Working It Out
Work is a relative term. As proof of that, just think of all the eager young kiddies who beg their mothers to let them wield broom or mop or “help” with the cooking. Tackling such mundane chores takes on a luster for youngsters because it stands for something in their minds. It tells them that they are, if not all grown-up already, then certainly well on their way.
Fast forward a few years, and those same eager little kidlets are now medium-sized kidlets whining in protest at being asked to do those selfsame chores. Once the allure of feeling powerful and grown-up wears off, household jobs are stripped of their glory. In the harsh light of day, they stand revealed as just what they are: work.
And human beings, as everybody knows, are allergic to work.
I’m not saying that many of us don’t find great pleasure and fulfillment in our work. But that’s because we’re doing something that we like to do. As the saying goes, “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.”
But given a job that you do not especially relish, a heaviness descends. Your body suddenly remembers that you were created from earth, not air. You give the needful task a baleful look, and it stares back at you with grim purpose. You both know that it’s got to be done… but that doesn’t mean that you look forward to doing it.
This is doubly true when the necessary work involves spiritual rather than physical labor. When faced with a physical job, the yetzer hara is often content to let our own natural inertia bog us down. It’s spiritual striving that really makes the yetzer hara’s alarm clock go off. Time to wake up and wreak a bit of havoc.
Distract and Deflect
The first thing the yetzer hara does is deny that there’s even a problem.
Since we’ve been talking about humankind’s natural disinclination to bestir itself for anything that resembles “work,” let’s see how cunningly the yetzer hara plays on this inborn tendency, to further its own ends in the spiritual arena.
Suppose you’ve been trying to address the problem of your inherent laziness. You long to be a zariz, a person who jumps up to do a mitzvah or perfect a character trait. The yetzer hara would love to derail this process. And it sets about the task with a will.
“Lazy? Who’s lazy?” it asks. “Why, just the other day you [fill in the blanks]. You’re amazing! So accomplished! No need to push yourself so hard. Just relax and rest on your laurels instead.”
If you manage to get past this slather of self-flattery with your purpose still intact, the yetzer hara goes on to Plan B: distract and deflect.
“What you’re thinking about doing isn’t even that important,” it tells you. “It’s not worth the energy. Shmoozing with a friend, or shopping the afternoon away… now, that’s important!” In a wheedling, syrupy voice, it starts ticking off its talking points. “First, you’ll make your friend happy. By spending time with her, you’ll be lifting her spirits. It’s practically a chesed! Or, if you go shopping today, you’ll be able to replenish your wardrobe, which will make you happy. And when you’re happy, you’re so much better equipped to carry out your Divine purpose in life…”
Afterward, having allowed ourselves to become distracted from our purpose, we feel downhearted. As we all know, discouragement and depression are anathema to self-improvement.
If all these tactics fail to take hold, the yetzer hara is fully capable of turning our focus away from the problem altogether, by manufacturing some sort of minor crisis that grabs our attention until the danger is past. I’ve noticed this phenomenon often.
While I’m not sure how the mechanism works exactly, as soon as I or someone close to me makes a resolution to improve in a spiritual area, it seems that something always comes up to make it hard to get the resolution off the ground. This can be anything from a headache to unexpected visitors to car trouble. Anything that derails the process long enough to lose some of its momentum and make it that much harder to start up again.
An Imaginary Conversation
Another example: you’ve become aware that you expend far too much emotional energy feeling jealous of or competitive with others. You want to start working seriously on this character flaw.
Enter the yetzer hara…
Let’s imagine a conversation between a therapist and the part of us that tends to fall prey to our lower self. In other words, our own, personal, custom-built yetzer hara.
THERAPIST: You and I both know that jealousy is not a pretty trait. You’d like so much to be free of those feelings. Wouldn’t it be lovely to be happy for others when they succeed, instead of feeling threatened?
YH: But I don’t feel threatened at all! [DENIAL] I love when my friends succeed. In fact, I couldn’t be happier for them!
THERAPIST: Is that why you walk around so miserable all the time? Is that why you eat yourself up with envy?
YH: Me—envious? Ridiculous! [STILL IN DENIAL MODE] I’m not the least bit jealous of other people. Anyone who knows me could tell you that.
THERAPIST: But you do admit that you’re miserable most of the time.
YH: Is that my fault? Can I help wishing I were more successful/pretty/wealthy [Fill in the blanks]? If I’m miserable, it’s only because I could use some better mazel in life!
THERAPIST: Suppose we try to explore the roots of this feeling. Why do you feel so unlucky in life?
YH: [The yetzer hara launches into a long, self-pitying account, the crux of which is that everyone has always had it better than her. Details unnecessary.]
THERAPIST: Let’s pick one specific example: your sister-in-law. Why do you dislike her so much? Is it because you feel she’s had an easier life than you?
YH: I don’t know what it is… She just pushes all my buttons. [DEFLECTS blame onto the sister-in-law]
THERAPIST: Let’s probe a little deeper. Does something about her remind you of something painful in your own past?
YH [warily; a nerve has been touched]: I told you, I don’t know. Hey, did you hear that we’re expecting snow tonight? [DISTRACT]
THERAPIST [probing harder]: Do you feel that your sister-in-law has something that you want?
YH: Of course she has what I want! Everyone has what I want!
THERAPIST: Hm. And you don’t call yourself jealous?
YH: I don’t want to talk about this anymore. [Stands up and stalks out of the room]
Get the picture? It’s an uphill battle getting ourselves to work seriously and consistently on any spiritual front, because our yetzer hara is right there with a boatload of tactics bent on throwing us off-course.
The yetzer hara doesn’t want us probing our psyches to discover the source of a character deficiency or moral failing. The last thing it wants is for us to succeed at ferreting out the root of our spiritual trouble or devising tactics to improve matters. It doesn’t want us figuring out where the negativity comes from and planting positive growth in its stead. It hates the idea of our working things out.
Far preferable for our evil inclination is having us flounder in a murky, unclear swamp of emotions and impulses. Clarity is the enemy, because clarity, along with willpower and perseverance, are what will ultimately help us work things out and win. And the yetzer hara doesn’t like to lose.
So let’s become acutely aware of its tactics as they appear in our own day-to-day lives. The cannier we are, the better our chances of succeeding. Our main weapon is the very clarity that the yetzer hara so abhors. It doesn’t want us to actually solve our spiritual problems. It vastly prefers to have us stumble around in the dark.
If the body is allergic to work, the yetzer hara is doubly allergic to our working it out. Because when we understand where the problem lies and make up our minds to tackle it… we win.