A Prescription for the Malady of Being Overwhelmed

We receive more news in a day than folks over a hundred years ago would receive in a year

Judaism is an action-based faith, and we tend to like it that way. After all, Tikkun Olam, the concept of healing the world, motivates our finest altruistic deeds in the world. For the most part, our heroes and sages attained their status through action – by responding to the call of God, or their fellow human beings and doing something to change the situation at hand for the better. They teach us how to be just and kind, loving and patient and determined in our responses to great difficulties. They inspire us to bring about the changes that the world needs.

Yet, there are so many needs, and news of troubles of the world seem to be presented to us with ever-increasing “emergency” status – even weather forecasting projects the remotest possibilities of catastrophic scenarios.  Meanwhile, the myriad demands of daily life require our much attention and energy as, in our society, the value of a person is more often measured by what a person produces than who they are.

And the sheer volume of information we take in is the icing on the cake. Some time ago I read somewhere that we receive more news in a day than folks over a hundred years ago would receive in a year. While our brains appear to be able to take in all of this information, we may not be so good at processing and finding meaning in it. It can feel like standing in the middle of a tornado with no time or energy to find a way through.

The thing is, no matter how stirred we are to respond with clear passion and purpose to gut-wrenching needs, we may be far less able to make any headway at all if we are overwhelmed by this socially-acquired feeling of scarcity of time, energy and creativity.

But peace can be found in the eye of the storm.  Maimonides, the great Jewish sage of the middle ages, teaches us that balance is the key to a healthy life.

He and many of our sages encourage balance in all things, shunning extremes and extravagances of everything from overspending energy to indulging in any behavior that is harmful to ourselves or anyone else. And this includes the self-harm of worrying, not sleeping, over-planning, over scheduling, and not taking time for love, family life, peace and nurturing the soul. You know, the things we can feel guilty about doing!

A quick internet search reveals an impressive number of studies that back up Maimonides’ philosophy, including a growing “Slow Movement” that is spreading over the globe. It turns out that people who take more time to accomplish tasks are not only more productive, they are more content. But here’s the thing: we don’t need a productivity excuse to back up our desire to be more…. human.

We do need to recognize that we have a soul that is uniquely ours, and it needs as much care and nurturing we can give it not only so we will have the energy to respond to the Jewish way of bringing goodness into the world, but for the sake of our souls themselves.  According to Maimonides, doing good in the world helps to balance and heal the body and soul – but try as we might, we just can’t pour from an empty cup.

In other words, just as Torah teaches us to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to be just and kind, loving and patient and determined for their sake, we must recognize our own worthiness to receive care from ourselves – and teach others by our example.

Here is my favorite prescription for the malady of being overwhelmed. They are among the last words of Spanish American writer Jose Luis Borges, but I think Jewish philosophers from Maimonides to Heschel would agree, because Borges reminds us in the most concrete terms that we need to balance our awareness and passions about the very real tragedies around us with the simple and sparkling beauty of life itself. This is what he said:

“If I had my life to live over again, I’d try to make more mistakes next time. I would relax. I would limber up. I would be sillier than I have been this trip. I know of very few things I would take seriously. I would be crazier. I would be less hygienic. I would take more chances. I would take more trips. I would climb more mountains, swim more rivers, and watch more sunsets.  I would burn more gasoline. I would eat more ice cream and fewer beans. I would have more actual problems and fewer imaginary ones. … If I had it to do over again, I would go places and do things and travel lighter than I have. If I had my life to live over, I would start barefoot earlier in the spring and stay that way later in the fall. I would play hooky more often. I would ride more merry-go-rounds. I’d pick more daisies.”

Life is positively brimming with beauty. I believe that by striving for balance we can nurture our souls and our creativity, do more than we feel good about, feel more whole, and pour more healing balm from our overflowing cups than we can even imagine.

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