Do you know how to handle stress? We all face it. And we know it can hurt us. Yet, we struggle with how to handle it.
A recent study found only 23 percent of people feel they are doing “an excellent or very good job at managing or reducing stress.”
Now picture some relaxed people you know. How have they gotten that way?
Some may have genetic predispositions. Studies of happiness indicate that about 50 percent of a person’s “happiness quotient” is a result of DNA.
Perhaps the same can be said for our level of stress. What, then are some strategies we can use to address the other 50 percent?
As a person and teacher of faith, I look at this question from a spiritual perspective. Yet, this perspective does not ignore the scientific and psychological insights.
In fact, some spiritual practices have long known what science recently discovered. Here are seven of them:
1. Pray: Prayer is not about asking for things. It is about gaining perspective. It is about reminding ourselves of what is most important. Taking a moment to pray helps us step out of the trees to look at the forest.
2. Join a community: An op-ed in the New York Times by Ross Douthat connected the rise in suicide to weakened social ties. Americans with little connection to established social institutions are more lonely and depressed. Studies show that joining a group that meets just once a month reduces our stress increases our life span.
3. Unload to a friend: Religions have long had a structure for expressing our grief or pain or anxiety.
In Judaism the custom of praying and studying together forms relationships to provide an emotional balance and partnership for processing the challenges of life. All of us need find a way get out what is hurting us inside.
4. Breathe: The Hebrew language uses the same word for “breath” and “soul.” Every breath we take nourishes the soul.
This habit is accessible to us wherever are. We can pause and breath deeply. It can instantly help us slow down.
5. Change your language: Our words shape our thoughts. They help form our perception of what we are experiencing.
So often we use highly charged language to describe our feelings. “We are exhausted,” or “so upset” or “really frustrated.” If we try to dial down our language, we may find that our feelings follow.
6. Sleep: Unless we are a new parent or part of the .001 percent of the population who are the exception to the rule, we need to sleep for 7-8 hours on a regular basis.
We were not made to keep going and going. We were made for cycles of work and rest.
If we do not get enough sleep, we have shorter attention spans.We are usually more impatient and short with others.
Getting a good night’s sleep may sound like common sense. But it is wisdom many choose not to follow at their own peril.
7. Observe the Sabbath: This habit follows the logic of the previous one. God did not create us to run at full-speed all the time.
We need to rest. Fortunately, a day of rest was built into the order of creation. The story of the seven days of creation is meant to teach us that God intended for us to take a full day for rest.
To observe the Sabbath, you do not necessarily need to follow all the Jewish laws or Christian practices.
Just change what you do. Appreciate. Breathe. Pray Do not feel the need to be productive. Try not to talk about work. Try to do activities that replenish your mind and soul.
A great musician was once asked by an admirer: “How do you handle the notes as well as you do?” The musician answered: “The notes I handle no better than many pianists, but the pauses between the notes–ah! That is where the art resides.” Rest is our pause between the notes of life.
In the Hebrew Bible, Moses is not the strongest of men. He is the not the wisest of men. He is not even very eloquent or charismatic.
He has a speech impediment that requires his brother Aaron to step in and speak on his behalf.
But Moses does have one quality in greater abundance than any man on earth: humility. This picture above may not convey it, but the Torah says, “he was the most humble man on earth.” (Numbers 12:23)
So what does that teach us? Well, when we think of leaders today, we rarely think of humility.
1. Hanukkah is not the Jewish Christmas.
The parallels are striking. Both happen near the end of the secular year. Both center around lights. And both involve gift giving.
But, despite their outward similarities, the two are vastly different in religious meaning. Christmas is a central Christian holiday, marking the birth of Jesus. Hanukkah, which is not found in the Hebrew Bible, celebrates the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple by a group of Jewish fighters and priests known as the Maccabees. Hanukkah has gained outsized spiritual attention in America because of its proximity to Christmas, but historically it has been a relatively minor Jewish holiday.
2. There is no one right away to spell Hanukkah.
The first letter of the Hebrew word is a chet, which has no English equivalent. Many traditional Jews prefer “Ch,” even though it is a different sound than the “ch” in a word like “chapter.” Some prefer the “H,” but the “H” lacks the guttural sound of the Hebrew. Both are used interchangeably.
3. The Hanukkah candelabra is known as a hanukkiyah, not a menorah. (Get a cheat sheet for all the Jewish holidays here.)
The menorah is the seven-wicked candelabra that stood in the Jerusalem Temple. It became a symbol of Judaism and is carved into one of the gates of Rome as a symbol of the Roman conquest of Judea in 70 C.E. The hanukkiyah, in contrast, has nine wicks. One wick, typically in the center, is set apart from the others and known as the shamash, or “head” candle. It is used to light the other eight candles.
4. We light the candles from left to right, but add candles each evening from right to left.
In other words, we start by lighting the right-most candle on the first evening of Hanukkah. Then we add another candle to its left. We light that new candle first, and then light the right-most candle. This process continues through eight nights.
5. Some families replace eight nights of gift giving with a mix of learning, social action, and giving.
At my synagogue, we encourage families to take at least one night to volunteer as a family or gather toys and clothing to donate.
6. The custom of playing with a dreidel (spinning top) is based on a German gambling game.
A spinning top with various letters printed on its side was played in both Germany and England from about the sixteenth century onward. European Jews adopted the game and replaced the German and English letters with Hebrew ones. Now it is used to amuse children throughout the holiday.
7. A dreidel made in Israel is different than a dreidel made outside of Israel.
Outside of Israel, the letters on the dreidel are an acronym for “A great miracle happened there.” In Israel the letters stand for “A great miracle happened here.”
8. The traditional Hanukkah foods are potato pancakes (latkes) and jelly donuts.
Both foods involve frying and oil. Oil symbolizes the miracle of Hanukkah. According to Jewish tradition, the Maccabees found a tin of oil in the Temple after they recaptured it. It was only supposed to provide enough light for one night. It miraculously lasted for eight.
9. There are two main Hanukkah stories.
The origins of Hanukkah lie the battle between the Jewish zealots known as Maccabees and the Seleucid King Antiochus. The Maccabees won, and the holiday began as a way to celebrate their victory. This story is told in the Apocryphal Book of Maccabees.
When Jews had lost their independence and were ruled by the Roman Empire 500 years later, Jewish leaders downplayed the military part of the story and focused on the religious miracle of a tin of oil lasting for eight days. The emphasis on the spiritual rather than the military aspects of the holiday made it less susceptible to Roman suppression.
10. Many American Jews see Hanukkah as a celebration of our religious freedom.
The Maccabees began their revolt because Antiochus forced the Jews under his control to adapt Hellenistic practices. He placed a sculpture of the Greek God Zeus in the Jerusalem Temple.
Today we take the opportunity to celebrate our right to practice Judaism freely in America — and remind ourselves of the imperative to ensure this freedom for people of all faiths around the world.
December means family time. We celebrate holidays. We take a little time off. But many of us greet this with a feeling of worry.
Our country feels more divided. The ties that bind us feel more frayed. I’ve read some accounts of siblings cutting themselves off from one another because of the way they voted in this year’s election.
Is there a way out of this conflict? Is there a path to recovering what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature?”
Make This Assumption
Yes. But it starts with an important assumption. We need to assume that those who disagree with us have good motives. We can question their ideas. We can question their decisions. But we can’t assume bad motives. Especially during the holidays.
Take a political example: Let’s see we support Obama Care and our cousin does not. Do we assume he doesn’t support it because he doesn’t care about people who get sick and die because they can’t get health care?
Or do we assume he cares about people getting health care, but he does not think Obama Care is the right way? If we assume the former, we will never find a way to talk. If we assume the other, then at least we can try.
Watch Your Words
We also need to watch our words. As a parent of two young children, I see the way they respond when frustrated with one another. They call each other names and even say things like “I hate you.”
Now, of course, my wife and I stop this, and soon enough they are playing together again. But their behavior shows us how easily disagreement can descend into name-calling.
When we start calling each other names, we are talking past one another, making it harder to ever find peace.
There’s a reason society develops manners. They help us get along. We need them during the holidays. And we need more in political and civic life today.
Say “Thank You”
We also need to more gratitude. Even as so many in America struggle, we also live in an extraordinary time and place.
We enjoy a better quality of life—cell phones, dishwashers, grocery stores filled to the brim—than any other time in human history. Sometimes in the midst of our anger and frustration, we need to step back and say thank you.
That’s the logic behind the first prayer Jews say every morning. It begins with the words Modeh Ani L’fanecha, meaning “I am thankful to be alive today.”
We say that prayer every morning even if we feel angry. We say it even if we are in the midst of tragedy. We say it even if we don’t feel it at the time.
We begin the day with gratitude because life itself is a gift. That is the secret to finding the “better angels of our nature.”
To get more inspiration for finding happiness and making better choices, get Rabbi Moffic’s free gift here.
Where do you find hope in our divided society?