The Benefits of Uncertainty

Dov Ber Klein, Manchester, England
Anxiety & Fear / Essays 2019

This essay will examine the different types of counsel offered to people grappling with the anxiety provoked by an uncertain future. It will first explore and evaluate the approach of modern psychotherapy, next the traditional Jewish viewpoint and finally the Chabad Chassidic angle, showing how they can be all incorporated into one unified picture. It will investigate the Chassidic concept of “Think good and it will be good” and its novel contribution to Jewish thought.  

The Modern Approach 

Wouldn’t it be nice to have more certainty in our lives? Can you imagine what it would be like if we could know how tomorrow’s worrying predicaments are going to unfold? I don’t mean that today we’d have a video of tomorrow and then, like in some opium-inspired dream we’d re-enact what we’ve already seen. No, just to have the opportunity to know how those three or four hefty issues, so heavily and anxiously weighing on your mind about tomorrow, are going to turn out. After all we don’t want to take away the whole mystery of the future! 

Imagine a typical scenario (which you may adjust to fit your own circumstances). There’s a train to catch in the morning and with your very heavy early morning work schedule it’s going to be very tight and a mad rush to the railway station but it’s imperative that you don’t miss that train. 

Those crucial exam results will be published tomorrow. You’re not going to sleep tonight worrying about it. 

You’re giving an important presentation tomorrow and are really concerned how it’s going to go down. It could make a big difference to your future if you do it well.  

The truth of the matter is that possessing this pre-knowledge could turn out to be genuinely disappointing. Maybe you are indeed going to miss the train, fail the examination and embarrassedly botch up the presentation. Better to have not known at all and be saved one night of disappointment! 

But honestly if all the outcomes had been positive would it really have made such a difference? So we would have known in advance we were going to catch the train well on time, gain full marks in the examination and be treated to a resounding applause at the end of the lecture.  

Wouldn’t this preview also have deprived us of something? Of that ecstatic feeling of relief as we slumped into the train seat on time, the inner cry of joy as we spotted our name next to those magnificent results, the excitement and deep satisfaction with the lecture being so publicly appreciated? Of the opportunity to refine and ennoble ourselves by developing the whole range of positive feelings which uncertainty can engender, patience, hope, optimism, diligence, adaptability, plus the humility which comes from releasing our desire to over-control our environment and destiny. 

Yes, realizing these positive advantages of uncertainty might help to partially relieve our fears of the future and provide some consolation, but we could still be left with a large chunk of the original anxiety. 

So to ease the situation further we could take a pessimistic stance and use the following self-talk to transform that stance for our benefit. 

“The negative outcomes I am fearing are inevitable but I am convinced that I can now, or later with practice and advice, learn how to get a handle on that whole spread of anxieties which will come my way, whether it be discomfort, pain or merely inconvenience, loneliness, failure or other disappointments, rejection, embarrassment or just experiencing the unexpected.” 

We should be feeling more comfortable now, facing the future with more maturity and empowerment, with lots of space for individual personal development and self-improvement. But has the issue been totally resolved? 

From a secular view the answer would probably be, “That’s the best we can do.” 

Yet in truth we have still fallen short of addressing and touching the real source of our imaginary client’s anxiety. The above brilliant and helpful prescription can only go so far in dealing with the client’s emotional and mental turmoil. It can’t provide the real cosmic assurance, serenity and peace of mind which he and all of us deep down are really seeking.  

The Jewish view 

Now let’s introduce the Jewish perspective and bring the Almighty into the equation. The picture changes immediately and we have a new comforting ingredient to supplement our prescription. Since we have a Divine Mentor who loves us and is caring for us and He’s the one directing events in our life, we are first of all assured that our future is being planned for our benefit. Since He has abundant goodness and generosity and His kindness is continuous we should have the tranquility of soul to know that, since He has our best interests at heart, He will do what is good and right for us. 1 

Nonetheless it could indeed still be that in order to assist us in our divine purpose down in this world we must face, like anyone else, heavy challenges and apparent setbacks in our day to day lives, but at least we have the consolation that these are much more than coincidental happenings from which we can grow. On the contrary they have been kindly designed to provide us with precisely what we need at this very moment in our life. Furthermore in this new equation an additional opportunity for self-refinement is presented to us, to become more aware of the presence of the Almighty in our destiny and to pray to Him for our needs.  

But wait a minute. When we do a true summing up, what have we actually innovated in this prolonged logical analysis? All along the way we’ve just been providing more and more intellectual rationalizations to make our experience of uncertainty and negativity more comfortable but the basic anxiety still remains. We’re still worried that negative things will happen to us, irrespective of future desirable offshoots! 

And in our new Jewish equation we’ve actually made things worse, by introducing an extra source of anxiety, the fear of punishment for our transgressions. Admittedly this fear will be diluted somewhat by the knowledge that any retribution in the Jewish ideology is a Tikun, a correction and improvement mechanism, and so the best thing for us if it comes.  

Diluted fear may be a consolation but it’s no inspiration. And in any case, even if we’re not deserving of any punishment or we disable the ogre of Divine retribution through sincere regret for the past and our loving devotion to the Almighty, we’ve not escaped our predicament. Isn’t it an intrinsic part of our Jewish belief that even the most innocent amongst us may have to endure, indeed for positive reasons known only to the Almighty, dark episodes in our life, to name but a few, pain, illness or loss? 

To be fair, we’ve been delivering an exaggeratedly anxious dismissal of the positive aspects of uncertainty. In truth our deep assurance in the Almighty’s ways and of the rewards in store for our perseverance in the face of apparent adversity will certainly give us quite a high degree of peace of mind.  

Nevertheless all we have achieved so far is an attitude of accepting our destiny in a positive way. 

We have proof however that the Almighty does not want us to be satisfied with mere acceptance. The very existence of a command to pray and to request that our needs be achieved surely backs the notion that we have to also engage in being proactive in improving and transforming our destiny.  

So prayer provides another arrow to the quiver of our anxious client. In fact it provides two, because within prayer and indeed throughout our working day a further weapon is at our disposal, the creative power of trust itself, rather than just the consolation of trust. 

What do we mean by this? Our classic Jewish texts abound with recommendations to place our total trust (Bitochon) in the Almighty. This is not just hoping that He will look after us, protect us and be kind to us, or after the event trusting that what happened was ultimately for our good. No, it means that we can lean and rely on Him to such an extent that we should throw our whole lot in His hands. Bitochon fortifies us with a certainty that, even if we are not totally deserving, things will turn out for the good. And the reward for this certainty itself will be a positive outcome, as the verse in Psalms 32 tells us: 

“The one who has trust in Hashem, kindness will surround him”.  

Just like in a financial trust arrangement where the benefactor leaves his property in the hands of an individual or organisation to take total charge of it, so we place everything in the Almighty’s hands and He becomes our trustee. (Of course this does not mean that we can continue to transgress and expect to be protected and escape retribution).  

Now that’s really reassuring but with one caveat. The promise of a good outcome does not necessarily guarantee that we will see it in a revealed way. But at least we know that initially things will turn out better from a Divine perspective, and eventually, possibly not until the cosmic future, will transform into real revealed good.2 

The Chabad Chassidic Angle 

Chabad Chassidus builds on this concept with a more optimistic prognosis confidently assuring us that we can indeed achieve a more guaranteed revealed outcome as a response to our trust. This however is by no means such a simple exercise and requires a serious, sustained and deep level of contemplation and introspection. 

And that’s the message behind the reply of the Tzemach Tzedek, the third Chabad Rebbe, to someone who consulted him regarding the plight of his sick son, Tracht gut vet zein gut (Think good and it will be good). The difference and highlight of the Chassidic view is that we are required not just to trust that things will turn out well at least from a divine perspective, but that they will turn out in a way that we will appreciate them from a human perspective. In this case it’s the spiritual level that the certainty taps into that is drawn down as a positive outcome rather it being just a reward.  

By understanding the mechanism of this remarkable and somewhat illogical proposition, illogical because here again it will work for someone who is not totally deserving, we can understand better what input is required from us. 

Let’s see how a person should talk his way into the mindset.  

“My anxiety and discomfort have arisen because I’ve been letting my awareness of the existence or possibility of negative outcomes in my life triumph and take more space in my mind than the concealed goodness which is behind everything.  

When I consider that everything Hashem does for me is for my good I should also ask “Why does He not, since He is so good and He wants only good, actually reveal this G-dly goodness in a way which I can totally appreciate, and not in a concealed manner?” That would certainly be more consistent with His nature to do only good. 

The answer is that where I am standing now, I am not yet fit or refined enough to receive this G-dly goodness in its pure form and therefore it comes down in a negative way. But in truth the Almighty’s pure goodness does not want to exclude me from His revealed goodness. Therefore my task is to divorce myself from my limited short-sighted perception of the real truth. 

I have to get myself into a consciousness where I can internalize that the Almighty is, as His name suggests, totally and exclusively in charge of every breath of existence, that the world is consequently not that gigantic hostile reality it pretends to be. I have to really believe that when a doctor tells a patient he will not recover from a serious illness this is totally not guaranteed, because Nature is not in charge of this universe.  

If I can tap into this higher G-dly level of goodness and rely on His supernatural ability alone, fearing no outcomes, only Him alone, I can avoid the necessity for negative events. When I don’t need a wake up call, I don’t need an alarm clock! If I can wake up on my own to this true reality, the Almighty can skip sending me any intervening intermediaries and messages disguising His goodness. 

I have to contemplate that at each and every moment I am being recreated by the Almighty and He is directing all the events in my life. He is really ever so close to me, totally present, totally good, totally able and wanting to give and to forgive. Nothing is stopping Him from providing me with all my real needs. It’s just my full agenda of self-interested needs and desires which interfere with my ability to humbly accept His agenda and be at peace and in joyful closeness to Him.”3 

With introspection, concentration in prayer and a sensitivity to Divine Providence in our daily lives we can, over time, nurture this mindset until it gradually becomes our own.  

It’s fascinating to reflect how much modern day thinking and the use of the word Bitachon in modern Hebrew are totally at variance with our Jewish mindset. Modern mantra implores us to search for more and more ways to protect ourselves from uncertainty and to predict and control our environment. Bitachon nowadays is the term used for security checks before entering an Israeli shopping mall, it’s the guarantee for your electrical appliances, bituach is the insurance for your car or home, Misrad Habitachon is the Ministry of Defense, Bituach Leumi is social security. Everything to fight uncertainty! 

On the other hand, for the Jew, Bitochon is the joyful certainty which exclusively comes from uncertainty. From our initial fear of our uncertain future comes the very fuel which feeds us with a faith and trust and connection with the Almighty and the power to actually transform our destiny!