There is a technological gadget that has become almost ubiquitous in the last decade. It models a behavior that all of us might want to emulate. It is a device upon which many of us have come to rely to find our way in the world: The Global Positioning Satellite – the GPS.
You type in your destination on your smartphone or computer that is built into your car, and a miracle happens. It talks to a satellite orbiting 11,000 miles over your head, and then tells you exactly how to get to where you want to go. It even gives you turn by turn directions – even the new iPhone can do this. It estimates how long your trip is going to take. It warns you about the traffic you will find along the way, and if you want, it points out the gas stations that you will pass.
I am sure that there are a few people in this room who actually understand how this works. But for me, my GPS is an absolute miracle.
This nice lady, with a pleasant voice, calmly tells me where to go. And if I don’t follow her instructions, either because I wasn’t paying attention, or because I think I know better – and I am always wrong whenever that happens – she never loses her cool. The nice lady does not fret, get angry, turn herself off, feel guilty, or demand to be comforted.
No, she does something different. She says, in her calm voice: “recalculating.”
Ten times in a row, I ignore her advice. I drive seventeen miles off course, I swear at her for remaining so even-tempered, and she remains calm, and focused on the goal. Recalculating. Continually recalculating. Adjusting to any changes, surmounting any new obstacles to which my reckless wanderings have led.
Alas, it is much easier for the nice lady than it is for us.
I heard this suggestion about the GPS in an interview earlier this year with Dr. Sylvia Boorstein.*1* Raised in a traditional Jewish household, she embraced Buddhism and now is a teacher at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in the North Bay. Among her several books is That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist, in which she shows that a person can be both an observant Jew and a committed Buddhist.
In the interview, Dr. Boorstein spoke about what happens to a person when he or she experiences tension – when our path in life does not follow the route that we have mapped out for ourselves and we get off course. We all experience anxiety. Sure, some of us become more overwhelmed by it than others. But the simple act of living means that we will encounter adversity. No matter what happens, no matter how much we try to insulate ourselves, some things are not going to go our way.
There are many different types of experiences that cause tension, from the seemingly trite to the highly significant. Somebody cuts you off in line at the grocery store. You get in a fender bender. The person who has been your partner for all these years leaves you. You are diagnosed with a life-altering medical condition.
When something happens that produces anxiety, how do you react? What is your response to tension?
Dr. Boorstein describes our initial, instinctive response as a glitch of neurology, one of five genetic fallback behaviors that we revert to when we are challenged. While some of us succumb to these glitches more intensely than others, we all have a gut reaction. These are the five: we fret, we get angry, we lose heart, we feel guilty, or we seek sensual soothing. Of course, we probably exhibit all of these reactions from time to time, but one of these five behaviors, according to Boorstein, is dominant in each one of us.
Which of these five typologies do you fall into?
The first group responds to tension by fretting. “When in doubt, worry.” Let’s say I am supposed to meet someone outside a restaurant at 5:00. It’s already 5:15 and he’s still not there. Where could he be? What happened? Maybe he had a heart attack. God forbid he was in a traffic accident. That siren I hear in the distance must be the ambulance taking him to the emergency room.
The second type of response is anger. People in this group respond to anxiety by lashing out at others. It might be that the source of tension is the other person, and so you let ’em have it. But often, we misplace our anger by snapping at the first person who happens to come along. You have a bad day at work. Your boss yelled at you. And so you take out your frustration on your kids when you get home.
The third type of gut reaction is losing heart. That is when a person’s energy just evaporates. You want to back off and flee from whatever the confrontation is. You get tired, and would rather just go to sleep in the hope that if you avoid the situation, it will go away. But it never goes away.
The fourth group responds to tension with guilt. Whenever something bad happens, you immediately think it is your fault.
The fifth type of reaction is to seek sensual soothing. You get in a fight with your partner, and so you go home and inhale an entire carton of ice cream. Or drink a bottle of wine, or take drugs.
So which are you? What is your innate, gut response to tension?
Whichever group you would place yourself in, I bet that, like me, you wish you didn’t always respond that way to stressful situations. Have you had the experience of getting angry, and then wishing that you had kept your cool? Or taking on guilt for a problem you did not cause? Or having a stomach ache the day after you drowned your sorrows in mint chocolate chip?
Dr. Boorstein suggests that, rather than succumb to that response, that we instead recognize that our tendency to fret, or get angry, or lose heart, or feel guilty, or reach for the ice cream, is just our particular glitch kicking in. In fact, there are alternative courses of action. There are a lot of other things that we could do. Sometimes, just by recognizing something about ourselves, we are able to transcend it. When we experience that challenging moment and the anger starts to rise, just say “oh, that’s the part of me that gets angry responding to tension.” That frees us up for a different response. It frees us up to respond like the nice lady in the GPS. Think of what it might be like if, when we get off course, we could first pause to recalculate.
In the Torah portion that we read today, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we see a number of characters experiencing stressful situations. Situations that bring out their natural fallback responses – to unfortunate outcomes.
At the beginning of our reading, God has finally taken note of Sarah and blessed her with a son, Isaac. At the party that Abraham throws for Isaac’s weaning, Sarah sees Abraham’s other son, Ishmael, playing with Isaac in a way that she does not like. She reverts immediately to her fallback behavior. She becomes angry. Turning to Abraham, she demands that he banish her son’s tormentor, along with his mother, Hagar.
This sets up the next character, Abraham, who is extremely upset by the situation. His response is to fret. He knows that what Sarah has asked of him is wrong, but the stress of the situation, of being placed between his wife’s anger and Hagar and Ishmael’s lives causes him to worry and prevents him from taking decisive action. It is only when God instructs Abraham to listen to Sarah, because God will protect Hagar and Ishmael, that Abraham is able to make a decision.
Hagar and Ishmael are now exiled in the wilderness, and they have run out of food and water. Hagar succumbs to her fallback glitch and loses heart. She cannot bear to see her son die, and so she places Ishmael beneath a bush some distance away so that she will not have to witness his suffering. The situation has rendered her powerless, incapable not only of making a decision, but of even being present for her son.
While the responses of each of these characters are essential to the story and give it its punch, we still can wonder how things might have been different if they had recognized their natural fallback glitches. Sarah might have seen Ishmael’s actions, and instead of allowing her anger to overcome her, might have instead recognized it, set it aside, and reached out to Hagar to find a collaborative approach for dealing with Ishmael’s wild behavior.
Abraham, instead of absorbing all of the anxiety of the triangle in which he found himself, might have instead called a family meeting to try and mediate between the two women in his household.
For her part, Hagar might have recognized her urge to flee from her son’s suffering and instead comfort him. In so doing, she might have discovered, on her own, the well that it took an angel to reveal.
Of course, this is all just conjecture. But it illustrates the point that our future is determined not only by those events that happen to us, but also by the ways in which we respond to those events. Our reactions often lead us further off course.
I have always found interesting the way that we celebrate the world’s birthday. To celebrate such a majestic event, we turn inward, and assess our lives in a process called cheshbon hanefesh, taking account of our souls. The traditional language uses words like sin and forgiveness, confession and atonement. Practically speaking, we take an honest look at our lives and note those times when we have not lived up to our potential, when we have been less than we could be.
The process of teshuvah, repentance, suggests that we can address those times when we came up short and fundamentally change ourselves in the year ahead. Our patterns of behavior are not permanently locked in. We can become better.
If we have been doing the work that is asked of us, we have identified lots of mistakes in the past year. The question we face every Rosh Hashanah is how to actually change. It is relatively easy to apologize for a particular wrong, and make restitution.
I embarrassed my friend in public, so I go to her and apologize, confess the wrong I did and acknowledge the pain it caused, and hopefully repair the relationship.
But when it comes to changing deep-seated behaviors that are part of our very make-up, it is a different story. Recognizing those reactions as our innate fallback responses might actually be helpful. It might make it possible for us to respond differently, and take control of our future in a way that enables us to be the kind of people we want to be.
This is not going to work every time. Overcoming instinctive behaviors takes a tremendous effort. Unlike the even-tempered lady in the GPS, whose personality is controlled by software, we are human beings. But imagine what a different person you could be if you could stop yourself and recalculate. Imagine what a different world this would be if we could all do that.
We are just now taking our first steps into the new year. It is a fantastic opportunity to chart a course to become our best selves. We do not know what the new year holds in store, but it is safe to say that there will be blessing and joy, just as there will be sorrow and loss. When that thing happens to push us off course, and it will, let’s try to remember to take a breath, recognize what our fallback response is telling us to do, and then push ourselves to try something different: recalculating.
*1*Interview with Krista Tippett on March 29, 2012, broadcast on the podcast On Being (http://www.onbeing.org/program/what-we-nurture/242)