Thursday, January 26, 2012

Inside the Mind of an Orthodox Worrier

Did you think that if someone has faith in God, they stop worrying?  Oh me oh my no.

I happen to have been blessed without the worry bone.  Sometimes I wonder if I am, in fact, a Jewish mother.  (As it turns out, I am.)  But I find that many, many folks have it, big time.

Here's how the mind of a religious worrier works; by way of explanation, the word "Hashem" is used herein to denote "God"  - it's a respectful Hebrew reference.

From an email I received last week:

This morning I was thinking about this adorable newborn baby I saw in Macy's last week. He was in a stroller, hat falling down over his one eye and he was just watching me as I walked by. It really struck me how this baby has no worries whatsoever. He doesn't know that there is anything in life to worry about and all his needs are currently being met by his loving parents who were both by his side. 
So I said to myself, this is how we are suppose to feel when we know (really know) that Hashem [God] is taking care of us, just like a loving parent. We shouldn't worry, right?
Then I started thinking, at this newborn's young age, he really doesn't have free will and therefore his parents (provided they are normal) wouldn't punish him in anyway or deprive him of anything. 
Then I started thinking that I have free will and therefore how Hashem relates to me depends on my free will choices; whether I get His blessings or a nudge to move me in the certain direction, or G-d forbid, something much greater then a just a nudge to propel me in a completely different direction.  (G-d forbid, loss of job, change in health, divorce or death, G-D FORBID!).
So unlike this newborn whose parents only shower him with love and good things, what Hashem showers me with all depends on my free will choices.
Emuna [faith].. it's all ultimately in Hashem's hands, but I have to use my free will to make the best choices all the time so that Hashem will treat me favorably. 
On the other hand, I'm taught that if I'm meant to lose my job, I'll lose it regardless of how good a job I do and vice-versa. 
Several years ago, my boss kept me on when from a practical standpoint most employees would have laid me off because work was so slow. I thought he kept me on because he figured I'd get busy again and then he would have an experienced employee on staff (not so easy to find in my field). Maybe that was his thinking. A religious friend of mine said maybe he kept you on because Hashem felt paying me was like his tzedakah [mitzvah of charity].
When do I ever know if I've used my free will properly or to the fullest? Have I been kind and sensitive enough to my family, co-workers? Have a given my employer his money's worth? Have I used my money in ways that Hashem wants me to? Have I used my speech properly, have I davened [prayed] enough? Have a taken good enough care of my body, this vessel that He has given me on loan?
I believe that Hashem controls everything and I believe that everything is for the good. But doesn't my free will effect how Hashem chooses to treat me? 
I kind of feel like I'm going around in circles with my thinking.
So...does faith make worry easier, or more complicated?


  1. Asking a seemingly simple question doesn't mean there is a simple answer. Learning Chassidus is definitely a way to understand this concept and it certainly cannot be done in one sentence. But what I do know is 'When you believe there are no questions. When you don't believe there are no answers."

  2. You ask - does faith make worry easier or more complicated? I would say "faith in what/whom?" It seems like faith in God in the way the author of the email understands Him makes worry much more complicated. For instance, I have never had somebody close to me pass away and had to sit there and wonder if God caused this to happen to teach me some sort of lesson. I think that would be terrible and lead to endless worry (for me). Believing that God is constantly interacting with us and changing the world in order to guide us along would lead to a lot more and complicated worry for me.

    Whether faith makes worry easier or more complicated probably depends on the individual, the definition of "faith" and what it is the individual has faith in.

    1. Interesting. Are you a worrier in general?

    2. I definitely tend towards worry, but I have learned to control it for the most part. I generally try to give things my best effort and then not worry about the parts of life that are out of my control. For instance, I was an attorney before I had my kids. When I was studying for the bar exam, I studied for months. When it came time to take the actual test and then wait months for the result, I generally (generally! I definitely failed at this more than once) did not worry about the outcome because I knew it was out of my control at that point. It doesn't really matter to me whether God/Luck/The Universe is controlling the outcome though. I just knew it wasn't me and whatever was going to happen was going to happen.

  3. I think in some ways, faith makes worry easier in that I can, at some point, throw my metaphorical hands up and say, "You know what, Hashem? I've done what I can, and now it's up to you." Of course, the converse of that is that when bad things happen, it's easy to get angry with God for "letting" or "making" it happen, so I guess it cuts both ways.

    I don't tend to be a huge worrier in general; I'm not sure why. I usually just use the information I have to make the best decisions that I can and hope for the best, which is all any of us can do, really. I will say that when I was a kid and still Christian (well, nominally, anyway) and/or coming to my first realizations that I was meant to be Jewish (that really kicked in around age twelve or thirteen), I worried a lot more than I do now, mostly about things related to faith. What if I didn't believe Jesus was the Messiah? What if I wasn't Christian at all? Did that mean I was going to go to Hell? I mean, I didn't think the fundamentalist Christian conception of salvation was true, but what if it turned out to be true? Then I'd be kind of screwed, wouldn't I? I have no idea what it says about me as a kid that I spent such an inordinate amount of time thinking about that kind of stuff, incidentally.

    I'm pleased to say that I'm now much more comfortable in my own skin, religiously speaking, probably as a result of having had the opportunity to think through some of that stuff, both prior to and during the conversion process. Which isn't to say that I never have questions or doubts (Israel means "to wrestle with God," after all), but I feel like these days, I can turn to the Torah or to my rabbis or to Jewish history and say, "This, right here- this is what I think is important, this is what I stand for." There were very few things in Christianity that carried that same sense of meaning for me, and it's a huge relief to have that anchor now. At least if everything else goes to seed, I can fall back on that.

    1. That IS very interesting... because I'd think a worrier is a worrier... like if a person has OCD, and they're religious, the OCD tends to manifest in religious ritual. So too I'd've surmised that religious worriers worry about religious things. Not that we should; King David says his faith gave him the serenity of a newborn baby on its mother.

      But I guess that's a level to strive for - to allow our faith to take us to a place of serenity, rather than freneticity (word?).

      In any case, I'm glad you have been able to make that leap. And yeah, I thought about lots of weird stuff as a kid :) I do still - hence my blog!

    2. It's all in your outlook, I suppose, and how you think of God. I always thought of the Christian God as very vengeful, probably because that's often the message that you hear the most loudly from certain Christian quarters (mostly the evangelical ones- I wasn't raised evangelical, but you'd still hear it all the time). Be Christian or go to Hell, believe or go to Hell, et cetera. I don't look at Hashem that way at all now, so it makes it easier for me to let the worry go. That's not to say that I never think about it or wonder if I'm really right in my beliefs (which is normal and healthy and an avenue to spiritual growth, I think), but I definitely don't dwell on it the way I did as a kid.

      The Catholic church actually has a name for the religious paranoia that some people get about doing things exactly right, never sinning, et cetera: it's called scruples or scrupulosity, and it's actually considered a sin. In the case of Catholics, it usually manifests in things like people being afraid that going to Confession hasn't really absolved them of sin, or wracking their brains trying to remember the most trivial offenses to confess. I gather that it's considered sinful because it casts doubt on the validity of the sacrament of Confession (i.e. "Yeah, I know I confessed, but what if I'm not really forgiven?") and causes people to lose sight of the mercy of God. I wasn't raised Catholic, but I read about issue of scruples in the course of doing some reading about the church and found it interesting (both that it's specifically named as a sin and that it's been enough of a problem, historically, to be discussed at length).

    3. That is VERY interesting. The only places I've seen this discussed Jewishly is with mikveh and teshuvah (repentance) on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. In those places, the Torah says, you've done your due diligence, now chill and celebrate. (I paraphrase.)

  4. It took me a minute to realize that I had misread the title here and you were NOT writing about "Orthodox WARRIORS".

    Worrying amid (and even perhaps in part out of) deep faith in God is not in my understanding unique to Judaism, especially when it comes to the question of human free will, and also how much God interacts with and decides about every event in the world. But I guess for Orthodox Jews the attempts to adhere to the many mitzvot might be conducive to certain kinds of 'achievement anxiety'. Still I did not realize that Orthodoxy included a belief that God is so intimately involved in evaluating us constantly, moving us in certain directions, rewarding us for our choices.

    1. It does.

      As far as achievement anxiety, I wish more of us had it. Not from an anxiety perspective - the balance between complacency and anxiety is where I'm aiming.

    2. Yes, you explained this well in your post asking people how they felt about their level of observance. It sounded like 'striving' was where you seek to be, in the positive sense rather than out of a feeling of lack or anxiety.

      I am definitely a worrier. I can imagine that if I were more observant it would be a source of stress rather than positive striving to consider how G-d might be viewing my every action. But I recognize that that is much more a reflection on my own anxious tendencies than on the idea that G-d is intimately involved with my life. Striving is, in all areas of my life, tied up with anxiety but also with the desire to be better and do better.

    3. I wish there was a "like" button on this blog.


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