Equanimity Amidst

Kesem Mia Hetsrony
Essays 2020 / Finalists

Sitting in the hospital, my phone rings.  It’s our family doctor.

We touch base about the medical situation at hand, my thoughts on the matter, and the good outcome we anticipate.

“Your equanimity is impressive” the doctor notes, and then adds, “You do know what ‘equanimity’ means, right?  Afterall, it’s so uncommon these days”.

Equanimity; a small word that bellies tremendous power, specifically the power we have when choosing how to relate to our life experiences.  It’s the ability we have to remain calm, composed, and even joyful when faced with challenges and tribulations.

Equanimity is the gateway to rising above circumstance, and attaining greater success.

But is equanimity even attainable for the average modern person?

In the following essay, we will explore a sampling of the plethora of teachings of Chabad Chassidus that deal with overcoming fear and anxiety, which thereby allow us to maintain our composure, attain greater success, and exhibit self-control, despite the turbulence we may endure.  Our understanding  of the Chasidic approach to fear and struggles, recognizing Hashgocha Protis, appreciating Yerida L’tzorech Aliyah, and empowering ourselves through Moach Shalit Al Haleiv, will give us concrete tools towards attaining equanimity.

Now, more than ever, these teachings are necessary to learn and implement.  According to statistics, equanimity truly is an anomaly against the backdrop of today’s society.  Anxiety disorders are currently the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 40 million adults.  In other words, nearly 20% of the American population is overwhelmed by anxiety[1].

And with the world at our fingertips, there is much to be anxious about.

We find ourselves amidst a deluge of knowledge like never before.  Technological advances and scientific breakthroughs have brought us life-saving cures and resources.  Yet they have also made us hyper aware of diseases and their dreaded symptoms, often handicapping us with the fear of the known.

Furthermore, long gone are the days of yesteryear, when news -both good and bad – slowly travelled down the grapevine.  Today, at lightning speed, we hear about the trials and tribulations found in every corner of the globe.  Unfathomable suffering is the reality of someone, somewhere, once again adding to our fear of the known.

And of course, there are those of us who are experiencing real, raw, and sorrowful pain and suffering on a daily basis.

Considering the above, in today’s modern world, equanimity seems dreamlike, if not downright impossible.  Yet Chassidus Chabad gives us the ability to reign in our very real emotions of fear, worry, and anxiety, and find inner peace.

Our first step towards this end is to address the source of our fears and anxiety.

In a talk to Jewish children on the 19th of Adar II 5744[2], The Lubavitcher Rebbe draws parallels between the villainous Haman of the Purim story, and our Evil Inclination, the Yetzer Hora.  As the Rebbe says, “In our day, we have the Evil Inclination, who tries to evoke fear within a Jewish child and a Jewish adult.”

In short, fear is simply a tactic of the Yetzer Hora.

Fear inhibits our growth, challenges our faith in G-d, and prevents our success.    In the same address, the Rebbe explains that in truth, “God stands above each individual,  God is always close to every one of you, and every one of us,  all the while “His presence fills the entire world,” as He creates and directs the entire world. As a Commander-In-Chief, he bonds with every person who belongs to the Army of God.”

This underscores a major teaching of Chassidus – Hashgocha Protis.

In the book HaYom Yom, written by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the entry from 29 Sivan states:

Man’s avoda according to Chassidus: To accustom himself to perceive individual Divine Providence (hashgacha p’rotis), how G‑d, in His goodness, renews the universe and all creatures every moment with His particular Divine Providence, which constitutes – to the exclusion of all else – the reality, life-force and sustained existence of all creatures.

With faith and acknowledgement that G-d is with us, and oversees every detail of our existence, we need not justify our fears.  Rather we can identify them for what they are – a sly ploy of the Yetzer Hora.

Hashgocha Protis emphasises G-d’s involvement in our lives.  He did not create our world and then step back.  Rather He is constantly involved with every individual creature and creation, directing, enlivening, and enriching each moment of our existence, including the moments of trial, tribulation, challenge, and struggle.

In a talk given on the 11th of Nissan 5732[3], the Lubavticher Rebbe questions why we must toil to such a great degree; “Every Jew – if not for the Evil Inclination that coerces him –wants to fulfill God’s Will.  So why is he confronted by so many difficulties that he must struggle with and overcome – at times, serving God even to the point of absolute self-sacrifice?”

The Rebbe continues and explains that G-d creates the world in a way that we humans can become His partners in creation.

In stark contrast to society’s notion that “the best things in life are free”, the Rebbe continues and explains that when we are confronted with challenges to our Judaism, it is G-d offering  us an opportunity that the merit of the Mitzvah should not be received for free.

The Rebbe says “Mitzvos, by contrast, come only through effort,for only then does the person feel that it is his own; without that personal investment his experience of God’s goodness would be diminished because he would be just a “recipient” – whereas now he becomes a “partner” in the very blessing he receives. It is precisely because Torah and Mitzvos are so precious, and because the Jewish People are so precious, that God wants them to achieve true wholeness.”

In light of the above, we understand that struggles are indeed a gift, an opportunity from on high, allowing us to partner with G-d and His Hashgocha Protis while enjoying the goodness of our own sweet success.  Therefore struggles need not be feared, they are simply a gateway to becoming not only greater, but G-dlier.

In fact, this idea can be found in the introduction of the Magnum Opus of Chabad teachings, the Sefer HaTanya.  There, the first Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman, explains that through Chabad Chassidus, Torah and its precepts are exceedingly close and attainable – in a long but short way[4].

When it comes to self-transformation we may be jaded into thinking that we have the ability to reach our goals in a seemingly easy manner.  Then, as we embark on our mission of self refinement, it’s easy to become despondent as we fall short of our goals, and never seem to quite make it.  This is the “short but long way”, an easy path that never quite reaches our destination.

On the other hand, “the long but short way”, as proposed by Chassidus, is the life path that is not easy.  It demands work and includes setbacks and frustrations.  Yet it is this very turbulent, twisted, tedious and long path that gets us directly to our goals.  Through hard work and the experiences that follow, we become greater and G-dlier.  By embracing “The long but short way”, we create a paradigm shift in how we view and overcome our challenges.  Yes, the struggle is real, but it is purposeful.  Once we realize that our burdens have a purpose, we can embrace challenges rather than fear them, for we can appreciate them as part of the journey to our personal greatness.

This concept is known as Yerida Ltzorech Aliyah, literally “A descent for the sake of an ascent”.  Chassidus informs us that the soul’s journey from its holy place in the heavens down into our world is a Yerida Ltzorech Aliyah.  For our souls can only maximize their greatness through the goodness they perform when invested in a body here in this world.[5]

Understanding Yerida Ltzorech Aliyah helps us grapple with the fear of failure.  When we recognize that a fail or fall is only there as a means to rising higher, our failures become opportunities to grow and thrive – which is the ultimate growth mindset.

This can be said for any descent in our lives – one step back gives us the power to take a giant leap forward.  The Lubavitcher Rebbe personally taught this lesson to my great uncle, Reb Mendel Greenbaum, a’h.

When Mendel was a young man, he became a devout Chossid.  In the height of his spiritual fervor, he was suddenly drafted into the army to fight in the Korean War.  He met with the Rebbe to discuss his options.  The Rebbe told him it would be a Yerida Ltzorech Aliyah.  Reb Mendel could not understand what the Rebbe meant.  So the Rebbe had Reb Mendel stand up next to his chair and asked him “Are you able to jump over this chair”? 

Of course he could not, so the Rebbe explained, “If you were to go back a few steps and then run forward, you could easily leap over the chair.  The same is true here.  Going to the army will set you back a few paces, but it will give you the power to move forward with greater force than before.”

Reb Mendel went on to serve our country, and upon his return, he established a large and vibrant Chassidic family, truly personifying Yerida Ltzorech Aliyah. 

With all that has been said above, we now know that fear need not be substantiated, and that struggles serve as a meaningful productive purpose.  But how can we take that knowledge in our mind and apply it to the very tangible fear and anxiety in our hearts?

In chapter 16 of Sefer HaTanya,  the concept of “Moach Shalit Al Haleiv” is expounded upon.  Literally it means that “the brain rules over the heart,”.  In the regular order of things, our brain first processes a situation, and then our emotions react to the new knowledge that has been processed.  Therefore, naturally, our emotions are ruled by our mind.  Emotions are good, productive, and important – provided they are kept in check with purposeful mindfulness.  When we let our heart lead the way, we find ourselves in an emotional (and often irrational) misbalance.   Moach Shalit Al HaLev means that we can control our emotions instead of allowing them to control us.  Furthermore, it gives us the power of impulse control and allows us to channel and create new feelings through thoughtful meditation.

Knowledge is power.  Through allowing our knowledge and understanding to guide us, we can all embark on the long but short way to overcoming our fears and anxieties.  With a willingness to put in effort, a growth mindset, and a acknowledgment of G-d’s constant involvement in our lives, equanimity is attainable to us all.

[1] According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America https://adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics

[2] March 14, 1984

[3] March 26, 1972

[4] The origins of “The Long But Short Way” can be found in Talmud, Eruvin 53b, where Rabbi Yehoshuah Ben Chanaiah describes his difficulty in reaching Jerusalem when taking the short by long way versus the long but short way.

[5] Likkutei Sichos, Chelek Aleph, Pg. 143, Parshas Mishpatim