Feeling Scared? Try This.

Image: “Be kind” written on a sidewalk in chalk. (reneebigelow / Pixabay)

Have you noticed how angry many people seem to be right now? Linda and I noticed it driving home from Oakland on a pleasant Sunday morning. People drove their cars as if the cars were weapons and it was war.

Whatever their politics, a lot of people feel the strain of uncertainty, and often they express their fear with anger. Politics is one big angry fight. Here in California we’re feeling climate change very strongly, and people are worried, some are downright frightened. Things we used to depend on seem undependable.

In such times, I keep myself calm with the first line of the serenity prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Reinhold Niebuhr, American theologian

Much as I’d like to, by myself I can’t fix the climate. I can’t fix Pacific Gas & Electric. I can’t fix Washington. It may be that by voting, in cooperation with others, I may be able to help with those things, but it isn’t Election Day yet. So I have to put those things, for now, on the “accept” list. I don’t like them, but that’s reality.

What do I have the power to change? I can choose to be one tranquil person, one kind person, out there on the road and in the world generally. I can choose that each person with whom I interact leaves our conversation at least no more upset than they were when we began.

  • I can say “no” kindly, when I have to say no.
  • I can say “yes” with grace, when I can say yes.
  • I can maintain a calm and kind presence.
  • I can be a careful driver, neither in a hurry nor too slow.
  • I can focus on the Jewish value of kindness, chesed, and try to bring it to every interaction.

More thoughts about kindness:

The world rests upon three things: Torah, worship, and acts of kindness.

Pirkei Avot 1:2

Acts of kindness never die. They linger in the memory, giving life to other acts in return.

– Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in From Optimism to Hope

The Torah begins and ends with striking examples of acts of loving kindness. God clothes Adam and Eve and buries Moses personally.

– Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, “Loving Kindness in the Torah

My own behavior is one thing I can control. Kindness is what each of us can bring to the world in times of trouble.

A Visitor to Beit Adar

Image: One very unhappy skunk. Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar. “Beit Adar” means “The house of Adar.”

I woke this morning to the sound of three poodles barking. They were going absolutely bananas – something was wrong. I got my cane and went out back to investigate.

To my horror, the three of them were gathered around a skunk. I waded in and hollered “Leave it!” and when that didn’t work on one of them, used my cane to push her away. I locked the dogs in the house, much to their annoyance.

It seemed odd that the skunk had been sitting still for all the barking until I saw that she was stuck in a hole in the old wire fence. She had apparently used up her spray earlier, probably during the night, because I couldn’t get more than a slight whiff of the odor. She seemed exhausted.

(No, I do not know the gender of the skunk. I’m assuming, and perhaps projecting.)

I called Animal Control. The police department picked up, and they informed me that (1) Animal Control had been budget-cut out of existence and (2) I should call a pest control company. I called a couple of pest control companies, and they “don’t do skunks.” Slightly relieved (exterminators?!) I texted friends and family looking for suggestions.

My friend Jake texted me and said he was coming over. He threw a cloth over the skunk’s head and nipped the wires holding her. She backed out and headed down the hill. Now he’s out mending the fence for me.

So why put this on the blog? A couple of Jewish values came into play here.

  1. Chesed – kindness. Jake was kind to come over and help me. There was a time when I might have gone out there and cut the skunk free myself, but I am no longer able to do that sort of thing. He took time out of his day to help.
  2. Tza’ar ba’alei chayim is a negative commandment. We are commanded not to be unnecessarily cruel to animals. I did not let the dogs torment the skunk, even after I knew that she was unlikely to spray them. Jake was as gentle as he could be to the creature.  Leaving her caught in the fence would have been wrong. Killing her would also have been wrong, unless there was no way to free her.

Torah is not just about “spiritual” matters. In fact, within Torah there is no distinction between spiritual things and other things. Torah applies to all of life, even to a little skunk stuck in a fence.