I woke up the first couple mornings of the new year from dreams of dread. Dreams in which I was in some danger, even though now, a few days later, I can't exactly remember what the danger was.
Maybe it was just because I was leaving on a trip. You see, Monday morning I was going to drive down to Los Angeles to spend a few days with my sister, and I might have had pre-departure anxiety.
Now over the years I've discovered that one of the many seeming binary ways that populations sort out are into people who have anxiety prior to leaving on a trip and people who have anxiety upon arrival. I'm of the departure anxiety sort. I will make packing lists, get up extra early on the day, give myself extra time to get to an airport, happily sit for an extra hour in the terminal so that I'm certain I won't miss my plane. I'll know where everything is. And as the bus pulls up to the airport I will, with pathological dependability, imagine having forgotten my wallet or my passport or something else critical that I know with 100% certainty I atually have with me. I will allow my body to go through the adrenaline response of impending catastrophe while I check my backpack for my wallet which is, without fail, exactly where I knew I put it.
I do not enjoy my pre-departure anxiety. But I appreciate that it does foster in me a level of readiness. Back in my 20s, my partner had no pre-departure anxiety at all. And because of that we missed planes and trains and dinners on numerous occasions during our decade together. No departure anxiety at all. On the contrary. He had arrival anxiety. Presuming we didn't miss our plane, we would arrive in a new place and he would panic about how we'd find the right bus or train or what if we were late to the hotel and do we remember how to say "vegetarian" in whatever the language. And I would have to calm him, feed him, and then do what for me was the pleasant work of getting us settled.
It's probably good in a relationship or a friendship group to have a mix of some with departure anxiety and someone with arrival anxiety. Those anxieties, within reason, and with good complementarity, will make sure you all depart smoothly and arrive safely. Of course, it can always go the other way instead, making everyone miserable on both ends.
Maybe that has to do with allowing anxiety to grow into fear. We sometimes can act prudently out of anxiety; we don't often act well out of fear. And the thing about anxiety is that it wants to become something, it wants to be resolved. Anxiety is a question awaiting an answer.
Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi gives a little teaching about the three words in Hebrew that get commonly translated as "fear"*1*. One of these is pachad. Pachad, he teaches, is real fear of a real danger. As a mnemonic, he midrashically rewrites the word as poh chad – "here it is sharp." Here, not in some other place or future time. Pachad, fear, is the legitimate response to true peril.
Another term in Hebrew is eymah which Reb Zalman describes as a fear of the unknown, of something that hasn't happened yet. To help us remember, he splits the word in two and parses it as ayeh – "where" and mah – "what." Eymah asks "what? where?" It is the anxiety of now knowing what is going to happen, the deep dark worry. "What? Where?" Eymah.
And the third "fear" word in Hebrew is yir'ah. This is what in Jewish tradition is often used to describe relationship with God. In English we sometimes say "fear of God," which in American culture comes to mean "good behavior based on fear of divine punishment." "I'll put the fear of God in ya!" But at its core, yir'ah. is not fear of punishment or any kind of pachad-like fear. It is awe. Reverence. It is the natural response, according to our tradition, to perceiving the greatness or power or complexity of the Divine. Yir'ah is what you feel after looking through a telescope or through a microscope. Reb Zalman re-etymologizes this word also. He connects it with the Hebrew verb ra'ah – to see. Yir'ah is the awareness that we are seen by God and the conduct that brings out in us. But I'd turn it around and say that yir'ah is the awe we feel when we are the ones doing the seeing, and we are really, really looking. Even leaving God out of the equation: when we open to the big picture, the biggest possible picture, and how we are part of it – yir'ah is what we will feel.
So three kinds of fear: pachad, eymah and yir'ah. Fear, anxiety and awe or reverence. Each one has its use.
Pachad, the fear of present danger gets our bodies in gear for fight or flight. We do not ever want to be in the position of experiencing this kind of fear. But we know that when we feel it we will react accordingly.
Eymah, anxiety, at its best, lets us anticipate and make plans and ready ourselves. It helps us get to airports on time. It makes sure we have earthquake supplies in the closet.
And yir'ah, awe, impels us to move on this earth with respect, with reverence. It holds our choices, our words and actions accountable to a big picture, in which our own comfort and convenience are secondary.
Pachad, eymah and yir'ah.
So now let me take you back to the other morning. I woke up from one of those danger dreams to set out for LA. I dressed, kissed Oren goodbye, and headed out before light. As I drove my brain wandered to all the possible terrible things that could happen on this drive. Twenty different car crashes went through my imagination. I turned on the radio to quiet my mind and was greeted with reports of the potential repeal of Obamacare, the president-elect's dismissal of calls for investigation into Russian hacking, and other dreadful morsels of the moment. I felt my fear growing as I drove.
Until suddenly I had a realization. I was having pre-departure anxiety. Not just related to my trip, but related to the incoming administration and what I have been thinking about in anticipation as "the new era." I have had so much pre-departure anxiety that it has turned into fear. Because anxiety needs a destination. It needs an answer to the "where-what" question Reb Zalman says is embedded in the word eymah. And so my eymah had become pachad. Real, present-sense fear. Giving me dreams of men with guns and who knows what else. Both my pre-departure anxiety about the drive and my pre-departure anxiety about the new era had turned into a kind of panic and despair.
As I drove in the car I realized that gentle anxiety right now is right. I, we, need to be watchful, nimble, ready to act. But I also realized that dead-on fear will just stop me in my tracks. I will make panic-based decisions. I will prematurely jump to fight or flight. Or I will stop acting altogether. My fear will ruin my days and disturb my sleep.
The weekend after the election, Michael Lerner*2*, founder of Commonweal, gave a beautiful talk about being ready for and responding to what's coming. His words were lofty, gritty. But one thing that especially stuck with me was when he said, "And I will not allow Donald Trump to ruin my day." In other words, he would oppose reactionary policies, he would organize, he would protest and write and speak and create new organizations. Whatever was needed. But he would not give Washington the power to to make him feel bad or feel defeated.
In the barrage of insults that we have been subjected to since the new administration has begun to gear up, it seems it might be difficult not to have ruined days, and Michael himself reports that he has been finding it hard to stick with this intention.
But still, there is something spiritually important in this idea. Being aware that if we let them, those with power can turn our eymah, our healthy anxiety and caution, into pachad, downright fear. That is giving away too much. Too much of our power, too much of our cool.
Instead, I wonder, I suggest, if we feel our anxiety welling up, ready to burst its banks into a torrent of fear, looking for a direction to flow, we might instead steer it toward yir'ah. Transform our anxiety into awe, into reverence. That in our moments of growing anxiety, we check in with the big picture; with the biggest possible picture. The arc of history. The life and well-being of this Earth and all its creatures. Our deep wisdom and our deep readiness. So that our acts are also on behalf of history, on behalf of the Earth. So that we are not just individual actors but messengers, angels. So that our intentions become missions, and our acts mitzvot. When we feel the mounting anxiety, we reconnect ourselves with the enduring and with each other.
These thoughts came to me as the sun rose over the interstate. I felt myself get taller in the driver seat. I breathed out my crazy, vibrating fear, my pachad. I felt my limbs glow with the warmth of shared mission, shared commitment and determination. I am not alone. And I am not powerless. I no longer felt afraid; I heard myself deciding that from now on only I would decide when it was time to feel fear. I looked at the road ahead. I was somewhere, miles between departure and arrival. I took a breath, smiled, and hit the gas.