Tuesday, Jul 23, 2024

IN A PERFECT WORLD

 

Desperate Measures

We’ve all heard the stories: The frantic mother who manages to lift an enormous weight to free her trapped offspring. The father who leaps in front of his children as a snarling dog races right at them. The neighbor that races into a burning house to save those inside. Acts of courage, strength, and derring-do which the hero or heroine would never have predicted they had it in them to carry out.

The physician Hippocrates is credited with the saying, “Desperate times call for desperate measures.” It’s amazing what resources we can find within us when the need arises. Resources, often, that we never dreamed we had.

The Gulf War broke out when I was a young mother in Eretz Yisroel. I remember writing in my journal, “I always wondered how I’d measure up if I ever had to live through a war.” As a child, the word “war” had been synonymous with the Holocaust. My mother was a little girl in Lezhensk when “the war” broke out. Almost immediately, her family along with the rest of the town’s Jewish population were banished across the border into Russia. But the story didn’t end there. They may have escaped the gas chambers, but living as refugees in that Communist paradise was no picnic.

Growing up on stories of my grandmother’s courage and resourcefulness in keeping her family fed and warm in wartime behind the Iron Curtain, culminating in the almost unbelievable tale of how, with Hashem’s help, she managed the unheard-of feat of getting my grandfather released from a Soviet prison, I was in awe. I also felt myself lacking. Faced with such life-and-death exigencies, how would I have measured up?

I’d reckoned without the stuff that comes pouring out of us in a crisis. The desperate measures that feel almost natural at desperate times.

It seems to me that it’s useless trying to predict what you’d do in a crisis, because the mere fact of being in a crisis can precipitate the most unusual behavior. Behavior which is so unlike the person you think of as “you” that you’d have scoffed at the scenario had anyone else suggested it.

In ordinary times, we tap into just the amount of inner fortitude and courage that our daily lives call for. Let danger or some other pressing need arise, however, and suddenly you’re rising above yourself. In the examples I cited above, a person can find themselves demonstrating extraordinary physical strength, bravery, and stamina. But unexpected strength and courage can take other forms, too.

 

The Perfect Response

I’ve always loved stories where a great person comes up with just the right thing to say or do in a crisis. The gadol who’s begged by a distraught parent to talk to a teenager on his way off the derech or young woman on the point of becoming engaged to a non-Jew.  A “chance” encounter with a disaffected Yid who is about to base his entire opinion of Jewry on how you talk to him. You read with bated breath as the gadol produces the words to bring a recalcitrant heart back home, or the kiruv expert who, against all odds, touches a chord and forges a bond that makes all the difference.

For people who hold leadership positions, such as shul rabbis, school principals, kiruv organizers and the like, individuals in crisis mode cross their paths with disheartening frequency. Heartbreaking situations and dire dilemmas are regularly presented to them for solutions. Sometimes, those solutions can take a very personal turn, such as when Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, flew to California on erev Pesach to reach out to a Jewish girl in crisis. Desperate times, desperate measures.

 

Mistaken Identity

In a physical emergency, adrenalin provides the sometimes incredible power and resilience that we need to see us through. This is not something you can prepare for. Your body just recognizes a crisis, and acts.

When it comes to finding the necessary strength and wisdom to cope with a non-physical crisis, the opposite is true. Here, preparation is paramount.

The time to prepare for the hard times in life is when things are relatively calm. During the quiet times, we can and must lay the groundwork of personal bitachon and steadfastness. A person who lets every passing problem blow her off course will presumably not handle a real crisis very well. Only by cultivating a deep sense of trust in Hashem, a Rock of Gibraltar-style stoicism, and an inner wellspring of strength that does not dry up at the slightest wind, can we hope to successfully ride out the storm.

Emotional stability is vital. Especially when it comes to recognizing what is a genuine crisis and what is only the illusion of one. The illusionary crisis tempts us to pull out all the stops needlessly, or even harmfully. Here’s an example.

Suppose someone insults you, disregards your needs, or mishandles a situation to your detriment. You feel demeaned. Diminished. You feel the reins of control or self-respect slipping out of your hands. All of this comes together in your head to scream, “CRISIS!”

And you respond accordingly… by lashing back. You may start hurling disrespectful remarks back at the person who hurt you. Longer term, you may choose to carry on a feud or unmercifully tighten the reins of control on your environment. Feeling in crisis mode, your emotions do not consult logic or heed the voice of prudence. They simply go into crisis-response mode.

Without the inner equilibrium that comes from working on our middos and our acceptance of Hashgocha, the way we respond to what we mistakenly identify as a crisis has the power to cause far-reaching damage.

 

Every Minute Counts

You may be tempted to start lifting weights or running marathons to help you be better equipped to deal with whatever physical crisis may one day present itself. I’m not saying that such preparation is a bad idea. But it may be unnecessary. If and when such a time comes, your body will know how to summon the qualities you’d need to see you through.

When it comes to the other kind of crisis, however, every minute of exercise counts.

Every mussar talk attentively ingested, every bit of time spent devising strategies for keeping your head when something rattles you, every honest moment of admitting defeat and gamely try again… none of it goes to waste. That’s because emotional challenges crop up all the time, and we need to be prepared to meet them appropriately. We need to be able to properly identify a crisis and then cool-headedly figure out the best approach for handling it. For those of us not blessed with an ice-cold temperament, this will not happen by itself.

Strengthening our characters and our spiritual tools now is the best way to ensure that we’ll be able to trust ourselves to handle whatever the future may throw at us down the road.

So that, when that time comes, we’ll be able to proudly feature as the heroes and heroines of our own stories.

 

 

 

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