As part of my medical regimen over the past few months I have taken a number of cardiac stress tests both in the United States as well as here in Israel. In truth, for most of us, life and its petty annoyances, problems large and small, urban living, newspapers and media, governments, our work and profession, financial matters, going to the post office, etc. are daily and constant stress tests.
Our stress levels are factors in our physical and mental well being, in our relations with family and others and in our general outlook on life. It is too easy in our world of instant communication (even with people who we really don’t want to communicate but who have our cell phone number!) to become stressed out.
The rabbis in Avot taught us that knowing too much increases the pain of life. When I was a rabbi in Miami Beach decades ago, the local paper didn’t really report much news outside of the occasional alligator crossing the highway. However, when I moved to New York and began to read the New York Times I became aware of problems in Botswana and epidemics in Patagonia.
I found that now there were so many new things for me to be concerned about - things that in my blissful Miami Beach ignorance I was not aware of at all. And the wise old rabbis also taught us that increasing wealth and property automatically increases worry and stress. In fact, I would hazard to say that wealth is probably the greatest stress test of all.
In my many years of being a rabbi, scores of people have come to me for advice about their own personal financial matters. All of my protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, the belief in the omniscience of rabbis is deep seated within the Jewish people. I always chuckle inwardly about this phenomenon because, if I am so smart then why am I not wealthy?
I have always been somewhat amazed that I noticed the same or greater amounts of stress among those who had money and did not know what to do with it - invest it in stocks, real estate, bonds, banks, stash it under the mattress - as with those people who came to me to bemoan the fact that they really had little or no money at all.
Of course there is bad stress and there is better stress. But, at the end of the day, all stress is ultimately a form of bad stress in the sense that it preoccupies us, clouds our personal visions and affects us physically and spiritually. Now stress is synonymous with life. It is unavoidable like weather (which by the way also causes stress), traffic and taxes. So the question in life is how does one manage stress and control it instead of letting it control one.
I have found that vacations and trips, pleasant and diversionary as they may be, are nevertheless no panacea for stress. For some unknown reason we tend to pack all of our worries, problems and concerns in our luggage and take them along with us. The stress level on those trips may even be higher than what it is in our usual normal stressful lives.
I have known serene and seemingly stress free people in my life. They combined within themselves a deep faith coupled with a sense of positive stoicism. They always took a long view of life and events. They rarely became angry at people or circumstances and had a sense of patience and purpose in all of their dealings.
Interestingly enough, they did not consider themselves to be overly spiritual but rather emphasized rationalism and pragmatism in their behavior and dealings with others and the world. I have always wondered whether that serenity of personality can be taught and studied and acquired or whether it is an innate gift from God to those fortunate enough to have it.
The prophet equates serenity of spirit with righteousness and moral Torah behavior and says that the wicked rage at life like the turbulent waters of a storm tossed ocean. But I am not certain whether serenity of spirit causes righteousness and moral behavior or whether righteousness and moral behavior causes serenity of soul.
One thing though is certain. Evil people are always stressed since they think others stand in their way and are the cause of their angst and discomfort. Dissatisfaction with one’s self and with what one owns and has will always reflect itself in increased physical and mental stress. So how we pass our stress tests in life is really important to our well being.