Essays 2020 / Finalists
Dealing with the stress of life
Two kinds of stress
Stress is a daily struggle. You finally made that bar mitzvah? Then your younger kid starts having trouble in school and you think you’ll need to get them tested. As that’s getting sorted out, your refrigerator dies just before Shabbos and you have a mad dash to salvage all your food. And when that’s done, you breathe momentarily—only to find out days later that you’re losing one of your biggest clients at work.
What we’ll explore
To understand how to deal with stress, first we’ll define bitachon in a general sense. Next, we’ll explore the secular response to stress: the science mindset. Then we’ll examine how bitachon, trust in G-d, is the ultimate way to deal with stress. We’ll look at several sources on bitachon including quotes from the Lubavitcher Rebbe and lessons from Chovos Halevavos to understand how it works and how to apply it. We’ll also examine questions and challenges that might come up in response to the ideas of living a bitachon lifestyle. Finally, we’ll take a look at some practical strategies to apply the Bitachon mindset to our daily lives.
Bitachon: what is it? What about Emunah?
When people discuss faith or trust in G-d, two Hebrew words are commonly used interchangeably: bitachon, trust, and emunah, belief or faith. What’s the difference between them?
The Lubavitcher Rabbeim explain that emunah is not concrete. It remains in the mind and doesn’t translate to action. Bitachon, on the other hand, is down-to-earth and relates to action, not just thoughts.
Take an example of a bridge. With emunah, we believe Hashem that we can cross without falling. But with bitachon, we’ll actually cross the bridge, knowing that we’ll be safe.
As the Rebbe says, “Trust, by contrast, implies not only that a person believes that his sustenance comes from G‑d, but also that we rely on Him, with absolute certainty, to provide it” (1). That is, with emunah we believe in Hashem. But with bitachon, we rely on Him, looking to Him for all our needs.
Basically, bitachon means that we trust that Hashem will take care of us.
Secular mindset: The Scientific Method and the if-then trap
While we tend to know intellectually that G-d takes care of us, it’s hard to internalize this in our daily lives. We often turn to the secular mindset, the scientific approach, to work through our stress: both everyday and crisis types.
The scientific approach consists of proving things based on reason and then living by that reason. In general, we do this by the Scientific Method. Compiled in 1621 by philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626), the Scientific Method is based on conditional “if-then statements”, which aim to show that if ____ happens, then ____ is sure to happen. A Stanford University article explains the reasoning behind the Scientific Method, “Carefully observe nature and then seek rules or principles which explain or predict its operation” (2). In other words, science takes the natural world and uses the if-then method to understand it.
The results of the scientific approach mindset have a strong effect on how we deal with stress, conditioning us to use the physical and emotional solutions that science suggests: more sleep, chocolate, exercise, etc.
The problem is not the solutions themselves, but our approach to them. As we know, our mission in life is to use this world for G-dly purposes. But using scientific solutions for their own sake causes two problems. First of all, it takes G-d out of the picture, since science tends to focus on human knowledge and achievement and does not attribute anything to a Higher Being. Second of all, science is very limited in how it can help us deal with stress. With an if-then approach, there is no room for alternate solutions, unless science eventually proves them by inductive reasoning. Forget miracles. Prayer can do nothing. Things like positive thinking are limited to the research done on them. Ignore your intuition and imagination. The natural world and the scientific method will tell you everything you need to know.
Clearly, when we think like this, something’s missing.
Bitachon circumvents nature
Bitachon completely bypasses the rules of science and the physical world. While nature goes by conditional statements, bitachon is unconditional. In a bitachon state of mind, we remember that it was Hashem Who created the rules of nature, so He can circumvent them or nullify them at any time. Therefore, when we tap into this trust in Hashem, our resources are unlimited.
The mann phenomenon
One of the best examples of bitachon in our history is the story of the mann. Every day for forty years in the desert, we were completely reliant on G-d for our daily bread—literally. This is a clear instance of our nation’s bitachon in G-d. As the Rebbe says in Likkutei Sichos, “The gift of mann clearly demonstrated to them that G‑d alone provided them with their livelihood…the bestowal of their livelihood is—at its truest and innermost level—unconnected with the workings of nature” (3). This gives another reason why it is pointless to rely on nature: our livelihood is completely separate from it. As it says in Likkutei Sichos, “Natural methods cannot help because [a person] is connected to Hakadosh Baruch Hu, who isn’t limited by nature chas veshalom” (4).
The Rebbe Maharash explains what else we can learn from the mann, “Today, [too,] one’s livelihood comes like mann—except that because of the prevailing darkness and concealment, people aren’t aware of this” (5).
Bitachon’s real meaning: unconditional trust
As we said, bitachon is unconditional. Therefore, what Bitachon really means is unconditional trust: Whatever happens, no matter if I like or dislike it or whether I feel comfortable or uncomfortable with it, I trust that Hashem is doing the best for me. As the popular saying goes, “it is the nature of the good to do good”.
This is why trust is above nature. It’s unconditional. The trust is irrespective of what’s happening in our relationship with Hashem. This can be compared to a child who hugs his parent directly after being disciplined. Nothing has changed about the situation. The parent still disciplined, and the child still didn’t like it. Nevertheless, all the child knows is that he loves the parent anyway. And the child won’t trust the parent any less.
Our trust in Hashem needs to be just like that.
We set the tone
Although bitachon applies no matter what happens, we do play a role in the blessings we receive. This is mainly done by focusing on the positive. How does this make a difference?
In human relationships, we get what we expect. When we feel low and expect criticism, we often get it. When we feel confident and joyful, we get more respect.
And however we see the world, that’s how the world appears. Optimistic people generally see a light, pleasant, positive world. Pessimistic people notice a sinful, decrepit, dark world.
In the Gemara, we find a famous saying, “B’derech she’adam rotze leilech, Hashem molichin oso—in the way that a person wants to go, Hashem will lead him” (6).
As Rabbeinu Bachya says in Chovos Halevavos, Shaar Habitachon, “The essence of bitachon is menuchas hanefesh, calmness of the soul” (7).
We set the tone. We choose how to interact with Hashem and His blessings. As the Rebbe Rayatz says, “A person who has bitachon believes that what he hoped for will certainly eventuate. In fact, it is already present. The obstacle exists only in the person himself”. Further, the Rebbe said in a 1952 letter, “A man’s trust is the measuring stick of the extent to which his material affairs are bound and fused with the Creator”.
And as the Rebbe Maharash put it, “People are not lacking a livelihood; they are lacking bitachon. Every individual is indeed provided with a livelihood. It’s only that by lacking trust, a person sometimes turns off the tap…” (8).
As we often say, think good and it will be good. Our positive thoughts can truly create our reality. Either our positive thoughts will cause Hashem to send us more revealed good, or we’ll be so optimistic that more and more parts of our lives will look pleasant that never did so before.
The Role of Imagination: Break limits
One of the best ways to attain a positive outlook and strengthen bitachon is to reconnect with your imagination. Imagination is defined as “the act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality” (9).
This exact process is important to bitachon. As we have seen, we have to look beyond nature and reality and see beyond. We have to open our minds.
How many brachos did Hashem give me today? How can I find the positive side of this? How did Hashem help me with the stress I’m dealing with right now?
And whenever possible, imagination can help us tap into the blessings we already can get. I once visited a sick person, Sara (not her real name), who told me, “I’ve had many hard
Shabboses with no visitors and not enough food. I felt alone and depressed. Of course this didn’t strengthen my bitachon, and I believed there was no way to have a good Shabbos.
“Finally, I decided to try an experiment. The next Erev Shabbos, I kept thinking to myself, ‘This Shabbos, Hashem will send me all the food and companionship I need. It’s going to be a good Shabbos.’ I felt weird and artificial saying it, but I kept trying. On Shabbos, I had visitors I wasn’t expecting and people decided to bring a lot of food over! And it continued for the next few days.”
Like Sara, we have to go against our practical instincts somewhat to live a life of Bitachon. We have to get our imaginative muscles going. You don’t have to be creative to have imagination. All you have to do is picture something that isn’t in front of you right now.
We have to break our limits and imagine that everything Hashem sends us is good. And He can send us more and more.
Where does Hishtadlus Come In?
To get all these brachos, we have to make a vessel for them. We do this by our own hishtadlus every day: working, studying, cleaning… every physical thing we do allows us to enjoy Hashem’s brachos. If we work, Hashem sends money, and maybe more than we earned. If we study, we may do even better on a test than expected, because Hashem gave our memory an extra boost. And the list goes on.
An important point to remember is that we only do hishtadlus because we are commanded to. Everything comes from Hashem.
So, how do we do it?
There are so many ways to increase your bitachon. Pick one or two suggestions to try that are closer to your personality or energy level. You can modify them or think of your own too.
Practical applications: BITACHON acronym:
- Back yourself. Validate how hard it is to have trust. Don’t beat yourself up because you don’t have perfect bitachon yet. It’s hard! Even when things are good and not revealed good, you can still build your bitachon. We don’t know why Hashem does things, and they really can be painful.
- Imagine: Take a minute to imagine living with your greatest wishes fulfilled. Go overboard—the nicest furniture you can think of, music lessons, a certain trip. Picture it
happening. Apply this even to small things like finding a good pair of shoes. Who knows what Hashem will help you accomplish within your budget, or even for free? Nothing’s too big for Him. Even if you don’t get it, you will be in a more positive, open-to-good mindset.
- Thought: Create a worded thought in your head, like a mantra. Create a simple chain reaction in your brain. When you’re worried something won’t work out, say your thought. It can be anything along the lines of “I’m going to be fine” “It’s okay” “Think good and it will be good.” It might sound strange in your ears at first, but the idea is to practice. You’ll get more used to it.
- Action: Bring your wishes to life using different mediums. Concretizing what seems intangible or difficult will increase the potential of bringing it down to earth and making you feel that Hashem really will help you achieve it.
- Write about it
- Draw it
- Diagram it in a chart or list.
- Discuss it with someone out loud and think of all the things Hashem will help you with. If you aren’t ready to believe something will come to you, write it down. It might feel artificial. That’s okay. The more concrete you make it, the more real it will become.
- Turn your hands palm-up. This is similar to the DBT therapy technique of willing hands. It’s the Sefardic custom to do so during the passuk “Poseach es yadecha”. This will get your body into the rhythm of expecting all desires from Hashem. As the Alter Rebbe quotes in Shulchan Aruch Harav, “This is done in order to make a physical vessel for the blessing” (10).
- Comparisons can help remind you how good Hashem is and how wonderfully you can trust Him. Use whichever example feels right to you: parent, spouse, loyal friend, great teacher, understanding mashpia, reliable neighbor. You can even use several comparisons together or at different times in your life. Remind yourself that Hashem is even nicer than they are!
- Hishtadlus. Focus on your hishtadlus for a bit. It will help that practical part of you feel satisfied and it will also help you create a space to fill with blessings. What makes sense in your situation? A side job? Extra study time? Planning ahead for a stressful situation?
- Optimism: Increase positivity/positive actions. Joy breeds Bitachon. As the Rebbe wrote to someone who wrote that they were “weeping and lamenting”, “First of all, one should stop weeping…the holy Zohar explains that when a person is joyful and his trust is firm, this is also a segulah that from Above he be given more and more reasons to be happy and contented…” (11). Clearly, we set the tone with optimism too!
- Nourish: Work on some physical relaxation to strengthen the new relaxation in your mind by using your senses, experiencing nature, exercising, taking breaks, spending time with people that you feel bolstered by.
- Sit back and enjoy the results!
- Practice self-esteem. Hashem loves you even if you didn’t cross off half the things on your to-do list or manage to feel Bitachon today. You’ll be okay. He’ll cover the rest.
Extreme Bitachon: What to do when it’s beyond the everyday
What about the bigger issues? we may ask. What if I need something more for bigger crises? What about my critically ill relative, my childhood trauma? My company that’s going bankrupt? My special-needs child?
Here is how Bitachon can work at three different stages of crisis (or simultaneous crises): Initial shock, sinking in, regaining equilibrium.
- Initial shock: during crisis or when the gravity of the situation hits you later, even repeatedly. At this point, Bitachon is going to be raw, bare words of acceptance. You may not feel it yet. That’s okay. Just stating, “I know this is what Hashem wants but I don’t understand how on earth that’s possible,” is huge. This is similar to what is known in DBT therapy as “opposite action”. When you feel desperate, do the opposite: hope this way instead of lament.
- Sinking in: when you start to remember there’s a world around you. Bitachon at this point will be a more developed form of the first. “Hashem, You care so much about me. Please help me through this. I know it’s all for the good. I know it’s the least painful way of giving me this unrevealed good.”
- Regaining equilibrium: you rejoin the world, taking a breath. You might just get through this. That’s when you can start to try feeling the Bitachon more. “Hashem, I know You are caring for me. You are sending me all the good You can. Thank You.”
Once you’re feeling a little more confident, you can develop your Bitachon even further. And learn to use it at each stage of getting through the rest of the crisis. You can try the BITACHON skills at any point also.
The main thing to remember with developing bitachon, as with anything: it takes time, and that’s okay. All self-improvement takes time. We’re talking major life changes. But even small amounts get you closer toward your goal. And as we saw, a life of bitachon is happier and more positive, more broadminded and more trusting. When we grow in our unconditional trust, our lives will grow to be incomparably more pleasant.
May Hashem solve all our stress with the coming of Moshiach now!
Sources and quotes
- As a Father Loves His Only Son, www.sichosinenglish.com
- “Scientific Method”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Likkutei Sichos, Vol. 16, p. 176
- Likkutei Sichos, Shemos 36, Oisyos Beis to Hey
- In Good Hands, p. Xii (Igros Kodesh, Vol 6, p. 147)
- Gemara Makos (10b)
- Chovos Halevavos, Shaar Habitachon
- Second time used: In Good Hands, p. Xii (Igros Kodesh, Vol 6, p. 147)
- Merriam-Webster dictionary
- Ben Ish Chaiy Vayigash 12; Torah Leshma 31; Makor Chaim of Chavos Yair 51/7 (Alter Rebbe Shulchan Harav).
- Igros Kodesh, Vol. 8, p. 280, Letter 2529