Why do I attempt to accomplish so much every day? I’ve got a law practice, a busy rabbinate, non-profit work and I study Talmud each day. Perhaps the answer is modeled by our Patriarch Jacob. We both might suffer from the same sort of neuroses, “high-functioning anxiety.”
Jacob returned to Canaan with his wives, concubines, children, attendants, and lots of goats. In a rare Torah description of emotion, Jacob took action out of fear and anxiety. Anticipating a highly charged if not dangerous reunion with his older brother Esau, he implemented a strategy. Jacob sent emissaries ahead offering gifts to Esau. He divided his family into two camps to ensure that some might survive a deadly confrontation. And then Jacob went off on his own to spend the night.
We first knew Jacob as a master of subterfuge, a bit self-righteous, and a passionate player. And yet, Jacob is a patriarch whose name we invoke in our prayers three times a day. Our tradition does not define Jacob as a bad person. Rather, his complex character is what makes him admirable. For example, a generally negative trait like duplicity, in Jacob’s case, is also a pursuit of a God-inspired plan for the Jewish people’s future.
Jacob’s motivations, both holy and secular, compel him to be shrewd and purposeful. Jacob is a high achiever, who is able to successfully outplay his father-in-law, ingratiate himself to a combative brother, and resettle his family in a promised land. Anticipating a fraught reunion with Esau, Jacob maintained his focus, even while feeling apprehensive.
Many of us transfer our anxiety into hypervigilance in our professions, our family dynamics, and our social interactions. Rather than address the cause of the anxiety, we pride ourselves on being hardworking, detail-oriented, and helpful. Motivated by a desire for success, we build walls to insulate ourselves from processing constrictive emotions. Propelled by a fear of failure, high functioning anxious people hesitate to say “no.” We offer our help just to maintain peaceful relationships. We worry too much about what other people think of us. These are also the ingredients for burnout.
Jacob also modeled for us the antidote to high-functioning anxiety. Nervous and fatigued, Jacob spent the night alone. In a rocky retreat, Jacob wrestled a pugilist angel. Some Torah interpreters say that the angel is a metaphor for Joseph struggling with himself. By dawn, the wrestling match ended, and Jacob had an encounter with God.
On the edge of a disaster for himself and his family, Jacob took a breather. He hit the off switch and created a spatial boundary. Retreating for a night, Jacob pursued a bit of self-care. He created the space for self-awareness and reflection. He struggled with his ego and combatted his fears. Ultimately, he was blessed by God.
Jacob exited his retreat with a permanent injury to his leg. Perhaps his new limp was a reminder of his vulnerability. The injury may have been a blessing; a reminder for Jacob to slow down.
Unlike the agrarian society of the bible, we live in an information age. Our work life and personal life have merged on the screen of our iPhones. For many, the pandemic transformed their home from a sanctuary into a workplace. The high achievement ethos in our community morphed into persistent anxiety to function at peak performance all day and every day. During the pandemic, many could not even relax at home, competing to bake the best sourdough bread or binge-watch the most Netflix programs. Even the conversations around Peloton focused on beating our best times and competing with virtual friends. Our lives were propelled by anxiety.
Jacob’s story reminds us that achieving our best lives requires us to step away from the anxiety-inducing patterns of our lives and make space for God. We might have to wrestle ourselves away from our egos and our fears. Otherwise, the high-functioning anxiety we suffer couldruin our lives. Rather, we can learn from Jacob, to step away long enough to retool our souls. So go for a hike, unroll your yoga mat, take a nap, or read some poetry this coming Shabbat. Turn off the noise in your head about what you need to prove to others, and wrestle with giving space to your best self. High-functioning anxiety may drive you toward financial success or societal status but it is also injurious to your soul.
Rabbi Evan Krame