The Struggle is Real: Using Chassidus to Reframe Challenges

By Chana Colin, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Essays 2018

MyLife Essay Contest 2018

Challenging life events are commonplace in the human experience. Some individuals are more prone to experiencing struggle–as a result of geographic location, social status and environment, among various other factors–and some endure more seemingly severe struggles than others, which, Chassidic thought explains, is relative to the individual’s ability to handle the Divinely Ordained circumstance. Ultimately, difficulty is not unique to a select few, but experienced by everyone at some point in their lifespan. Unfortunately, these challenging events–such as loss, hardship or adversity–can serve as enormous stressors,(1) potentially resulting in an Adjustment Disorder, also known as situational depression. Adjustment Disorder–in which exists an estimated incidence of 5%-21% among psychiatric consultation services for adults(2)–consists of symptoms such as sadness and hopelessness.(3) Recent research demonstrates that adjustment disorders are less prevalent in individuals with positive thought processes and higher psychological resilience, while those with negative thought processes and lower psychological resistance experience greater stress, which in turn results in poor coping methods(4) and thus a greater likelihood of developing Adjustment Disorder. Specifically, evidence shows that the former owe their resiliency to positive coping strategies–like optimistic thinking–which lead to positive emotionality.(5) Chassidic thought provides multitudinous wisdom into the purpose and meaning of the human struggle which can be applied as a method of optimistic thinking. This essay outlines the steps involved in reframing perspectives during difficult circumstances through the application of Chassidic concepts. These ideas aim to remedy this dilemma through their utilization as positive thinking strategies, which, when applied during periods of struggle, can result in patterns of positive thinking and higher psychological resilience for subsequent challenging life events.

A. Choosing happiness

B. Revealing G-dliness

C. Trusting in G-d

The psychology of building resilience

A recent study demonstrated the enormous impact positive emotions, coupled with high psychological resilience, have on individuals confronted with struggle. According to the broaden-and-build theory, positive emotions (happiness, excitement, joy) broaden one’s awareness and encourage exploration, which can later improve “successful coping and survival”(6)–i.e. psychological resilience. The theory of psychological resilience posits that resilient individuals “bounce back” from stressful experiences quickly and effectively.(7) According to the authors of the study, positive emotions are generated by positive coping strategies, such as providing positive reinforcements and infusing difficult events with positive meaning,(8) which lead to higher levels of psychological resilience, and overall increases in psychological well-being and health.

Two experiments in particular in the study demonstrated this affect the strongest. In the first experiment, undergraduate students from the University of Michigan were told by the experimenter that they had to mentally prepare a speech on a to-be-determined topic. After the preparation, they would have to look into a camera and deliver their speech which they were told would later be viewed by their peers for evaluation. Participants were randomly assigned to two groups: the “challenge group” and the “threat group.” Those in the threat group were told stress-inducing orders, such as that they needed to “perform this task as efficiently as possible” and “your speech will be videotaped and that your performance will be viewed by Michigan professors for evaluation,” while those in the challenge group received encouraging statements like “try to think of the task as a challenge to be met and overcome” and “think of yourself as someone capable of meeting that challenge.” Not surprisingly, participants in the challenge group performed significantly better than their peers; even those with low psychological resilience in the challenge group prevailed compared to their peers in the threat group. The major finding in this study revealed that positive appraisals–a positive coping strategy–used to generate positive emotions have the ability to “effectively regulate negative emotional experiences”(9)–i.e. psychological resilience.

In the second experiment10 participants were asked to write about the most serious personal problem they currently face. They were told to really “get into it” and express themselves as much as possible. To evaluate the degree to which participants found positive meaning in their current problems, they were asked a series of questions, such as “Have you thought about how this event could change your life in a positive way?” and “Can you envision anything good coming out of dealing with this problem?” While both high-resilient and low-resilient level participants revealed equal levels of frustration with their current circumstances, various differences emerged. Even before describing their current problems, high-resilient participants reported higher levels of “positive ambient mood.” Then, when asked how they felt in response to the problem, high-resilient participants reported feeling more “eagerness, excitement, happiness, and interest” than their low-resilient peers. The findings from this experiment revealed how “positive meaning finding”–a positive coping strategy–generated positive emotions.
While the latter experiment reveals the clear advantage high psychological resilient individuals have when encountering difficulty, the former exhibits how any individual, despite his level of psychological resilience, can prevail in the face of difficulty if provided with a positive coping strategy, which, over time, can significantly increase his level of resilience.

Positive coping strategies → positive emotions → psychological resilience

Chassidic thought offers positive coping strategies involving purpose, meaning and perspective, which can produce positive emotionality and a pattern of positive coping mechanisms, thus generating increased psychological resilience over time.

A. Choosing happiness

The founder of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi–”the Alter Rebbe”–explains in his foundational work in Chassidus, Tanya, how struggle should be accepted with happiness. The Alter Rebbe states that “one should accept misfortune with joy.”(11) Meaning, just as good things are celebrated with happiness, so should bad things. While challenges may appear to not have any good within them, continues the Alter Rebbe, they in fact derive from “the hidden spiritual world” which is higher than the “revealed spiritual world.”(12) The “misfortunes” are really blessings in disguise, and contain an even greater good than the revealed good. Therefore, a person’s “joy in affliction” derives from the fact that being close to G-d is more desirable than anything in this physical world.

B. Revealing G-dliness

The fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneersohn–”the Rebbe Rashab”–further elaborates on the labor a soul must go through in the physical world in his Chassidic discourse To Know G-d.(13) Struggle is experienced, explains the Rebbe Rashab, in order to perceive and reveal Divine Light,(14) as was introduced by the Alter Rebbe. The entire purpose of creation was for G-d to reveal Himself in the lowest of all the worlds–down in this physical world. When a person is confronted with challenge, he faces the hester ponim –the hidden face of G-d, or the inner dimension–which hides Divine light and conceals its holiness. Thus, the ultimate purpose of his descent is actualized when faced with hester ponim –“removal of vitalizing influence”–through challenges related to health, livelihood, etc. Through the concealment of G-dly light, continues the Rebbe Rashab, he who desires closeness to G-d will withstand these challenges and ultimately reach an even higher light through his connection to G-d.(15)

The Rebbe Rashab continues to describe two different names of G-d and how their manifestations in this physical world explain the significance of–and even need for–human struggle. E-lohim is the name of G-d which is associated with judgement, and limits and conceals the revelation of light. Havaya, on the other hand, represents the quality of mercy and limitlessness, and is the source of G-dly revelation.(16) E-lohim is the manifestation of G-d as the Creator of world, while Havaya transcends that which is beyond this physical world–the Infinite. G-d’s creations can exist because of the manifestation of E-lohim –of nature. If Havaya were to be revealed in this lowly world, it could not be received; it would not be possible for G-d’s creations to exist. Only through the medium of E-lohim can the light of Havaya be received.(17) By standing firm in the face of challenge–which results from the concealment that stems from the name E-lohim– one can experience the revelation of the qualities of Or Ein Sof –G-d’s infinite light–which transcends the limits of nature. Remaining steadfast throughout the struggle by connecting oneself to G-d grants the individual the opportunity to reach the revelation of a higher light than he could ever experience had he not suffered. Ultimately, when a person understands that the names E-lohim and Havaya are one in that they work in unison to bring G-dly light into this lowest world, he will no longer grant such importance or worry to difficult events for he knows that the essence of the matter is absolute G-dliness.(18)

C. Trusting in G-d

In a Chassidic talk given by the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the concept of bitachon–trust in G-d–is brought to bear as an essential quality within the struggle.(19) The Rebbe explains that a fundamental element of bitachon is the experience of peace of mind during challenging circumstances which stems from knowing that everything is Divinely Ordained. However, while this is true, continues the Rebbe, the intent is that he who has bitachon will actually receive manifest good. This concept was made famous by the Tzemach Tzedek–the third Lubavitcher Rebbe. After the Tzemach Tzedek was approached in desperation for blessings on behalf of someone who was seriously ill, his reply was simply: “Tracht gut, vet zain gut”–“think positively, and the outcome will be good.”(20) Having bitachon in difficult circumstances, the Rebbe continues, requires labor within oneself, which in turn evokes G-d’s kindness. The effect of bitachon is so strong, in fact, that even one who is not worthy of G-d’s kindness will still receive it as a result of having bitachon. The elicitation itself actually influences the higher worlds; as the Zohar(21) states: “The higher realms impart influences to [the lower realms] according to the nature of [the lower realms’ approach]. If they manifest a bright and eager countenance, brightness is shined to them from Above.”(22) If one is encountered with a struggle, he should understand that it has been given to him for a reason; whether there is task he must complete or something he must work on within himself, he must realize that his challenge is Divinely Ordained. The Rebbe concludes that if one is not relieved of his distress, it is simply because his bitachon is lacking. One should in turn realize that the removal of such obstacles is dependent upon his unwavering trust in G-d. As it is related in reference to the Exodus from Egypt: “In the merit of [their] bitachon, the Jews were redeemed from Egypt.”(23)

A paradigm shift

Understanding that our struggles are G-d-given and not something we can simply attribute to a specific person or circumstance is the positive coping strategy that eventually leads us to a perpetual state of resilience, despite the subsequent challenges we may face. Choosing to rejoice in the struggle, remaining steadfast in order to experience Divine light, and putting our absolute trust in G-d serve as thought processes towards a happier, healthier self. Rather than succumbing to negative thinking and choosing to make it a pattern, we can internalize the fact that each one of us is uniquely chosen by G-d to receive our challenges, and celebrate those challenges as opportunities for growth and bringing ourselves closer to G-d.

While psychology outlines the necessary conditions for reaching a state of high resilience, Chassidus takes it a step further and says we can actually transform our realities. The experiments demonstrated how positive thought processes can lead to long-term resilience despite a lifetime of struggle. Not only does Chassidus provide us with the material to apply to our thought processes; it explains how we can actually remove our own struggles! As the adage goes, “think positively, and the outcome will be good.”

1. Tugade, M. M., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2004). Resilient Individuals Use Positive Emotions to Bounce Back From Negative Emotional Experiences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86(2), 320-333.
2. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th ed.). pp. 679–681.
3. Berger, Dr. Fred K. (2017). Adjustment Disorder. Medline Plus.
4. Tugade, M. M., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2004). Resilient Individuals Use Positive Emotions to Bounce Back From Negative Emotional Experiences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,  86(2), 320-333.
5. Kumpfer KL. Factors and processes contributing to resilience: The resilience framework. In: Glantz MD, Johnson JL, editors. Resilience and development: Positive life adaptations. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers; 1999. pp. 179–224.
6. Fredrickson, B. L. (2004). “The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 359(1449): 1367–1378.
7. Tugade, M. M., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2004). Resilient Individuals Use Positive Emotions to Bounce Back From Negative Emotional Experiences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86(2), 320-333.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid.
10. Also using undergraduate students from the University of Michigan.
11. Lessons in Tanya. Kehot Publication Society, v. 1, p. 347.
12. Ibid.
13. Touger, Rabbi Eliyahu. (1993). To Know G-d. Kehot Publication Society, p. 27.
14. Ibid.
15. Ibid.
16. Id. at 4
17. Id. at 30
18. Id. at 45
19. Parshas Shemos, Sicha 1, 5751 (1991). Likkutei Sichos.
20. Ibid.
21. The classic text of the Kabbalah compiled by 2nd century mishnaic sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai
22. Zohar II, 184b
23. Kad HaKemach, loc. cit. based on Midrash Tehillim, Psalm 22.