A friend told me of woman trying to pick a paint color for her bedroom. Two shades of green were appealing. But which one? The home owner spent a month tortured by the decision. She went to the paint store a dozen times, asked her friend’s opinions, and changed her mind as regularly as a heart beat. Finally she picked one. She liked it, but continued to wonder if the other shade was really better. She had problems sleeping and was worried for weeks if she had made the right decision.
A psychologist might diagnose obsessive compulsive disorder; a psychiatrist would write her a script for Prozac. But these conflicts are also spiritual crises, a lack of trust in the essential goodness of the world. It replaces faith with worry Our Biblical tradition sees this conflict as a battle between the evil instinct (yetzer ha’ra) and the good (yetzer ha’tov). In spite of the stress such conflicts engender, they offer an opportunity to establish deeper clarity in our life.
The agony this woman went through reflects an underlying fear that wrong decisions will destroy our world, and the myth that a right decision would bring peace. A spiritual teacher of mine, Tara Birch, said that a wrong decision threatens to make us feel worthless. Obsessions are disastrous interpretations of normal day to day decisions. Our self becomes so wedded to being right that wrongness destroys the edifice of self we took years to construct. We are frail.
It also reflects a lack of faith, trust in the world, an underlying conviction that the world will let us down, that life ultimately betrays us.
We become so invested in an outcome, that there is always a concomitant fear of a wrong result leading to personal disintegration. The fact is, there is no certainty in the world. At best, despite our most careful efforts, life can be no more than an educated guess. If fact, it is rare for things to turn out as we planned. A Daoist proverb says, “ The archer can control the way he releases the arrow, but cannot control where it lands.”
The good news is that it rarely matters.
While we cannot control the outcome, we can choose to use the pain of our struggle towards more self-understanding. The more conflicted we are, the deeper we can go through the layers of our psyche. Spiritually we can use our doubts to open us up, to dig deeply and to recreate our self. The obsessive self is racked with fear, closed and rigid to the world. Doubt and fear touch our heart. If they stay there, they sink us like a rock. But they also provide a springboard to create a new self; one that is flexible, open and treats our mistakes as joy in our own imperfections. It has the potential to awaken us to what really matters; love, connection and faith.
In fact we need to die to be reborn. The false self, built on an edifice of false perfection, has to go before the real “I” appears. The real self is not imbued with perfection but with an open heart alive with wonder, not fearful of life and its contradictions and imperfections, but using conflict as a teacher.
Michael Abramsky PhD, ABPP