William Hamilton

That secret melody humming inside you

Saying “Calm down” or “Chill out” to somebody who is freaking out is like squirting lighter fluid on a bonfire that’s about to spread. Hospitality-coach, Will Guidera, writes that it’s much better to say something like: “I see what you’re going through. We’re in this together and we’re going to get through it together. So what can I do right now to help?”

This approach is much more agreeable. The question is, Why? One answer is that it makes you feel heard. And feeling heard is ventilating. Sensing that you’re being heard helps you get your breath back. 

And here’s the key: breathing itself is a responsive activity. That is, inhaling and exhaling are like a call-and-response rhythm. When you’re fuming, when the throbbing in your ears is louder than the thoughts in your head, then, if you’re like me, you have no chance of knowing what you need next. So when you face someone who validates your anger, who helps you go from an elevated arrhythmia back into a more normal rhythmic flow, this is going to meet a need. 

This week’s portion of Torah specializes in such respiratory restoration. We meet Jacob when he is frightened, gripped by fear as he learns that his estranged brother Essau is marching toward him with hundreds of men. Later on, Jacob will endure the odious aftermath of Simon and Levi’s brutal vengeance for the violation of Dinah. So how does a Jacob who has survived two decades of deceit and manipulation under the spell of Laban, get this breath back? 

He tells us. He does it with God’s help. “God answered me when I was in trouble, and was with me in the way that I went” (Gen. 35:3). Actually Jacob opens with the present-tense. Not the God who answered me, but the God who answers me (ha-oneh). What worked, still does.

Jacob’s course sounds simple, but it’s not simplistic. To prepare, his family first has to do something. Turn in their idols. This is the only mention in a book that introduces the world to serving One God, of getting rid of idols. 

The other reason why Will Guidara’s advice works is that it involves doing something. You conclude by asking, “So what can I do right now to help?” 

How can you tell when doing helps? Maybe you can detect when an idol is at work by the outcome you experience. If you’re left feeling empty, rattling around with empty goals, then you’re likely malnourished. The algorithms of AI may do little to soothe your arrhythmia. If partaking of their delicacies spreads sorrow, perhaps it’s time to seek something that’s better for your emotional and spiritual hygiene. 

May you find that it’s something that sweetens your conversations, something that tunes you in for a clearer reception of that secret melody humming inside you.

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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