Stress and Less

By: Barry Dolinger

Based on anecdotal evidence and personal experience, it’s a safe bet that we’re all there at some time or another (if not most times). Like Lucy in the chocolate factory, we’re simply overwhelmed by the unending conveyor belt of tasks and responsibilities. E-mails come in to multiple accounts quicker than anyone can possibly keep up, and the number of things that must get done seems infinite yet growing. Try as we might, it’s simply too hard to keep up. Rather, the best we can do is juggle while hoping that whatever falls doesn’t actually break and that we can pick up and resume the act as seamlessly as possible.

I’ll admit it. Recently, the daily grind of life was getting to me, and I became consumed by stress. It began to affect my physical health; ironically, to me, the health problems seemed only to complicate and add more strain to a schedule with little room for error and unexpected surprises. Try as I might, I was forced to withdraw a bit as I visited doctors and recovered from a variety of relatively minor ailments.

God wasn’t done laughing yet, though. Just as this was going on, my cell phone broke, which left me stranded and isolated. This was compounded further by the fact that the fine folks at Sprint managed to call my non-working cell number to inform me that my new cell phone was ready…. Of course, I didn’t get the message, and the new phone was shipped back to the manufacturer – more waiting.

All of this, and it was the week before Passover. For rabbis, Passover is most certainly the busiest time of year. It’s no mere coincidence that it often happens to coincide with tax season. Can I still sell my chametz? Is aluminum foil Kosher? Do Ashkenazim eat carrots? Need I repaint my walls or is merely covering the house in aluminum sufficient? Though the answers rarely change, each year presents questions and questioners fueled sometimes by curiosity but often by centuries of carefully conditioned neurosis and bizarrely creative thinking.

Sensing the stress and aware of a sermon I had given on the subject, one kind family decided to gift me a book entitled “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.” Though I have yet to finish the book, the main thesis is that the answer to being stretched too thin and worn out is to choose the most important things and do only those while cutting out the many non-essential facets of life. Certainly, the idea has plenty of merit, and it’s worthwhile to pursue. As the sages say in Ethics of the Fathers, “The more property, the more worry.” Still, as I thought about it more, I couldn’t help feeling that attempts to cut out more would lead to different yet unrealized stresses, and the cycle would continue unabated.

On Monday, my wife and I (convinced by a sign in a store window) decided to venture over to a lecture entitled “Mindfulness for Busy People” at Brown University given by Gen Kelsang Jampa, an American Buddhist Monk. The central thesis of his light but serious, soft yet powerful talk was that modern life is simply busy and stressful no matter how you slice it. Attempts at controlling environment and limiting stress are unsuccessful in the main and unlikely to succeed. Rather, he argued, it’s the inner life and inner peace we need to foster, so that the business doesn’t cause a deficit in virtue, care, loving-kindness, and self-control. Much as Viktor Frankl argued that meaning and purpose helped create a sense of fulfillment and happiness even in the midst of the horrors of Auschwitz, Gen Kelsang Jampa implored us to remain aware and in control to protect ourselves from external “wild elephant minds” and from becoming the destructive creature ourselves.

On the eve of a trip to Poland, with a broken cell phone and many tasks remaining on today’s to-do list, I’m publicly committing myself to a Passover resolution. (Hey, it’s the first Jewish month according to the Torah’s count.) I’m going to try to make a concerted effort at being more aware, less affected and more proactive, and attempt to become a more peaceful and docile island in a sea of turbulence. Wish me luck, but don’t call my cell – it’s still broken.

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