Sep 7 2011
Fight or Flight?
G. is now 5 days smoking free. Change happens. How?
Changing a habit or owning up to some behavior pattern that actually isn’t good for you anymore, no matter how big or small, takes a fight. G. writes me this morning about his quit smoking project and how this intense 40 day period helps ground it in real terms. He writes, aware of the complexity:” It’s a war against myself and I intend to win.”
There are gentler (and perhaps more effective?) methods and metaphors for coaxing ourselves into healthier living modalities and not beating ourselves up for the stupid stuff, no matter how awful. But the vocabulary of combat and warfare as spiritual steps to recovery is a familiar and ancient one, resonating in Jewish sources as well as in many other religious, mystical and psychological traditions.
Spiritual work as a holy war.
The rabbis of the ancient east portray a similar outline to that of the modern cowboys of the wild west: there’s a good guy and a bad guy and they’re going to fight it out and eventually the good guys win. In the rabbinic mapping of the human soul, the good guy is the Yetzer Hara our “Good behavior button, while the bad guy (in the black shirt, and sexier) is the Yetzer Hara – “bad behavior button.” The name of the game: How do we keep our fingers off whatever it is that pushes our ‘bad’ button? How do we let our better behavior prevail?
The rabbis suggest a fight. G., not smoking, agrees.
One of these rabbis, Ben Lakish, knows what he is talking about: He was a gladiator in a Roman arena, or perhaps a mercenary solider, before changing his ways and becoming a renowned Jewish scholar. He is advocating for war on self and provides a four step repentance strategy that was recorded in the Talmud, “: ‘One should always agitate the good inclination against the bad inclination’ and if one wins, good, and if not – one should then engage in study, then pray, and then think about the day of death.” (BT, B’rachot 5)
For the record, it is possible that he is discussing the specific bad behavior that may happen when one is in bed at night – thus the recipe for avoidance. But context aside – he does suggest taking on a desirable change with the full gusto of confrontation: ‘agitate’ the source of your displeasure.
“Your evil inclination is your biggest enemy”, said the Keeper of the Good Name – the Beshet, 1,500 years later the gladiator rabbi. “And if you fight this enemy you will not only triumph but also take captives – subjugate the forces of the yetzer hara towards the service of the Divine.” (Can you tell I’ve had two days in Rabbinical School and am privy to great texts already?)
I’m sure there are many modern and ancient wise ways of dealing with this fragile topic of personal change, central to this conversation, this public time.
For me, this year, the fight beckons. What is the enemy and how to go about it is becoming clearer each day.
I was a solider. I can do this. Focus on careful nutrition, plan ahead, avoid distractions. I hope G. can.
But to succeed I got to be super focused on what it is I am fighting and why. What’s my fight about? Watch that bad behavior button closely and learn its ways.
Fight of flight?
What’s your fight about? IS it a fight?
(And: do you have thoughts about this ‘fight’ metaphor? And any suggestions for questions that may arise during this process? I’d love some ideas. Thank you.)