Shaya Cohen -


Human Defense Mechanisms

We are afraid.

We are afraid of change, and so we are afraid of change itself. We fear having too many choices, or too few. We are afraid of the dark. We are afraid of what we do not know – which is, once you think about it, quite a lot!

Countless psychological studies have shown that people fear risk much more than they value reward. Wallowing in misery is so much more predictable, safe than taking risks that could lead to wildly different and unpredictable outcomes. This is why engineers manage risk but not reward. Irrational fear explains why a key metric for stocks is their volatility: people fear volatility, even though a volatile stock merely swings around more but often does, on average, produce higher returns.

We even fear success and happiness and good times, instinctively hiding behind superstition (like voiding the evil eye) so as to not appear to be doing well.

So how does mankind deal with this fear? In a lot of ways, most of which defy reason.

Take, for example, the Rain Dance.

It sounds stupid, right? The weather has been dry. You need rain. So you do this big dance to ask some deity in the sky to make it rain. There is lots of preparation and energy expended. You show your commitment by really getting into it. You might sacrifice a goat or even a child. It is a big investment.

What happens?

It rains. Of course it does. Because sooner or later, any inhabited place gets some rain. It is churlish to even ask whether the rain dance was the cause: how can you prove that it was not the cause?!

Today, of course, we live in Modern Times. We don’t have rain dances, that is silly stone-age paganism, the quaint practice of ignorant savages. Nor do we make offerings to the Forces of Nature like those Indians did. It is not as if we inconvenience ourselves every day by, say, taking time to sort out our garbage to show our obsequious devotion to some pagan life force deity like The Environment.

Oh, wait.

Lest you think I am just picking on ordinary citizens who worship at the altar of Sustainability, blind and deaf to whether or not rinsing out a tuna fish can will make any actual difference to whether the Rain Gods will strike us all with Climate Change, let me assure you that I am committed to being an Equal Opportunity Critic.

My own co-religionists have their own version of the Rain Dance: I call it Rain Dance Judaism. It comes from the belief that what G-d really wants, more than anything, is blind and unthinking and slavish attention to every possible tittle and jot of every law, custom and stringency in our entire, millennia-old, databank of laws, customs, and stringencies. And that, if we do it just right, then G-d will, in His way, Make It Rain. If, somehow, we are not blessed in return, then we obviously have failed by error or omission. We must redouble our efforts!

Why? Because we fear the unknown. We fear the realization that G-d is not there to be bribed; that he does not want sacrifices or rain dances or even blessings for His own sake: he wants us to internalize them, to improve and change ourselves and the world around us. He wants us to embrace life and living, complete with all its unknowns and fears, to reject the cocooning belief that if we slavishly go through the motions just so that All Will Be Well.

I don’t have to pick on Judaism, of course. There is an element of the Rain Dance in most people, found whenever rituals become ends in themselves, instead of means to a higher and holier end.

In the greater culture, I see a wide range of similar Rain Dance defense mechanisms against the unknown, against risks and good times, against being happy. These defense mechanisms are ways to seemingly insulate ourselves from risks, by somehow pre-emptively choosing to limit ourselves and suffer instead of having fear thrust upon us. And we somehow always acquiesce to the madness of these devotees, even – especially – when we are the afflicted.

I think this is a deep, instinctive human instinct in response to uncertainty. I think these fears are at the root of all kinds of good things, like marriage and family and community, and faith.

But the response to uncertainty is also the driving force behind a lot of bad things, too, like political and regional and dress tribalism as well as a range of self-limiting behaviors from crazy diets to faddish alternative medicines to all the aforementioned irrational nature-worshipping paganism that is now almost taken for granted in American society.

Our desire to be insulated from the Unknown throws up all kinds of defense mechanisms. People instinctively reject outsiders in a wide variety of ways, from labelling to openly dehumanizing The Other. Racism and Xenophobia and Anti-Semitism all keep coming back, attracted by enormous forces within the human psyche.

We are seeing it in today’s incredibly polarized political debate, where friends and families have been torn asunder merely because one person supports or rejects Trump and cannot handle anyone who has a different position. That, too, is a defense mechanism born from fear.

People love to revert to instinct. Associating with the herd provides safety. Anyone who disagrees with the herd deserves being righteously trampled by that same herd, protecting its own. Facebook’s witch hunts are reminiscent of villagers with pitchforks, the mindless mob seeking to crush the outsider (there is a reason the Torah tells us so many times to love the stranger).

There are all kinds of herds: they may have different beliefs, but the ways in which they defend themselves are invariably the same. Blacks or whites or Muslims may defend their own. But so do atheists, who reject faith out of hand, blind to their own irrational faith in Reason. The color of the spots may be different, but the instinctive and reflexive defense mechanisms against outsiders and their ideas are no different.

Religious people have their own defense mechanisms: we use faith not merely as a spur to personal growth, but we also use it as a defense against the things they cannot explain. In this form of pushing away our fears, everything that is not explainable becomes rolled into the “We Are Not Meant to Know” category, practiced by the devout. And that, too, is a way to find solace in the face of uncertainty.

It sounds very nice and pious: “God has a plan.” But if we don’t know what that plan is, then why does invoking the mantra somehow serve as an excuse for inaction? After all, who is to say that we are not meant to be actors or counteractors in that very same plan?! And yet, “God has a plan” invariably is like waiting for Superman or the Messiah to come in and save the day, while we applaud from the bleachers instead of taking the field.

“We cannot know” is itself a form of a Rain Dance: we express our devotion and faith (but no actual useful action), and leave the rest up to external forces. We have done our part by expressing our faith – our faith not truly rooted in G-d’s omniscience, but instead a deep and unshakeable faith in our surety that we are ignorant and helpless. In other words, this mantra is a drug that inspires nothing more than passivity.

A key challenge in building relationships with other people or with our Creator is that we have to step outside our comfort zone, we have to be willing to endure the fear of the unknown, accept that while we may not know the outcome, we are not free to simply stand aside and wait for someone else to do something. In other words, caring about other people requires us to accept risk. We must rise above our insulated thinking and actions, just as we must be willing to fight the instinctive tribalism in our hearts that tells us to reject other people because they are different than we are.

But it is more than this: deciding that We Cannot Know is actually an excuse to stop thinking. When we hide behind blind faith and belief in The Divine Plan, then we use it as an excuse to not think about the hard questions, the challenging and frightening questions that open doors into the dark.

If We Cannot Know, then there is no point in asking the question, and all potential answers are never more than empty speculation. Such thinking leads to theological sloth and then slumber.

I am not opposed to ritual – not at all. I follow the commandments, and I try to be a strictly observant Jew. But I do it knowing that the purpose of the Laws of the Torah and Moses are really to provide the STRUCTURE that allows us grow. To the extent that the routine and ritual and structure helps us grow, then we are freed up to do beautiful and creative things. But when those rituals become their own purpose, then we have entered Rain Dance territory.

Praying in the morning kicks off my day, and everything works better with the rituals that I engage in throughout my working and Sabbath days. The ongoing rituals frame and allow for freedom and creativity everywhere else. BUT when those commandments become an obsession in themselves, then they can go too far, and suck out our lives rather than nurturing them.

So we can believe that G-d Has a Plan. And that belief is not necessarily bad in itself, as long as it does not become an excuse for becoming a spectator instead of G-d’s own agent in this world. As an agent, I can consider myself part of G-d’s plan. But as a spectator, I have made myself irrelevant and useless to our creator.

The Torah describes early mankind as being either evil or merely directionless. The world was not improving. And while there were occasionally righteous people, they had a very limited impact on the world around them.

Maybe G-d gave us the Torah after He realized that we do not function without the skeleton of commandments, within which we can be productive and creative. So that would mean that early man, lacking those rituals and structures, were aimless and wasted – which is exactly what the Flood Generation was, as well as Avraham’s contemporaries.

This may be why G-d went through the trouble of giving us the Torah, of giving us commandments. We need ritual, we need those structures that allow us to learn how to deal with the fear of the unknown. We need commandments that remind us of the importance of loving each other and seeking a relationship with G-d – and the rituals that help keep us on track, with our eyes on the ball.

There can be no argument with the historical accomplishment of the Torah: it is the single most foundational text for all of Western Civilization. But I do not think its work is done even these thousands of years later, because we keep instinctively seeking to avoid fear and uncertainty and risk, seeking refuge in rain dance ritual observance or groupthink that shields us from engaging emotionally and spiritually and intellectually.

Comments are welcome!

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