Sara Schwartz, Granada Hills, California
MyLife Essay Contest 2018
Do you ever feel you are constantly repeating the same struggles? Keep hitting the same walls and getting stuck? It feels so frustrating! Whether your negative thoughts are clothed in anxiety, depression, addiction, laziness, self consciousness or lust, if you are human you have them. And you wish you could just get rid of them. You want to be healed. Happy. You want to be able to just glide smoothly along your life, living your dreams and counting your blessings.
You wonder why you are struggling with the same issues for the past 5, 10, 20, or 50 years. You wonder if you will be constantly fighting the same wars over and over? Is there a point to these battles? Are you getting anywhere?
Trust me friend, you are not alone! We regular humans all struggle with these internal battles. In chapters 27 and 28 of Tanya, the Alter Rebbe redefines our life’s mission as embracing our internal struggles and discovering the advantageous purposes of having them. This essay will explore this topic.
You want to be able to make simple decisions easily yet you find yourself staring the shampoo options in target for 15 minutes. You want to talk calmly to your kids and kindly to your spouse, yet you hear yourself blurting out hurtful words. You want to get dressed quickly, stay on the diet, or keep your morning exercise routine that you know is good for you. And you do it for a while but then you find yourself reverting back to your default. You have a dream you want to fulfill but keep doubting your abilities. Or you know that binge watching Netflix or scanning Instagram for hours each night is not good for you, yet you feel pulled to it each time! So how should we react to our troubling, recurring, negative thoughts and habits? How can we be happy with a constant battle going on inside our heads! We want to do the right thing and be productive, but we keep getting pulled down! We might try therapy, medication, or meditation, and it might help somewhat, at least for a while. But as we know, the battle continues. And the thoughts resurface, again and again!
This seems like a big cause for despair, right?
The first Chabad Rebbe, lovingly called the Alter Rebbe, in his magnum opus the Tanya, offers us a comforting and unique approach to our consistent, internal struggles. He said we should not be upset even if we have an internal war that lasts our entire life. He gives us a long and short way of finding a deep meaningful and joyful life with these simple steps:
- We must accept the reality that we were created to struggle.
- Fight one battle at a time.
- Feel the reward of winning and of the satisfaction we give to G-d.
Not only are these destructive thoughts no cause for sadness, but on the contrary, they should lead us to joy. Each time we battle with a negative thought and push it away we are actually fulfilling a commandment; “You shall not follow after your heart and after your eyes, by which you go astray.(1)” We might ask, what’s the big deal of fulfilling a ‘negative’ commandment? Our Sages have said: “When one passively abstains from sin, he is rewarded as though he had actively performed a mitzvah.(2)”
So each time we struggle with a negative thought and push it away we fulfill a mitzvah.
For example, if we want to just waste time scrolling through our smartphones and we stop ourselves-we won a battle! Or the kids are needy and made a huge mess and we want to scream but we control ourselves and speak calmly- we won again! Celebrate that. It will help us win next time around.
Still not convinced it’s worth it to fight? Read on.
The Zohar states that by us crushing our ‘little’ negative thoughts by ignoring them, we cause God to crush evil in the world! (because G-d acts measure for measure.) Talk about saving the world! Furthermore, the act of crushing our negativity draws down a super high level of G-dliness into the world, that no other mitzvah accomplishes! “Thereby G‑d’s glory rises above all, more than by any other praise, and this ascent is greater than all else.”(3)
More so, we are actually giving G-d a great pleasure each time we win a battle and crush our negative thought. There’s a verse in the Torah that Isaac said to Eisav: “And make me delicacies, such as I love,”(4). “The sages wonder why the Torah uses the plural form of the word delicacies and offer different explanations. On a deeper level this refers to two types pleasure we give to G-d! One type is provided by tzaddikim, who are occupied solely with matters that are “good” and “sweet” — holy matters. Having conquered the evil of their animal soul, they no longer need to grapple with negativity. Their divine service consists of increasing the light of holiness. This is like cookies candy and ice cream- all agree they are just sweet! The second kind of delicacy is provided by beinonim, i.e. us regular humans who are occupied with “bitter” matters, and when we overcome them we are providing G-d with another real pleasure, like making pickles out of cucumbers or a delicious dip out of bitter eggplants.
Modern day Psychiatrist, Judson Brewer explains an amazingly similar process in a famous TED talk titled “A simple way to break a bad habit”. He states that all bad habits and addictions stem from a cycle of three components; 1) trigger 2) behavior 3) reward. The ticket to freedom is to accept the wave of the impulse and be mindful as to what is really going on inside us. Very soon the good feelings that come as a result of our deep awareness replaces the reward of the behavior and we are freed from the struggle towards our bad habits. Up until this point we’ve covered how to respond to a negative thought that comes up during “normal business hours.” But what happens if these distracting thoughts appear during prayer or other holy pursuits? It is much harder to feel the reward of generating amazing delight to our Creator when we are seemingly a failure at serving him!. Here the Alter Rebbe says we should completely ignore these thoughts, and pay zero attention to them. We need to remember we actually have not one, but two souls. In these cases, it’s very likely that our G-dly soul IS doing a great job connecting to G-d and therefore our animal soul starts getting jealous and nervous so it starts causing problems with these negative thoughts. So we really do have what to celebrate! We are fighters and we’re making a difference and the enemy knows it.
Some practical ideas:
- Make yourself a chart and record each time you struggle with a temptation and stop yourself from indulging. Then celebrate your progress.
- Meditate on the powerful effects of our struggles.
- Be curious and observe your feelings and sensations when you want to indulge in a negative behavior, feel the joy of letting go, and repeat.
As we’ve seen, these are battles were likely to continue fighting long term. We need to keep on fighting. Day after day.
Year after year. Let’s look out for our walls. And climb over them. Saying no, Again and again. And know that through fighting our battles we are becoming much stronger people, Fulfilling our personal mission, Refining our world, And giving G-d a whole lot of pleasure!
May we speedily merit the time when we’ll no longer need to battle with evil, The revelation of Moshiach- Amen!
1. Bamidbar 15:39.
2. Cf. Kiddushin 39b.
3 Zohar, Parshat Terumah,page128
4 Beraishit 27;4