As I write these words, 31 people were murdered and dozens injured in mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio within a 13-hour period. These days, when hardly a day goes by without news of similar acts of violence across America, we anxiously wait for the next shoe to drop.
At a time of heightened anxiety, how do we manage our fears? Wedged on a bookshelf between books by Harold Kushner and Elliot Dorff, I found my answer staring me in the face: Peace of Mind by Joshua Loth Liebman. This small, yellowed, frayed volume belonged to my mother, and has been sitting in my bookcase since cleaning out my parents’ apartment twenty years ago.
I never would have expected that a self-help book published in 1946 (available today through Amazon and other online sellers) would give me profound insights on how to cope with 21st century challenges. Until recently, I had never even leafed through my mother’s treasured copy.
But now I so crave peace of mind. The world I have always known has collapsed. Children are no longer safe at school, houses of worship and shopping centers have become massacre sites, and America is no longer a safe haven for immigrants. As fear looms in the background, I wake up every morning wondering, “What does the latest Twitterstorm have in store for us today?”
Rabbi Dr. Liebman was spiritual leader of Temple Israel of Boston, the largest Reform synagogue in New England, until his death in 1948 at the age of 41. He was also a nationally broadcast radio preacher and university lecturer. In Peace of Mind, Liebman draws from his pastoral counseling experience and his own psychoanalysis to show how psychology and religion can work hand in hand to forge a pathway to inner peace and spiritual healing – something as desperately needed in today’s chaotic world order as in the aftermath of World War II destruction.
It’s easy to understand why after World War II atrocities, Peace of Mind fast became a best seller — why it topped the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list and why it remained on the list for more than three years. Importantly, its words of spiritual wisdom continue to speak to us more than 70 years later when we still seek inner calm and reassurance. No matter the topic – whether it is love, fear, or God – Liebman seems to understand the reader and speak directly to one’s inner psyche. Certainly to mine!
Peace of Mind appeals to every day personal anxieties, insecurities, career failures, financial worries, and other concerns that grip the human psyche. Nevertheless, it is the chapter, Fear Wears Many Masks, which speaks to my soul in our dystopic world order.
Today there’s no shortage of reasons to be fearful, both from dangers close at hand and those far away. Worshippers no longer feel safe at prayer, while North Korea missiles, Iran’s nuclear capabilities, and worldwide terrorism are ever-present fears. So I find comfort in Liebman’s reassuring words, which were written in the wake of the Holocaust and Hiroshima when the atomic bomb was a looming threat:
“This is a dangerous world in which we live, and no normal person can face life without facing countless fears and worries. They are part of the fee we pay for citizenship in an unpredictable universe. But if it is normal for us to experience fear and worry, it is also possible to master those enemies of serenity. Man’s greatest triumph, Bernard Russell declares in A Free Man’s Worship is to achieve stability and inner repose in a world of shifting threats and terrifying change.”
We have long been accustomed to airport security. But now, when it comes to security at houses of worship and various public venues, we can no longer bury our heads in the sand. Liebman writes: “In a certain sense, man is blessed by are his capacity to know fear…It is good that we know how to grow afraid because there are fearful objects and hostile forces that we must all learn to avoid and conquer if we are to survive.”
Importantly, Peace of Mind reminds us that fear can also inspire human creativity: “All of the inventions and discoveries of human civilization are in a sense by-products of our fears and worries…If we take away man’s capacity to fear, we would take away, also, his capacity to growth, the goad to invention.”For example, fear of missiles led to the development of the Iron Dome defense system which has successfully intercepted missile attacks on Israel.
So instead of remaining fearful, I am grateful for the gift of being human: “The truth is that man has to pay the price of fear and worry in order to be human…Our susceptibility to anxiety is the soil of our human growth, our human dream and vision.”
Yet my bones chill upon reading: “…A certain amount of anxiety is normal to us all. We cannot help it in this time of separation of families, international tension, and economic and social uncertainty. The wisdom of life is ‘to endure what we must and to change what we can.”‘
As I cling to these words written when there were millions of post-war refugees, my mind naturally turns to 21st century reality in America: asylum seekers housed in squalid detention camps, 900 more children separated at the U.S.-Mexico border, and immigration raids in our nation’s cities.
How though do we master the fear that envelops us today? As Peace of Mind teaches, “We can master fear not only by understanding it and accepting ourselves; we can also master it through work…work which gives us dignity and which will help to bring about a society where there will be food and security and freedom for all.” That’s the lesson for us all.
Paula Jacobs has published in a variety of digital and print publications including Tablet Magazine, the
Forward, and The Jerusalem Post. She lives with her husband in suburban Boston, and enjoys sharing
her expertise on the best falafel in Tel Aviv which she visits frequently.