Jewish man searching in Library

Can Ancient Jewish Wisdom Cure Modern Anxiety?

Our deepest questions need timeless answers.

by Isaac Brickner | March 03 2023

It is often thought that the key to mental wellness is the ability to look inward: to be present with ourselves in the moment, becoming aware of what rises to the surface. Mindfulness and meditation can be helpful practices when they create the environment to enable this type of reflection. But what happens when all we find within is anxiety that cannot be released?

Our hyper-paced society is just starting to discover the negative impact that addictive digital technology has on our flourishing. It seems that issues like loneliness and anxiety are perpetuated in each generation no matter how many technological advances we make.

What if the answer can be found by looking into the past rather than within ourselves? In many areas of life, when it comes to our well-being, perhaps in order to go forward, we must look back.

Reconsidering History

Many of the existential struggles we face have also been experienced by societies in ages past. The recorded teachings of the greatest minds in history have been guiding lights for humanity down through the centuries. And yet, although we have far easier access to the wisdom of the ages than any generation before us, our modern culture has tended to make us both ignorant and suspicious of old ways.

One of the pervasive features of our Western culture in the last few hundred years is a mindset that tends to read history very negatively and view the teachings of more traditional cultures as oppressive or primitive. Isn’t history/herstory/theirstory a tale of shedding the chains of patriarchy in favor of a more advanced, tolerant society?

It was not our generation who invented the concepts of tolerance and inclusivity.

We should absolutely celebrate the fact that we now live in a world that denounces human sacrifice, slavery, and other clear examples of the injustice and ignorance of our ancestors. But let’s not give ourselves too much credit. It was not our generation who invented the concepts of tolerance and inclusivity. The best of our modern ideals and values were first formulated in antiquity, and every generation since has wrestled with living up to these ideals, each succeeding in some ways and failing terribly in others.

If we look into the past with a filter that only shows us the errors of our ancestors, we lose out on a holistic view of not only their shortcomings but also their virtues—many of which are virtues that we seem to have forgotten.

Are We Really Free?

Whereas ancient societies primarily valued things like family and tradition, our society has found meaning in individual freedom and the ability to express ourselves without boundaries. But one unfortunate side effect of our individualism has been a crisis that sneaks in the back door of freedom: choice anxiety.

People today are presented with far more choices to make than in any past human generation. Every day comes to us as a series of hundreds of choices: what to wear, what to buy, what to watch, or what to eat on a Tuesday evening. All the while, commercial advertisers constantly try to elevate our simple choices of preference into deeper questions of personhood. When’s the last time you saw a soda commercial tell you what it tastes like? They never do. What’s for sale is not a drink, but an identity.

And on a deeper level, the identity-defining human questions that in former ages would have been guided (if not determined) by our communities, are now the burden of each of us to decide for ourselves. Where should I live? What career do I pursue? Who do I marry? What do I believe about God? The list goes on and seems to be growing.

The result is an overwhelming number of choices about who to become, and an infinite number of ways to get there.

As author Mark Sayers puts it,

We are drowning in freedoms but thirsting for meaning. The output of such a lopsided system is isolation and an increasing mental health crisis of escalating levels of depression and anxiety. The expansion of choice anxiety and information overload has created an endless sense of confusion and lostness, leading many to recoil from making any forward steps, in fear of making the wrong decision. For many, especially in emerging generations, a sense of paralysis has become the norm.

So, what is the solution according to Sayers?

We have forgotten the wisdom that to find happiness and fulfillment, we sometimes need to reduce our freedom to gain meaning and relationships.

What Is Wisdom?

The ancient Hebrew word for ”wisdom,” hokhma, refers to the capacity to align the pathways of your life with the natural flow and order of the universe. This value is something that our ancestors sought, honored, and prized. It’s an ancient idea, but it’s never been more relevant than in the present.

Rather than just being a synonym for good advice, wisdom has been long understood as a way to live a balanced life that is integrated and harmonious. It means there’s a way to live that corresponds to the way the world actually works, regardless of how we might feel about it, or think it should work.

Ordered limitations create the context out of which a deeper freedom can bloom.

We may believe that what we need is greater freedom from order. But wisdom shows that we actually need order for freedom. The right kind of ordered limitations, order that matches design, create the context out of which a deeper freedom can bloom. Think of a little child singing. They follow no particular rhythm and have no defined sense of pitch, and it’s cute, but not great for listening. It’s only when the child grows up and learns to keep rhythm and obey the rules of scale, key, and harmony that they are actually set free to make beautiful music. Wisdom means embracing the boundaries of the natural order of the world instead of chafing against the design of the cosmos, which leads to less choices, but more freedom.

Wisdom is an ancient idea, but it is supported by modern research. Studies find that people who are presented with a few good choices are likely to choose one and remain happy with their choice long term. But people who are presented with a much wider array of options experience two negative side effects. First, they become less likely to choose, often resulting in paralysis. Second, when they do choose, they are much less likely to be content with their choice. Ironically, the more freedom we inject into our lives, the less free we feel.

We understand this in less academic or philosophical terms when it comes to things like ordering from a menu. There’s something beautifully simplistic about going to In-N-Out Burger. The attractiveness of the menu of this beloved California burger joint is that it only has a few items to choose from, and the fact that the options are good. (Compare this to a place like Burger King, whose slogan for many years was “Have it your way.”)

Who knew there was so much wisdom to be gained from burgers? How do we apply the simple genius of this wisdom to our own lives? It turns out, the universe itself teaches us we have fewer real choices than we think, and in aligning ourselves with this truth, we can find freedom.

The Paradox of Self-Discovery

In nature, true and healthy growth can only occur when it happens according to predetermined patterns that have remained consistent through the ages. One of these patterns is metamorphosis, possibly the most profound example of change we can observe in the natural world. When a caterpillar emerges from a chrysalis, it will inevitably transform, but it will not be anything other than a butterfly, in spite of what it may discover about itself during the process. Its transformation does not come through looking within, but through accepting what is true. The need for self-knowledge is an essential part of the growth process, but it does not change the outcome.

We find our freedom by discovering how to align our lives with this world’s design.

The desire for metamorphosis is innate to the human experience. We all want to grow and leave behind that which hinders us from being the best versions of ourselves. Wisdom teaches us this paradox: that we find our freedom not by breaking free from limitations, but by wrestling with them and discovering how to align our lives with the patterns that are woven into the fabric of this world’s design.

Our true selves are not something we self-design. Only when we can let go of the idea that we can create our truest selves can we be transformed into who we are meant to be.

Perhaps the anxiety so many of us feel is the weight that comes from believing that the freedom to determine our true self belongs to us. That is a burden we were never meant to bear. It is a burden we need to unload to receive our identity rather than achieve it.

Exploring the Ancient Paths Together

Thousands of years ago, the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah wrote, “Ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls” (Jeremiah 6:16). Far from being irrelevant and outdated, the Hebrew Scriptures contain many ancient spiritual tools that can be applied to our modern struggles today.

At Upside Down Los Angeles, we explore ancient wisdom through art, community, events, and experiences. We focus on several key concepts of Jewish life and practice including, Shabbat (rest), B’tzelem Elohim (Divine resemblance), and shalom (wholeness).

We would love for you to join us as we explore ancient wisdom together. If you want to experience metamorphosis in your heart and soul, you have a home with us.

And if you’re a UCLA student in Los Angeles, we invite you to join us for our Aleph conversations, Thursday nights this spring. Learn more ›

Let’s journey to transformation together. Chat with us here or connect with us at upsidedown.com.

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