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Living Beyond Your Fears

By Rabbi Ted Riter ~ Yom Kippur 5773 / 2012
A little boy’s story: One day, this little four year old was playing with his friends in the school yard of the Mayflower nursery school. They were playing the usual games that little boys play, perhaps with a bit too much energy and even a bit rough. They were centered around this large tractor tire. The boys loved to play here. They would hide in the tire, make forts, look for bugs and frogs. One minute everyone was having fun, and the next minute the little boy realized that he was stuck in the tire. There was a board over his head, there was no light, and the sounds were muffled.
The little boy was trapped in the tire. He became paralyzed by his fear -- “Hot, no air, can’t breathe, they’ll never let me out.” He was thinking: “They might not come back, they might forget that I’m here!”
At four years old, this little boy had a choice. It turns out that it was a very adult choice for a little boy to make. He could sit there and do nothing. Perhaps the other boys would get bored and leave, perhaps recess would end and a teacher would rescue him. He could wait and hope…
After sitting and contemplating this do-nothing choice, the little boy decided to force his way out. His escape required that he stand up, pushing the board and fighting his way out. It turns out that not only did he free himself from this darkened prison, he sent the two boys flying off the board, jumped out of the tire and pinned one to the ground as the teacher ran over.
This little boy had a choice. He could have done nothing but instead he chose to stand up for something: Life! He chose life!
I know this little boy. We each probably know this little boy or this little girl. This particular little boy was me. Being stuck in that tire is my earliest memory of what it meant to feel fear. Before this, the world was my sandbox! Before this, life could only be pretty darn wonderful! Before this, I had no real fears!
As simple as it may have been, this was a defining moment in my life. It was a moment when everything changed. From a life of relatively no fear to fear, safe to unsafe, “the world is my sandbox” to “this is a dangerous place.”
What’s your memory? We each have one. Maybe you have not put much conscious thought into it, but we do each have that pivotal moment in our early lives. What was your event? What was it that happened to you? Or, what did you witness that forever informed you that the world is a dangerous place? Take a moment…think about it.
And it does not stop there. That little moment in time was just the break-point. It merely taught us the lesson. From there, from that young age of 4 or 5 or 7 years old, we just started collecting all of the evidence. In elementary school we watched bullying. In high school we had best friends turn on us, we failed exams, we got dumped by the love of our life. In college we lost a friend in a car accident or a relative to cancer. Perhaps we ourselves experienced illness or a life-threatening moment. Later in life we were fired from a job, our spouse cheated on us, our children stopped wanting to spend as much time with us.
We have all felt those painful experiences that opened our eyes to the imperfection of the world. And we’ve built those unwanted experiences into fears: Death, war, disease, inequality, pain, scarcity of resources, disappointment, loneliness, ridicule, rejection, failure.
For me, it started with that first fear of being stuck in the tire, but as human beings, we only add to the list throughout our lifetimes. Once we learn that the world is not so safe, some of us start to anticipate these same experiences elsewhere. We shrink from the unknown because we’ve made up all kinds of stories about what might be waiting for us behind door number one. We chart out a map to avoid the various paths that we think will lead to bad things. And we sometimes allow that fear to keep us where we are; to make us stuck, to run, and in worst cases, to ruin our lives.
Fear can have an enormous power over us. It can paralyze us because of the unknown, of what might be. Perhaps it comes across as procrastination. It’s as simple as the student staring at a blank computer screen trying to write an essay or the business exec putting off her preparations for the big presentation. We look at a task or a change in life and get scared. We become so frozen and stuck that we start justifying things. Our yetzer hara, that challenging voice in our head, tells us that things are not so bad. “I’m underpaid, underappreciated, overworked . . . but I can survive.” “We don’t communicate like we used to, we’re not connecting . . . but it’s not so bad.” “He yells at me, makes me feel worthless, makes it seem like it is my fault . . . but I have no more strength or I have to think about the children.” Fear becomes paralyzing. We know somewhere deep down that we deserve more in this world, that we should be living a more extraordinary life, but we are frozen by our fears.
As with so much in life, fear can be taken to the opposite extreme. We can live with no fears. “You Only Live Once!” Have you heard this lately? Shortened to YOLO in a song that came out last year by Drake, who is a nice Jewish boy from Canada – Aubrey Drake Graham -- and one of the hiphop world’s biggest sensations. You only live once! The arguments for and against rap music aside, YOLO became one of the most overused slang words almost overnight. And essentially, it became an excuse. “I decided not to turn in my homework – YOLO.” “I asked out that gorgeous girl in homeroom – YOLO.” Pretty tame. But, there’s also, “I decided to car surf (standing on the roof of the car as my friend drove it down the road) – YOLO.” “She offered me some kind of pill and I took it – YOLO, You only live once.” It’s become an excuse to do stupid things; to wave off fear and to risk one’s future.
It’s become so popular, and so overused, that even parents have spoofed it: “I used your college fund for a vacation with your father – YOLO.” And, I think that now that mainstream celebrities and even this rabbi are talking about the term, it’s probably being dropped as we speak. YOLO has become the calling card for those who cannot imagine a future. Those living in the moment because the moment is all they know. Those who bravely take on the world, because they do not know any better. Those who have banished fear.
But fear does not have to be banished. Nor does fear need to take over our lives. One of the wonderful things about being human beings is that we actually get to have a choice in all of this. Our Jewish tradition tells us that angels are not able to make choices, they are simply messengers of God. Science teaches that animals predominantly act on instinct. But human beings . . . we get to choose. We get to choose between life and death, blessings and curses. We get to choose to live beyond our fears.
Steve Jobs, in his 2005 Stanford commencement speech said:
Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
Tonight is Kol Nidre – Yom Kippur. We stand here now naked before God. This is the day we are judged. Our tradition teaches that before his death, Rabbi Zusya said "In the coming world, they will not ask me: 'Why were you not Moses?' They will ask me: 'Why were you not Zusya?” Are we really satisfied living the life we are living? Are we in healthy relationships and healthy professions? Are we pushing ourselves to be who God really meant for us to be – the ones who choose blessings and life? Or, are we trapped by fear?
I get it. It’s scary to make a change. It can be scary to live the life we are supposed to be living. It can be daunting to even think of a life lived beyond our fear.
It is scary, but it is not complicated. We do not need a how-to course because our hearts already know how to do this work.
In Hebrew, the term for courage is Ometz Lev. Literally it is a “strong” or “bold” heart. But ometz can mean “stubborn” too. This stubborn heart can serve us. A stubborn heart knows that even in the face of fear it can move forward.
In her book, The Art of Blessing the Day,” poet Marge Piercy writes:
The courage to let go of the door, the handle.
The courage to leave the place whose language you learned as early as your own.
The courage to walk out of the pain that is known
into the pain that cannot be imagined, mapless, walking
into the wilderness, going barefoot with a canteen into the desert.
How does it play out for you today? Are your fears big ones? Small ones? What do your fears keep you from doing? How and where in life do they hold you back? Where do they make you into who you think you should be, instead of living as you truly are? What part of your life is affected by your fears, or even run by fear? Relationships? Work? Family? Your aspirations in life?
Do you have fears of who you are, or fears of who you are not? Do you have fears about what you have accomplished in this world? Fears about what others may think about you? Perhaps what others might find out about you?
What is the consequence of letting these fears keep us from following our hearts? We risk never living up to the sacred potential inherent in each and every one of us.
I would like to tell you the story about a courageous woman I know. Every morning she wakes up in her room, looks around, and is not quite sure how she got there. And, this scares her. A picture of her grown children sits on her bedside table along with a list of names and telephone numbers. She recognizes that piece of artwork on the wall but she is pretty sure it was not always in her bedroom. Then she realizes that her bedroom and living room are one. A big house that she vaguely remembers is now four small walls. Is this her childhood home that comes to mind or her home in which she raised her own children? A family photo. Lots of smiles. A baby she cannot identify in her daughter’s arms. A trinket from a trip taken long ago. She calls the first number on the list – her daughter. “Sweetie, I did not want to wake you so I waited a few hours to call. Where am I? Are you coming to pick me up? I cannot find my wallet, my car keys. Where am I?”
Her memory has slipped away. Every once in a while the family gets a glimpse of her old self, but it hides again just as quickly. A cloudy past. Just the present moment. This, I think is courage – ometz lev, a bold and stubborn heart. Courage to be in a place of fear and to still face the unknown.
If this elderly woman can live with her fear of not knowing where she is or how she got there and still have the courage to move forward each day, what’s stopping us?
Yes, we’ve collected a lifetime of evidence that says that if I choose path A, I’ll run into X and if I choose path B, I’ll run into Y. So, I’ll just stay put.
We don’t have to let fear paralyze us. Nor do we have to pretend not to be in fear. But if we want to live the extraordinary life that God calls upon us to embrace this day – a life of blessings – then we need to courageously take a step and push our way out of the tractor tire on the play ground.
The courage to let go of the door, the handle.
Within it we stand uncertain on the border of light.
Shall we draw back or cross over?.
Where shall our hearts turn?
Shall we draw back, my brother, my sister, or cross over?
This is the hour of change, and within it,
we stand quietly on the border of light.
What lies before us?
Shall we draw back, my brother, my sister, or cross over?
On this Kol Nidre, this evening of Yom Kippur, as we stand naked before You, as we take an honest accounting of our own lives, give us God the courage to walk into the desert. To move into the unknown. To face our fears. To be the blessings we are meant to be.
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