Shaya Cohen -


Jailing Our Own Minds: Being Governed by Fear

A life in which we cannot constructively live is, in its own way, a life of torture. After all, we don’t get much of a chance in this world. So if we knowingly waste the opportunities afforded us, then we are consciously wasting our lives. That prospect terrifies me; in the time afforded me, I want to get as much done as I possibly can.

I think this is a key reason why Freedom is so important to me: the more freedom we have to make positive choices, the better our lives can be. Nothing is more precious than the choices we freely make, thoughtfully understanding that there is far more to the world than is known by the hedonistic narcissist, living his best life, in the moment.

The problem is that most people, most of the time, are afraid of freedom. The Tyranny of Choice is a leading cause of instinctive tribalism, of people actively making choices that will reduce future choices – like electing autocratic governments. Above all, people want to be relieved of responsibility for their own decisions. It is a devilish part of human nature, as much as I wish it were otherwise. Freedom does not sell to most people, most of the time.

Being free takes courage. It requires us to embrace that we will have to act (sometimes alone) to combat evil. It requires us to take responsibility not only for ourselves, but for our loved ones and our community, and all that we hold dear.

But most people, most of the time, are not courageous. They aspire to normality and mediocrity, and often fall short of even that low bar.

But why?

I think we often underestimate the paralyzing power of fear. Even when we know it is irrational, we are often bound by it; fear is our jailer. It is even a biblical curse.

You shall flee though none pursues. (Lev. 26:17)

I will cast a faintness into their hearts in the land of their enemies. The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight. Fleeing as though from the sword, they shall fall though none pursues. (Lev. 26:36)

I have a radical thought about this, a thought that even I am unsure is defensible or even reasonable. In the Torah, these curses come about when we refuse to connect with G-d, when we close our minds to Him, when we lock Him out.

What if the text is telling us that in each person there is an open space for our general mindset, and that something has to go in that space? If we connect with G-d, then He can be in our hearts and minds, and we can live on that basis. But if we lock G-d out, then the space becomes a vacuum – and we all know what happens to vacuums. One way or another, something will move into that space.

What if, as per this biblical curse, irrational fear is what fills the hearts of those who lack a relationship with G-d?

Now, obviously, this is a gross overgeneralization. There are many nervous nellies among devout people, just as there are stalwart and brave atheists. But if I had to guess, I’d say that in America, religious people are much more likely to believe in optimism, investments in the future, and purpose-driven lives. They are less afraid, on the whole, than those who deny G-d’s existence or who consider Him largely irrelevant to their lives.

I’d say that entrepreneurs are most resistant to paralyzing fear than are most other groups of people. One study from 2013 concludes that “entrepreneurs prayed more frequently than other people and were more likely to believe that God was personally responsive to them.”

Society has long noticed that attention span has been consistently shortened over time; we now seem to live in a period of endless new fears, a sort of roaming hysteria, constantly trying to find something new to worry about. From Alar to Climate Change, Covid to Monkeypox, there is always something new, driven by a particularly anti-religious media. And the new terrors, in turn, clamp onto those who lack of their own spiritual or emotional constancy, and as a result literally crave fear. It is the biblical curse, to run in terror even when there is no pursuit.

Do the most fearful people you know also have relatively weak relationships with G-d?

Comments are welcome!

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