How many times was I told that there was nothing that could be done about my back pain; that there was no obvious cause of my pain, and that I would just have to learn to live with it? So, that’s what I did. The smorgasbord of treatments that I tried over the years include, but are not limited to: pain killers, chiropractic adjustment, Alexander Technique, acupuncture, Chinese cupping therapy, osteopathy, physical therapy, water therapy and massage therapy.
One Shabbat afternoon, my neighbor handed me a copy of Dr. Sarno’s “Healing Back Pain: The Mind Body Connection.” I learned about Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS), and that physical pain doesn’t have (only) physical causes. As I kept reading about the mind body connection, I realized how much of this I had already learned from Judaism. Yet, I’d never thought to connect it with my chronic back pain. Then, I read Sarno’s description of the patient who commonly experiences TMS: “a worrier, overly conscientious and responsible, compulsive and perfectionist.” “Well, hello there, Dr. Sarno, pleased to meet you.”
The insights from this book helped me feel dramatically better almost overnight. While awareness of my “condition” was the first step, I knew the only way I could free myself from back pain forever was to consistently work on my mind. That is, reduce the worrying, the need for control, being high strung. I realized that, although I was a Shabbat observant, kosher, “woman of faith,” my back pain had been pointing at my inability to exercise trust in G-d, otherwise known as bitachon.
The story is told of a humble man walking to the marketplace while carrying a heavy load. A rich man passed by on his wagon and offered the simple man a ride. After a few minutes, the gentleman asked, “Why don’t you take the load off your back?” The simple man replied, “Isn’t it enough that your horses have to carry my weight? I should also burden them with the weight of my bag?”
All those years, I’d been like the foolish man in the story. Schlepping a heavy load on my tiny back! I reckon I’m not the only one. We worry about our jobs, our health, our parents, our finances, not meeting due-dates, not waking up to our alarm clocks, being late for meetings, missing our plane, and even about the plane crashing, G-d forbid. And, if you’re a parent … well, you know how that goes. A 2018 study estimated that parents spend a whopping 37 hours a week worrying about their children. Imagine what the number would be had they exclusively surveyed Jewish mothers. Oy!
Worrying makes us feel like we’ve got it all under control. “If I don’t worry about this problem, who else will?” In other words, “my worry, will help avoid disaster.” Pretentious, back pain-inducing narishkeit!
Worry has become like the friend without boundaries, who texts you a hundred times a day. It doesn’t matter if you’re reading your child a book, getting ready for an important meeting, or playing mah-jongg (and why wasn’t she invited?), she needs to talk to you “right now!” What she really needs is to make an appointment.
Is there a better alternative to our pervasive worrying? Offload those pesky problems to Someone who can handle them way better than you and I can, as hard as that may be to admit. Accept that we’re not in the driver’s seat, and that G-d, the real Driver, doesn’t need our worry to get things done. Go figure!
Is all worrying negative? Are we meant to be carefree? No. There is productive worrying, in so far as it leads us to take steps to solve our problems. For example, if we were to schedule some of those 37 weekly hours to think of constructive ideas to better our children’s education and development – and then incorporate specific actions towards that goal on our regular schedules – that would be productive. Obsessively thinking about whether those will yield their intended results, or not, when you’re going about your day – probably not so constructive. In my case, the minute I start feeling the lower back flare up, I know it’s time to strengthen the bitachon muscle.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory,
You have the choice whether to worry if the blessing will, or won’t, materialize – and, when it finally does materialize, you will be doubly burdened as to why you wasted so much energy worrying in vain. Alternatively, you may choose to be strong in your faith, and trust that G‑d will lead you and fulfill all your needs. Then, you will be able to say: ‘Look how well I handled the situation, that I didn’t worry about things there was no reason to worry about’ (Igros Kodesh, vol 4. Letter 984).
The Rebbe also writes: “Now consider: Is G-d really in need of your worry as to how He is going to run your affairs and solve your problems? Or, will He succeed in finding good solutions, even without your worrying?” (Igrot Kodesh, vol. 4, p. 256).
Feel the weight lifting off your shoulders? Good. His shoulders are much broader than yours. Feel your back relaxing? Good. He’s got your back! So, why worry?
This article first appeared in The Jewish Herald Voice, June 20,2019