When we made aliyah 20 years ago, did we come expecting that there would be war in our future? On a certain level, I suppose we knew that we were moving to a dangerous neighborhood and that conflict was probable. But we repressed that kind of thinking. You had to – why would we willingly uproot our family to put them in harm’s way? So we told ourselves stories: Peace is just around the corner. Wars are yesterday’s news. Soon we’ll be able to drive to Damascus for an exotic weekend and authentic baklava.
So when the inevitable fighting came – and in my years here, I’ve lived through a brutal Intifada (and maybe another one starting up right before our eyes), a war in Lebanon and three “operations” in Gaza – each time it hit me like a punch to closed eyes, a smack that rather than knocking you out, wakes you up to the cruel reality of the modern Middle East.
Carolyn TalThat’s a good thing, says Dr. Carolyn Tal, who heads up Tal Consulting. Cultivating a sense of realism is the first step towards developing resilience in the face of ongoing uncertainty.
Tal has spent the last few weeks giving lectures on “Developing Resilience” to English speaking immigrants at offices of the Association for Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI) around the country. Her series is meant to address the continuing fear many have experienced post-Operation Protective Edge (and for Jerusalemites, the ongoing effects of the riots and attacks that have rocked the city).
Tal, who made aliyah herself from Chicago in 1991, says that in order to effectively respond to the challenges of the next war or attack – or, for that matter, to “smaller” scale dramas like a nasty boss or a difficult relationship – you have to develop “realistic optimism.” That is, she told an AACI group in Jerusalem, “to realistically recognize that the road of life has bumps, and to optimistically believe that we have or can develop the abilities needed to manage those bumps well.”
It all comes down to expectations. She gives the example of a traffic signal while you’re driving down a street. You know you’ll get a red light from time to time. You expect it, so it doesn’t throw you for a loop. That’s being realistic. In the same way, if you expect there will be another war or that violence in this region will never entirely abate, you’re not being fatalistic; rather you’re being realistic and it’s easier to deal with bumps when you expect them. She even suggests using a trigger word when a challenge presents itself. “Yell out BUMP when that setback appears,” she says. Labeling can remind you to be more mindful and not get lost in a destructive story.
Problem solving is another important tool Tal recommends. But you have to know which problem you’re trying to solve. During Operation Protective Edge, our soldiers were on the front lines risking their lives. Some of us had children in those tanks. But is that our problem? Is there anything we can realistically do to increase the soldiers’ safety? Not really.
Similarly, other than endlessly fuming around the Shabbat table, can we as individuals do anything to convince the Palestinian media to cut the incitement? Unlikely. So what problems can we solve? Maybe knowing where the nearest bomb shelter is, not driving through certain parts of East Jerusalem at night, or posting a guard at the entrance to your synagogue.
Solving the right problem gives a feeling of greater control, which in turn reduces stress. Steve Maier at the University of Boulder in Colorado says in the book “Your Brain at Work” that, “the degree of control that organisms can exert over something that creates stress determines whether the stressor alters the organism’s functioning.” His research shows that “inescapable or uncontrollable stress” can be destructive, whereas a similar stressor that’s under one’s control is much less harmful.
Here’s an example from the popular “Barking up the Wrong Tree” blog by Eric Barker. Why do people start their own businesses, even though they have undoubtedly been told beforehand (and quickly learn themselves) that small business owners work more hours for less pay than if they had a job in a larger company? Because there is a greater sense of control; you can make your own decisions about what you want to do and when.
This understanding of the relationship between control and stress didn’t jive 100% with what I’ve learned through my personal mindfulness and meditation practice, where a key teaching is that we have no control over our lives and trying to exert it – whether that’s getting too attached to a desired outcome or resisting something unpleasant – is a big part of what creates stress and unhappiness in the first place. I asked my teacher, Or HaLev founder Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels, about the contradiction.
“It totally makes sense that when we feel more in control we feel less stressed,” he told me. “That’s why we want to feel in control all the time!” Moreover, “there’s nothing wrong with trying to have as much effect on a situation as we can,” as long as we remember that we are still never in complete control. So “if our happiness depends on our having control, then we’re going to get in trouble. We can’t force things to be a certain way.
So, unless you’re the IDF Chief of Staff or the head of the police, spending hours agonizing over what should be done to restore calm on the streets of Jerusalem or the alleyways of Gaza is probably not going to reduce your anxiety, because you really don’t have any control in this situation.
After the talk at the AACI, I got to chatting with the woman sitting next to me. She had made aliyah in mid-August, right in the middle of this summer’s war. Her son was already in the IDF, deployed in Gaza in fact. Was she crazy to come? Should she have at least delayed her plans until the heat was turned off a bit?
That was Tal’s last point: to keep our way on the bumpy road, to re-energize our disheartened spirits, “we need to remind ourselves of our deep purpose and values.” What drew us to Israel in the first place? And what keeps us here even when adversity seems to be everywhere?
The answer to that question will be different for every immigrant, and it will morph over time. But we can’t lose track of the bigger picture when the red lights are coming more frequently than we expected and the solution to the problem (other than maybe running the red) is not in our hands.
There’s an old martial arts saying that proper posture and training is not about maintaining one’s balance at all times, but repeatedly regaining it, over and over, so fast, that no one ever knows that you’ve fallen.
With the situation in Jerusalem looking ever bleaker, knowing how to realistically tumble and get back up again is a lesson we all could do well to learn.