sleep. Here’s an area where I could take my own advice and do a little better! Endorphins, health maintenance, coordination, strength, mood regulation and overall brain health–what’s not to like?
  7. Go on a date with your partner or a friend, bring your neighbor some cake. Ultimately, I believe that evil acts by destroying connections. Strengthen your connections with the people who matter the most to you. Share love. Forge community.
  8. Grieve a little, not a lot. I believe good outweighs evil. Part of our humanity is to feel and respond to suffering, and not to become numb and insensitive to the news of the world. Empathy is itself a measure of a healthy soul. But too much grieving is itself self-indulgent and self-destructive.
  9. Go on a news strike. Sometimes, when none of these other steps are sufficient to restore your resilience and hopefulness, and when you find yourself overly pessimistic at the state of the world, ignore the news for a day, a week or a month. Eight years ago, I quit the news for a couple of months and it was just what I needed. Our culture has a bias that participating in the world means that we need to stay abreast of politics and world affairs. As this list hopefully makes clear, there are a great many ways that we invest in the world and commit to it. The news is ultimately ephemeral and not of lasting value. The things you need to know will make it your way. In 2013, 18000 people died in terrorist attacks. That sounds like a horrible number, and it is. But there are 7,500,000,000 people on the planet. As a percentage of the population,those who died are .0000024. So things are much better than we imagine, and the news does not accurately portray the world it purports to show.
  10. Pray. The West is enamored of being active, and sometimes it seems that praying is somehow passive, ineffective or boring. Done poorly, yes, it can be all of those things. But prayer is an essential human avenue to the transcendent. The experience of awe, of feeling connected to the whole, and of having an address for the outpourings of the soul makes us more human, more real. In the face of terror, horror, loss and disaster, prayer elevates us above the conditions of life.

I look forward to hearing your techniques for maintaining your hope and optimism!
Warmth and blessings,

Rav D

Click here for weekly Torah commentary.

Listen to recordings from our past few services here