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To worry or not to worry: A Mussar dilemma

Rabbi Marcia Plumb

To my UK Friends: You don’t need me to tell you how hot it was in the UK last week. It is hot in Boston too, but we are not

sweating the way you were. We have a breeze and the temperature is manageable. We also have air conditioning in parts of our house.

But my 101 year old mother in law in Birmingham, UK does not. She, perhaps like you, had all the doors and windows open to encourage a bit of air to cool down the oven of her house.

I was worried about her. The elderly can dehydrate so quickly, and are less able to regulate their internal temperature. My mother in law is as strong and tough as they come, but she is still 101. I called her in the morning to see how she was and she sounded fine. But she did not agree to my suggestion to drink a glass of water every hour. She didn’t want me fussing over her and telling her what to do.

Her lack of enthusiasm over drinking made me worry even more. Would she end up dehydrated and ill by the end of the day? My imagination about what might happen went into overdrive.

Then I remembered my Mussar toolkit. Mussar is an ancient Jewish method for character development and soul refinement. Mussar teaches us how to manage our experiences, thoughts, challenges and feelings.

I was beginning to feel anxious about my mother in law. My Mussar learning kicked in. Mussar has taught me to ask: Will worrying help me? It might. Sometimes worrying about something that might happen in the future helps us create contingency plans. I am big into Plan A and Plan B.

But in the case of my mother in law sitting in the middle of a UK heat wave, I had to acknowledge that worrying about her would do no good at all. She was thousands of miles away. My anxiety would not help her, or me, one bit. Imagining what might happen if she got dehydrated was unhelpful. My worry would not change the situation.

So, believe it or not, I stopped worrying. I took control of my runaway thoughts, and dragged them back from future fears into present realities. Mussar on the trait (middah) of worry teaches that we do what we can, then let go of worry.

What could I do instead of worry? I decided to call her during the day, and discussed the situation with my husband’s family who live in England, and could be with her if needed much quicker than I could. Once I had done those things, I had a choice (a behira point in Mussar-speak). I could continue to fantasize about what might happen throughout the heatwave. Or I could choose not to worry. I decided upon the latter.

It is not easy to stop worrying. I certainly have done my share. But working on my anxiety through Mussar teachings, I have learned to choose when to worry and when to let it go.

The next time you find yourself feeling anxious about the future, try using the Mussar question: Will worrying help me or the situation? If the answer is yes, then use the worry to create plans or take action. If the answer is no, then imagine yourself taking the worry, and putting it in a paper bag outside your room or home. It will still be there if you decide to start worrying again; you can pick it up anytime you like.

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