Imagine a plane cutting a swath through a perfectly blue sky. The droning engine fills the air with a sound like a contented bee.
Suddenly, with a sound like a gasp, the rhythm breaks. Some internal disturbance has disrupted the flow of fuel; or a lightning bolt, harbinger of a storm, has attacked from the outside. The engine hesitates. A curious bird, watching from a safe distance, holds its breath, hoping in that final second to hear the engine catch again and see the plane resume its former graceful course.
No such luck. After that endless instant of possibility, the plane’s new trajectory is set. With a sad sputtering, it upends with slow-motion grace… and down, down it plunges, corkscrewing as it goes, in a classical tailspin from sky to earth.
What, you ask, does that poor aircraft have to do with you, a person with your feet planted firmly on the ground?
Like that ill-fated plane, people have the capacity to move ahead for long periods of time in placid contentment. We set our course and then follow it with varying degrees of determination and consistency. Our progress through the sunlit skies of our lives seems, to the outside observer, to be effortless, inevitable. But forces, both internal and external, are constantly at work beneath the surface and beyond the horizon. They can swoop in to disturb the even tenor of our journey at any time. When that happens, it is all too easy to lose sight of our goals, relinquish control of our middos, and plunge into a tailspin.
Let’s take a mundane example having to do with willpower. In a scenario that’s familiar to many, you decide that your future happiness dictates that you drop a serious amount of weight. Accordingly, you research various diet plans, choose one and hopefully embark on the new regimen.
All goes well for a week, or a month, or even longer. And then there comes a day that tests you to the limit. There can be an inner challenge: low energy, a bad mood, a sense of defeatism. Or it can be a lightning strike, a bolt out of the blue, that upsets your equilibrium and makes you momentarily lose touch with your true values and your most heartfelt desires. In short, you cheat on your diet.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with a little nibble to lift your spirits. The problem is that, for many of us, a break in our resolve can send us into a tailspin. One cookie leads to another, which leads to another, which leads to the whole box. After which you figure you’re already lying wrecked and smoking on the ground, so why bother trying at all?
In the areas of avodas hamiddos, the process is subtler but no less devastating. Let’s look at the trio of classically problematic middos referenced in Pirkei Avos: kinah, kavod, and taavah—jealousy, the pursuit of honor and unwholesome desires. Three deadly enemies that are unfortunately no strangers to anyone who shares the human condition.
Envy is the ugly cloud in an otherwise perfect sky, the insect corpse floating in a delicious drink. Your life is humming along, peaceful as can be. You’ve come to terms with the parameters of your existence, trying your best to take whatever lemons happen to grow in your orchard and squeeze them into tasty lemonade. All goes well… until that one encounter you can’t handle so well. A glimpse of a yearned-for alternative, a glaring example of everything you’re not. A tiny worm of jealousy finds its way into your heart. And, as everyone knows, hearts are the best incubators for feelings like jealousy. They snuggle in deep and just grow and grow…
Or you’re sailing through your days responsibly, doing your job as best you can and hoping for life to give you a pat on the back. Instead, you find yourself passed over or slighted. Your outraged ego, quiescent a minute before, launches on a litany of indignant complaint, a seething song and dance over the honor it should have had.
Honor, like envy, is an appetite that feeds on itself: a bloated ego is a terrible thing to behold. Similarly, jealous fury gives rise to furious thought and speech. Unwholesome desires also take on a life of their own, consuming our minds and poisoning our hearts. With all three, negative emotion rules where once rationality reigned.
A flash of jealousy can blaze into an inferno. The bogeymen of I-want-honor or I-must-have-that can use their size-13 boots to trample our humility and good middos—not to mention good sense—into the dust. Once breached, the walls of our good character can quickly tumble into a heap of rubble.
None of us wants to fall. Deep down, all we really want is to continue flying the plane of our lives through tranquil skies. The trouble comes when we allow something to attack the engine of our resolve and upset the trajectory of our willpower. A leak in the fuel line, an unexpected upset or disappointment, can be all that it takes to yank the whole plane out of the sky. Tailspin…
Or not necessarily.
There’s always one moment when we hover on the brink. Those suspenseful seconds when the engine sputters but has not yet given up the fight. That exquisite instant when the outcome is not yet inevitable. When your simmering anger has not yet morphed into a screaming fit. When that pang of jealousy is still more-or-less under your control. When your good intentions and better nature hang in perfect equilibrium with your evil inclination and weaker side.
An outside observer, like the bird watching that floundering plane, may not be privy to the inner dynamic leading up to that winner-takes-all moment. He may not even see the moment at all. On the surface, you look like the same person. Inside, however, the lines have popped a leak. Air is hissing out of your tires, gasoline dripping from the engine of your resolve. You hang in stasis, poised to go in either direction.
That’s the moment we need to prepare for. It’s the reason for all the safeguards Chazal have built into our system of laws and our hierarchy of values. When building an aircraft, the designers must take into account each possible weakness, every vulnerability that could endanger the plane and its passengers. They study the potential problems from every angle and take all measures to prevent disaster. So that, in that crucial instant when the plane could go either way, to safety or catastrophe, the scales will tilt toward life.
Each one of us knows where we are most vulnerable. We are intimately acquainted with the cracks that exist in the citadel of our middos, and the fault lines in our walls of defense. We are all too aware of how easy it is for a moment of inattention or weakness or lacerated ego to send us into a tailspin. Once we are in a free fall, it takes an almost super-human effort to turn things around, as the gravity of our own natures pulls us inexorably down toward a crash. At that point, all we can do is pick up the pieces, do a heartfelt teshuvah and try again.
The time to put on the brakes is before the crash, in that perfectly-balanced point in time when we still have a choice. To do that, we must be attuned to the messages and signals that our hearts and minds send us all day long. We must be attentive to our inherent flaws and work assiduously to correct them, even when the skies are placid and blue.
So that, when the attack comes, either from inside or out, we will be ready to catch ourselves before we fall.