When Are We Afraid of the Wrong Thing?

Essex_Sinking (2)Compelled by stories of catastrophe, novelist Karen Thomson Walker, recently (TED Talk) offered an interpretation of the story of the Whaleship Essex.  In 1820, 3000 miles off the coast of Chile in one of the most remote regions of the Pacific Ocean, 20 American sailors watched their ship flood with sea water.  They had been struck by a sperm whale.  As the ship began to sink, the men huddled together in 3 small whaleboats, stocked only with rudimentary navigation equipment and limited supplies of food and water.  These were the men of the Whaleship Essex, whose story would later inspire parts of Moby Dick.

Drifting in the middle of the Pacific just about as far from land as it’s possible to be anywhere on earth, the sailors had few options.  The men knew that the nearest land they could reach was the Marquesas Islands, 1200 miles away.  But they had heard some frightening rumors that the islands were inhabited by cannibals.  Their other most viable option was to travel a much greater distance to the coast of South America; yet the length of the trip would stretch their food and water supplies, leaving a high risk of starvation.  The captain discerned that despite the rumors, the Marquesas Islands, offered their best chance for survival.  But the crew decided they would rather face starvation, so they endeavored toward South America.  Only a few men survived.

Herman Melville later speculated that, had the sailors chosen to follow the captain’s preference for the Marquesas Islands, they would have survived.

Looking back on this story, Karen Thomas Walker suggests the men’s tragic response to their fears serves as an instructive story. To her mind, the risk of the rumored and potentially fictional cannibals became so vivid in the imagination of the sailors, that it distracted them from the slower, less vivid but very real, and more probable, risk of starvation.

Most of us will not in our lifetime find ourselves on a whaleboat 3000 miles into the Pacific.  Yet, we know what fear feels like.  And in our clearest moments, we may even perceive the difference between an imaginary but vivid fear of being consumed, and a real fear that drives us to nourish ourselves.

18th century Hasidic Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav teaches these two understandings of fear in his own spiritual terms. Rabbi Nachman teaches the first fear is pachad: blinding, derailing fear of imaginary demons.  The second fear is norah– energy driving awe that inspires our consciousness.

When we are deeply present, we are able to acknowledge and let go of the pachad, the debilitating fear; and we are able to tune into the norah, the awe.  But when are lost, as if at sea, we are at risk of being moved by the wrong fear.  When are you afraid of the wrong thing?

Picture the attorney, successfully practicing in a solo law firm, only to later discover that he is slowly isolating from the world around him.   Or the attorney who, in a larger firm, contemplates how to implement her own vision but is afraid to strike out on her own.   Afraid of a drastic change, the slower but very real threat of frustration and burn-out that comes with being in the wrong position, might not look as scary as it should.  The real risk is not the possibility of being consumed by external forces; the real risk is withholding from pursuing our purpose.

Picture the woman in a relationship with a mismatched partner.  She knows she is not in love, but she is worried she won’t meet someone else.  Afraid of sudden loneliness, the slower but very real threat of loneliness within the relationship, might not look as scary as it should.  The real risk is not the possibility of being single; the real risk is starving oneself of passion.

Picture the overprotective father.  He knows he needs to let his child cross the street alone, or struggle himself with homework, resolve conflict with a friend, or move away from home to pursue education or career.  But he is constantly tempted to step in, and to enable the child to excessively rely on the parent.  Afraid his child will stumble and he will not be there with the net, the slower but very real threat of co-dependence, might not look as scary as it should.  The real risk is not the possibility that the child will be consumed by failure; the real risk is holding a child back from self-reliance.

The attorney, the woman, the father, you, me… Anyone of us can become so scared of the external forces and life changes that might consume us, that we forget to be fearful about the spiritual malnourishment that could starve us, if we don’t move forward in our lives.

This week in parashat Shelach Lecha, we learn that the Israelites send 12 scouts ahead to scope out the land of Israel.  Ten return reporting that the inhabitants of the land are giants, as if the Israelites were grasshoppers.  For those 10, the dramatic fear of moving forward sparks imaginary, insurmountable demons.  They would have chosen to stay back, to wander in the wilderness. Two scouts, Joshua and Caleb, are undistracted by the fear of giants.  More afraid of the less vivid but very real possibility, that the Israelites would live without home or purpose, Joshua and Caleb report that the Promised Land is flowing with milk and honey. While the 10 scouts become so scared of the external forces that might consume them, Joshua and Caleb remember to be cautious about the spiritual malnourishment that could starve them, were they to hold back from moving forward in their lives.

In our own life paths, may we be cautious of being afraid of the wrong thing.  When we feel as though we are but grasshoppers facing giants, may we let go of our fear, that we may be moved by awe.