A guy gets a Labrador and he can’t wait to show him off to his neighbor. So when the neighbor comes over, the guy calls the dog into the house, bragging about how smart the little guy is and how incredibly trained he is. “Wait till you see this!” he says to his neighbor. The dog comes running and quickly stands looking up at his master, tail wagging furiously, mouth open in classic Labrador smile position, eyes bright with anticipation. The guy points to the newspaper on the couch and commands “Fetch.”
Immediately, the dog sits down, the tail stops wagging, the doggie-smile disappears; he hangs his head, looks balefully up at his master and suddenly says in a whiny voice, “Oh, my tail hurts from wagging so much. And that dog food you’re feeding me taste terrible. And it’s too hot in here. And you’re not giving me any treats. And I can’t remember the last time you took me out for a walk…”
The neighbor’s jaw drops at hearing the dog speaking like that! “Oh, sorry about that,” the dog owner explains, “he’s a little hard of hearing. He thought I said “Kvetch!””
Although “kvetching” may be remarkable for a dog, it’s an all-too ordinary and everyday experience for humans. We kvetch about everything – from the weather to the price of gas. And as the world seems to be turning scarier and scarier all around us, our kvetching is rapidly turning much darker as well. We’ve gone far beyond kvetching these days, into the dark abyss of FEAR.
And speaking of dogs, I believe the best fear indicator for America might be found in statistics compiled by the American Kennel Club. Yes, I did say the American Kennel Club. It’s my official “Dog Facts Fear Indicator.”
You see according to their records, in 1975, cuddly poodles were the most popular purebred dog in America with 139,000 registered, and only 952 Rottweilers - a rather fierce breed often used as a guard dog.
By 1994, the poodle population had been more than cut in half to 61,000 while Rottweilers had increased 100 times to 102, 596. America is not just going to the dogs – but mean dogs at that.
The “Dog Facts Fear Indicator” is a telling story of life in America today. Fear stalks our cities, our skies, our homes, our lives.
Of course fears are a natural part of life itself and all of us have some. We are afraid of failing health and ending up helpless in a nursing home, afraid of death and of losing a loved one, afraid of global warming and of the housing bubble bursting, afraid of losing our jobs and going bankrupt, afraid of growing older, of disappointing our parents, our children, our spouses, our lovers, afraid over a troubled marriage or of our children losing themselves, afraid of what people think of us or that they don’t think of us at all, afraid of appearing foolish, afraid of failure or perhaps of success, and always, always in the back of our mind is the fear of the next 9/11 – the next terrorist attack – repeating the mantra over and over again that it’s not a matter of “whether” but only a matter of “when.”
We are afraid of so much, all the time. It is without doubt the greatest irony of all that we are at the very same time the most secure and safe generation that has ever lived and perhaps the most fearful generation that has ever lived as well. So we live behind locked doors behind locked gates within locked communities – and we still feel afraid.
So afraid that 40% of all homes in America have at least one firearm in spite of the fact that 30,000 people die by firearms each year and that guns kept in the home are 22 times more likely to be used to kill a family member or friend than be used for self defense. Worse than that, 55% of all unintentional shootings are committed by a child or teen. 9 children die every day in America as a result of guns kept at home. Every Day.
Yet people simply believe in their guts that having a gun at home makes them safer no matter what the facts say. Indeed, “facts” and statistics seem to have little to do with our sense of security at all. The reality concerning our actual risk of injury or death from the things we fear the most seems to have little or no impact on the depth and strength and persistence of those very fears.
If facts determined our fears, our biggest fears would probably be of Cheeseburgers and French fries. After all according to the National Center for Health Statistics the number one cause of death in America is heart disease. The “fact” is that someone dies of cardiovascular disease in America every 34 seconds – 697,000 a year.
If facts determined our fears, our second biggest fear would be tobacco leaves. The number two cause of death in America is cancer – 560,000 a year. And though more people die from lung cancer than from any other cancer and any sane person on the planet knows by now that the number one cause of lung cancer is cigarettes, my 25 year old daughter tells me that everywhere she goes all her friends still smoke.
It reminds me of an add I saw on CNN last month in which a woman drives up her street alone at night and parks in front of the house as a man stares at her while sitting in a car across the street. She gets out of the car and holds the key between her fingers as protection and quickly darts into her home locks the door and breathes a sigh of relief. Then she sits down to relax and lights up a cigarette. The voice over says merely, “It’s time to protect you, from yourself.” I saw that commercial the very day that Peter Jennings died of lung cancer at age 67.
Yes, if facts determined our fears our third biggest fear after cheeseburgers and cigarettes would be doctors and nurses. Why doctors and nurses? There are over 195,000 deaths from medical errors in hospitals every year in America. That places medical errors higher on the fatality list than stroke (162,000), respiratory diseases (125,000), accidents (107,000), diabetes (73,000), pneumonia (65,000) and Alzheimer’s (59,000). Which are numbers 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, & 9.
Then there was this headline in the news: “Military Aim To Fight Leading Cause Of Death In Armed Forces - Join Largest Seat Belt Crackdown In U.S. History.” The article then went on to state that more young men and women in uniform are killed in traffic crashes than in combat or training combined.
If facts determined our fears we would be 42,000 times more afraid to get in a car every single day of our lives than to fly since 42,000 people died from motor vehicle accidents last year. But facts don’t determine our fears - most fear is irrational - that’s its nature. It is deeply felt emotion where the brain essentially turns off to rational argument and our blood begins to run cold in our veins.
How many suffer from fear of flying? Lots of us. Yet the “facts” tell us that there are 87,000 flights over America every single day, and the same year that 42,000 people died in car accidents the number of people who died in commercial airline crashes in America was ZERO. ZERO. But if you are afraid of flying, the “facts” are cold comfort indeed when the plane takes off and you are pressed by the plane’s velocity into the back of your seat - the fear remains the same.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Fear defeats more people than any other one thing in the world.”
Jewish tradition understood how fundamental fear is to the human condition. The very first humans created in Jewish mythology were Adam and Eve. When they eat the forbidden fruit God comes looking for them and they attempt to hide. Like a scene from our own childhoods when we had done something we were not supposed to do and we literally hid from our searching parents behind a couch or in a closet. When God finds them, as of course God must, God asks them why they are hiding and Adam’s response is: “Because I was afraid.” “Because I was afraid.”
How poignant – the very first recorded words that human beings speak to God are, “I was afraid.” Our ancestors were wise enough to know that to be human is to experience fear. And in a sense the entire story of the Torah – our people’s most sacred narrative is the story of transforming fear into faith time and time again. And that’s why we are here, as well.
Conquering fear is one of the greatest spiritual challenges of living. And for anyone who has had that experience, it can only be called transcendent, sacred, godly.
It was Plato almost 2,000 years ago who put in Socrates’ mouth this wisdom about overcoming fear: “Courage,” he said, “is a special kind of knowledge; the knowledge of how to fear what ought to be feared and how not to fear what ought not to be feared.”
I met a man from Argentina while I was on vacation this summer in Costa Rica. We were talking about the state of the world & at one point he turned to me and echoed what I have heard over and over from so many of you right here at home: “More than ever I am afraid,” he said, “tomorrow seems tenuous, “iffy” and unsure.”
Like that old saying that the optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and the pessimist fears this is true.
Yet when you step back and really look at it the exact opposite is true. We are healthier and live longer today than at any time in the entire history of humanity. In 1850 only 33% of newborns born in America lived past age 60 while today fully 83% of us live at least that long.
If facts determined our fears all of what I have shared would matter – but it doesn’t. Instead our attention is captured by headlines that proclaim month after month, “Two wounded in bomb blast at Istanbul café,” “Bomb exploded outside a bank in Spain,” “Suicide bomber wounds two outside bus stop in Beersheva,” and the spectacular headlines of the tragic bombing of the underground and bus in London which though clear across the world somehow felt closer to home than ever.
We are like that famous shipwrecked sailor who when he was rescued after three years on a deserted island was tossed a bundle of newspapers by the Captain who said, “First please read through these and then let me know if you still wish to be rescued.”
In truth we desperately want to be rescued – rescued from our worry, rescued from that ever-present underlying anxiety that robs of us our sleep and keeps us perpetually on edge as if waiting for the next shoe to drop or axe to fall or bomb to explode.
The fact that more people died from tornadoes than terrorists in America last year somehow seems cold comfort to most. And yet herein lies our spiritual challenge and our passionate desire on this Yom Kippur. How can we feel safe in an unsafe world?
And so I will tell you how. First, it is by quieting your mind and trusting your heart. It is by remembering who we are and where we have come from – that we Jews have been here for over 4,000 years in spite of all attempts at the contrary. For a hundred generations from Egyptians to Assyrians to Philistines to Babylonians to Romans, from the tortures of the Spanish Inquisition to the gas chambers of Auschwitz, from the burned synagogues of Paris and Sacramento, to the suicide bombings of Haifa, Jerusalem and Buenos Aires – they have tried it all. But look around – here we are.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom wrote a few months ago immediately after the bombings in London: ”Terror fails and will always fail, because it arouses in us a profound instinct for life….Free societies are always stronger than their enemies take them to be. Enemies of the West mistake its openness for vulnerability, its tolerance for decadence, its respect for differences for a lack of moral conviction.”
The best response to terror is in the quiet strength to carry on with life. Giving of yourself to others. Loving your family. Living in the moment one day at a time, one moment at a time, one breath at a time. Remembering what really matters most in life. And remembering that tragedy is only news because it is not the norm.
Thomas Carlyle in a beautiful and wise poem wrote: “When the oak is felled the whole forest echoes with its fall, but a hundred acorns are sown in silence by an unnoticed breeze.” “A hundred acorns are sown in silence by an unnoticed breeze.”
You and I are the unnoticed breeze – and it is our quiet, ordinary, everyday acts of life and love that sew the seeds of that which truly matters in the world.
The Biblical book of First Kings contains perhaps the most dramatic declaration of faith over fear in all of sacred literature. God tells the prophet Elijah to stand on top of the mountain and there he would find God. It is a particularly poignant passage given the power of the natural disasters we have all experienced in our beloved country these past few weeks.
The Bible says, “Behold a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke its mighty rocks in pieces, but God was not in the wind. And after the wind a terrifying earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a raging fire, but God was not in the fire. And after the fire, a still, small voice.”
God is that still, small voice. That still, small voice within us all – not in the storms of life, the earthquakes that frighten us, the fires that would destroy us. Not in the hurricanes and not in the floods. Not in the fear that surrounds and often overwhelms us, but in the quiet inner life of our own spiritual center, our own spiritual awareness of who we are. That who we are is a unique, one-of-a-kind being created in God’s image and precious beyond measure.
The ultimate key to feeling safe is to come to terms with what you can change in life and then doing something about it. That’s why W. Clement Stone wrote, “Thinking will not overcome fear but action will.” When you act, you choose life, you choose faith over fear.
The path to feeling safe in an unsafe world is to get out of our own skins, out of our own heads, out of our own anxieties, out of our own self-absorption and turn our gaze to those whose fears we can do something about. To the hungry, we can bring food. To the naked, we can bring clothes. To the homeless, we can provide shelter. To the lost we can be their compass. It isn’t so much what we do, but that we do that matters.
I know there are times when you feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the forces and powers that seem so far beyond your control. The enormity of the world’s problems threatens to overwhelm and drown you by their sheer number and size and frequency.
Well, we can’t do everything for everyone everywhere, but we can do something for someone somewhere. And it is in the very act of doing itself that is our salvation.
That’s why perhaps the ultimate wisdom on feeling safe in an unsafe world is that now famous poem written in 1932 by the great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr which eventually became an integral part of every 12 step meeting in the world. You have all heard it – known as the “serenity prayer:”
“God give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
A young father is pushing a baby’s stroller through a crowded shopping mall and the infant is absolutely howling at the top of its little lungs. “Please, Jacob, control yourself,” the father said quietly. “Easy now, Jacob, please keep calm.” “Don’t worry Jacob, everything is going to be OK.”
A woman who was watching came up to the father and said, “Congratulations, you really know just how to speak to babies – calmly and gently. So the little one’s name is Jacob?”
“No, ma’am,” the father corrected her. “He’s Michael. I’m Jacob.”
We are all Jacob. When the howling of the world echoes in our ears. Take a deep, slow breath. And remember the beautiful words of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross: “People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.”
You have a light from within. Do the things that can be done. One day at a time. Love the ones who are there to be loved. One day at a time. And you will discover that your inner light alone will chase the darkest shadows away.