William Hamilton

A little less afraid

Amidst today’s worries, consider this poem written a week ago by a Kurdish poet near the Turkey-Syria border.

Hhhhhh: escape

rrrrnnnn: tank treads

ttttttttttt: Kalashnikov

hwhwhw: dogs

sssssss: silence

ttttttttttt: Kalashnikov

wwwww: wind

xsxsxsx: leaves

ttttttttttt: Kalashnikov

xxxxxxx: blood

mnmnm: moan

**********: sky prince dead

Context.  This is not meant to minimize the realness of our threats.  It simply reminds us that others face dangers too.  How does this Kurd cope with vivid risk?  With poetry.

We too look to biblical poetic prayer-songs known as Psalms.  Since early August, we’ve been praying a particular Psalm that specializes in facing fears.  “Teach me, Source of Joy, your ways, and lead me down a level plain because of the dangers that surround me on every side.  Don’t give me over to the breath of my fears” (Psalm 27:11-12).

How do we know when we’re being “given over to the breath of our fears”?  After all, fears serve an important function.  They keep us safe.  They keep us from touching a flame or from jumping from a rooftop.  Without fears, our lives would be more harmful.  Yet fears also hem us in.  They render us too timid to act in ways that optimize our potential.

Clinical tools can aid in coping with unhelpful fears.  One approach is called ‘exposure therapy’.  Here’s how it works.  Those terrified by spiders, for example, won’t walk within ten feet of a terrarium that holds a Tarantula. But gradual steps help to dissolve such a fear.  Steps include: standing five feet away, directing the Tarantula’s movement with a paintbrush, and letting the spider walk over your gloved hand.  How long do you think it takes an average person to let the spider walk across his or her bare hand utilizing such exposure therapy?  Months?  Weeks?  Actually, it’s about two hours.

Another brand new study emphasizes the value of mindful meditation as a means of greeting our fears less reactively and more adaptively.  But fears are real and cannot be reliably dismissed by clinicians.

On this Festival of Sukkot as we prepare to reduce our exposure to the words of Psalm 27, may this season of ingathering remind us to look beyond ourselves for help.  And to provide such help to others even before it’s invited.  As Brene Brown is fond of saying, “We don’t have to do it all alone.  We were never meant to.”

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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