With the new year, many of us have been thinking about resolutions and changes we want to make in our lives. Why do we get “stuck” in the face of uncomfortable but possibly important life choices? As part of Scientists in Synagogues, United Synagogue of Hoboken members who are rabbinic scholars, behavioral scientists, and mental health clinicians gathered monthly throughout 2020-2021 to discuss the relationship between Judaism and psychology for a program they called “Minds and Midrash”.
Their culminating public program featured Ross Ellenhorn, Ph.D., author of Why We Change (and Ten Reasons Why We Don’t), and Rabbi Robert Scheinberg, who discussed what behavioral science can teach us about hope and change in our lives – and how stories from the lives of Moses and Jonah make us feel less alone in our struggles with change.Read Transcript
Robert Scheinberg: So excited to welcome you here. I’m Rabbi Rob Scheinberg, United Synagogue of Hoboken. And before I introduce our speaker, Dr. Ross Ellenhorn, I would love to share with you a little bit about how this evening came to be, and about the year-long project that this evening is a culmination of, and what we’ve been working on for this year.
So it was almost three years ago when Psychology Professor Kent Harber of Rutgers University (he’s part of our synagogue community; he’s here with us today) and I started some conversations about the relationship between Judaism and psychology. And among other things, we noticed that there appeared to be a disproportionate number of people in our synagogue community who work in some way with behavioral science and mental health – research scholars in psychology and neuroscience, as well as clinical psychologists and social workers and educators and chaplains. And we thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to bring all these people together to study Jewish texts, with an eye towards the psychological insights that we could gain from them?”
So we were delighted to be accepted into a national program called Scientists in Synagogues, which is coordinated by the organization Sinai and Synapses. And we’re so happy that Rabbi Geoff Mitelman, who is the director of this organization, is with us today, and we’re just very, very grateful to you.
So over the last year, about once a month, our group met (on Zoom, because we had to do it on Zoom – that was not the original plan, though). We met for some deep and illuminating discussions of insights from the world of behavioral science, and from Jewish texts, led by people from our group who were speaking from their areas of special interest and expertise. So I can just share with you just a couple of the kinds of topics that we addressed. We had sessions, for example, on justice, on conflict, on consciousness, and on courage, and on trauma. And at times, we noticed that the Jewish texts that we were looking at were remarkably in sync with findings of psychology and neuroscience. We also found that there were some points when it looked like this was less true. But it was so clear that so many of the questions that were raised by traditional Jewish texts corresponded so closely with the questions that we saw raised also in the behavioral science literature, including: How can people best resolve their conflicts? How do people respond after trauma? How do we define courage, and how do people develop courage? What’s the role of punishment in cultivating a just society? And topics like what we’re addressing tonight: How do we encourage people to change or support people as they as they make efforts to change?
And it was really enlightening to bring these disciplines into dialogue with each other. And we’re so grateful to all the people who participated in the program, any of whom are with us today right now, whose names are now up on the on the screen. And a special word of appreciation to Kent Harber and Razel Solow, who chaired this effort and helped design our program, though the topics and all the presentations were done by the participants, and also to Gail Rosenbaum, who is providing tech assistance this evening. And so, to all of the Minds and Midrash participants over the course of this whole year, we’ve learned so much from from you, and we’re really so grateful.
And I’m so excited to be introducing Ross Ellenhorn now as our speaker for this evening. And we’ll also note, as it will become clear from the presentation, that there are so many elements of Kent Harber’s research which find their way also into Dr. Ellenhorn’s writings.
Dr. Ross Ellenhorn was trained as a sociologist and psychotherapist and social worker and founded the Ellenhorn Community Based Mental Health Program, with locations in Boston and New York and Los Angeles. And it’s a remarkable, innovative approach to helping mental health clients to remain integrated in the world for their treatments. I’m so glad that he’ll be sharing insights from his book, Why We Change (and Ten Reasons Why We Don’t), which was published in 2020. It is an extraordinary book, drawn from Dr. Ellenhorn’s abundant experience helping people to achieve the life change that they seek, and also deeply and compassionately understanding what so often blocks all of our efforts to change. This book has so many deep resonances to Jewish ideas and texts. And it’s of relevance, certainly, to anybody’s ever made a New Year’s resolution in January or engaged in the process of teshuvah, repentance, return and renewal – this characteristic of the Jewish High Holidays – in the Fall.
So per our Minds and Midrash method that we’ve been using for our sessions throughout this year, Dr. Ellenhorn will speak. Following his presentation, I’m going to share some thoughts drawn from Jewish tradition to begin our dialogue. And we look forward also to questions from our community to be directed and some general conversation. So I’m so happy to turn it over now to Dr. Ross Ellenhorn.
Ross Ellenhorn: Well, thank you very much. So I thought I’d just mention something kind of important tonight, because I think it resonates a little bit about how we think about fear of hope, and hope in general. And that’s that it’s January 6th, and a lot of us are kind of contemplating what “hope” means on this date. And I’m actually a pretty hopeful person. And I thought about it today, a little bit, about sort of contemplating what’s happening today and what happened a year ago. And I don’t find that my hope has dropped. Hope is this kind of state that can be consistent in our lives, despite all the challenges to it. I just can’t find where to put my hope. I can’t find a place to put it and say, “Things are hopeful and moving in that direction.” But it sits there, kind of in my consciousness and my experience.
And that’s an important way of kind of understanding hope, that it’s more a position or a mindset towards things. It’s very different than optimism, which is sort of like, “Everything’s gonna be great.” It’s really kind of this position towards uncertainty. And I’ll get to that in a little bit.
What we know about hope is that it is really this kind of remarkable social, psychological resource. There are certain social psychological resources, like self-esteem and social support, that kind of create these boosters to our psychology. Hopeful people feel more self-efficacy, meaning they can kind of feel like they’re competent in life – more self-esteem, more self-confidence, more sense of control. They cope better, they have less dysphoria, they’re less pessimistic, have less self-blame, they have less depression, less anxiety, less hostility, and less stress. These are really good things that hope brings to us.
And so we have this idea that kind of hope creates this resource for us. And when we’re not hopeful, that resource goes away. And one of the things that Kent and I are interested in is whether there’s a third element in this – which is when hope scares you, when you’re frightened of it, when you have fear of hope. Does it get in the way of that resource getting to you? And this image of this person here is really the image of somebody who sees the well for motivation, the light for motivation, as poisoned, and so the very thing that moves us forward in life is the thing that they’re terrified of.
Now, this is stuff that I’ve sort of generated working with people with severe psychiatric issues, who have gone through major kind of experiences of depression or disappointment in their lives. But I actually feel like this idea of “fear of hope” applies to all of us. All of us have some level of fear of hope. You’ll never hear a theologian say, “Go out there and hope, and it’s easy.” It’s always connecting a sense of courage to hope. Hope is not an easy event.
And so, we’ve developed this tool for fear of hope. And what we found in the development of this tool is some interesting things about what fear of hope is not. It is not fear of success; it is not fear of failure; it is not anxiety; it is not depression. And most remarkably, and most excitingly to us, actually, because it tells an interesting story – it’s not hopelessness. And what we’ve discovered is that people with a high level of hope, and a high level of fear of hope, are actually the people that are having the hardest time, in a lot of ways – that they’re having this agitated experience.
One of the main things we see is that they engage in a lot of counterfactuals, which means: “I wish I had done that,” or “I wish I hadn’t done that.” “I wish this had happened.” “I wish this hadn’t happened.” “Things could have been different if this happened.” There’s a little bit of a rumination to all of that. They have a poor relationship to their emotions, they feel less self-efficacious. They don’t feel like they’re competent in the world. They have less resources, like social support and self-esteem. They have a shorter time perspective. When you ask them to think about the future, they think about things sort of in the immediate future; you [ask them to] think about the past, they think about things a little bit in the sort of the immediate past. And that might fit with the idea that they also rank high in “stuckness.” They’re sort of stuck in one place.
They don’t locate positive events about to happen, less so than someone that’s hopeless. When you think about it – like, a graduation’s coming up, a hopeless person’s like, “Yeah, a graduation’s coming up.” A person who’s scared of hope, they might want to ignore that graduation, because that’s this hopeful event, and they don’t want to be involved in something that’s raising their hopes or getting them excited.
Now, one of the things that is interesting about this work – and this is important now, but we’ll get to it later – is this idea that the high hope and high fear focus on counterfactuals. It gets to counterfactuals in this way, and this will become important later. It gets to counterfactuals through this poor relationship with emotions, that people with high hope and high fear of hope, they develop this poor relationship to their emotions, and something about that gets into this point of counterfactuals.
All of these things end up with a story about somebody that’s like a high diver who’s afraid of heights. And so when we think about people who are kind of stuck – even in our own lives, where we’re stuck, we’re kind of passive about things. Maybe something’s going on that’s actually not passive, that’s kind of agitated – a contemplation about “What will I do? Will I actually make this leap? Will I actually move forward?” And then the fear: “What happens if I begin to hope? What happens if the thing I do is successful? And when I have to hope more, I guess.”
So this becomes this thing that we are constantly thinking about, constantly ruminating about, this feeling like there’s something dangerous in the next step. The people around us say things like “Just make a decision, just move forward.” But in reality, this is a very kind of tough situation when you’re thinking about how to hope again, and how to hope, and how to follow your hope.
So I have a definition for hope. And I call it: “a mindset that pulls you through uncertainty and towards something you long for.” I think that hope is the mindset we use to get ourselves through uncertainty. You really can’t be certain and hopeful. [If] you say “this is exactly going to happen tomorrow,” there’s no need to hope at that point. So uncertainty is a lot like despair in that way. You don’t really hope, except in relationship to despair. This idea that we’ve got to kind of pull ourselves through uncertainty is really important when we think about kind of changing – changing socially, changing our social environments and changing ourselves – is how do you move through that moment, between the decision to do something and the thing you want to get to? There has to be this hope that’s kind of pulling it through.
And I believe that that’s actually beginning at a very young age. There’s a lot of talk these days about attachment, and what happens in the attachment between infants and their parents, and what this does to their sort of sense of attachment later on. See that child? That child’s hoping at that moment, hoping that there’ll be a response, and taking the risk that there won’t be a response.
Now, I am a kind of devotee to hope. And so I see it everywhere. And I wonder sometimes, when we talk about attachment events, if we’re not talking about hope events. “I took the risk, to try to make contact, and then that was spoiled by a non-response.” Or if I was lucky, “there was a response.” But it takes that hope. And there’s all these little moments of hope in our childhood, in our infancy, of gesturing to make something happen.
Here, to take the typical hope scale, you would take the Snyder’s Hope Scale. And what he says is that you can kind of indicate that a person has hope by these two really interesting things. One is that hopeful people are always looking for alternative pathways. If there’s something blocking them, they’re figuring out a way around them, they’re always trying to think about the next thing that they can try. And what supports that is also what he calls “agency thinking.” They kind of have this sense that they can do it, this kind of sense of confidence that they can do it.
And those are the two things that are kind of part of hope. You take that scale, you rate high on those, he’s going to say you’re a hopeful person. Interestingly enough, those are the two things that are really necessary to do something that’s central to being a human being. Human beings collaborate to invent. We’re the one animal that collaborates to invent. Other animals collaborate, other animals invent, but they don’t collaborate to invent. And that takes two things: thinking in alternative pathways, believing you have something that contribute to that collaboration – and actually, a third thing, being able to walk through uncertainty. “We’re here trying to figure this out, we don’t know where it’s going, and we’re collaborating at this moment to get to that point.” So again, because I’m a little bit of a fanatic about hope, I see it there, too. I see it kind of in the very center of what makes us human – is this kind of capacity for hope.
When you hope, you hope for something. You’re longing for something. And there’s an interesting dynamic to hope, which is that when you hope, you appoint something as important. So it’s your birthday, your parents ask you what you want, you have no idea. And then you finally say “bike,” and all of a sudden, “bike” becomes this major thing you have to have in life. And you also notice that you’re bike-less. And so now you’re in a state of something important in life giving you need because you’re hoping for it, and something that you know that if you don’t get, you’re going to lack that thing in your life. And that makes hoping a risk, because every time you hope, you’re appointing something as important, and you’re noticing that you lack it. And there’s a potential you won’t get it. And then you’ll see that in your life, there’s this missing element.
This is a bit of my idol, this is Harold and the Purple Crayon. I don’t know if you know those books, but I’m publishing a book on them this year, and this is such an image of what it’s like to hope – is that you’re just facing uncertainty, you’re going up and up and up and up and up. There is that chance that you’ll fall, that the thing that you want won’t happen. So we have this idea of alternative pathways and certainty, and this idea of agency thinking – that you have this sense in yourself that you can make it through, and that even if the bad things happen, that you’re going to be okay. And that’s this other term, in the middle of hope. The core of it is “faith in.” Faith in yourself, and also faith in others. That “I’ll be okay if this thing doesn’t happen,” and that I can handle the uncertainty as I go through. So faith is kind of the central element in hoping. It’s really very close – again, I’ve been using this word a lot, this self-efficacy, which is just like, “I think I can face this task and be able to get through it, accomplish it.”
And faith is also a gut response. It’s an emotional response. It’s – you’re dependent on kind of a gut feeling at that point. And you’re relying on affect as information when you have faith, you’re relying on your emotions at points of faith. They become your data. And this is going to become important later on. So when you hope, you’ll appoint something as important. When it doesn’t happen, there’s disappointment. We use that word all the time for all kinds of things, but I’m talking about a profound disappointment.
This is the blank face experiment. A lot of you probably know this. The mother has been asked not to respond to the child. And watch all the alternative pathways this child takes. He’s disappointed – he tries another one. Doesn’t work, he tries another one. Now he’s getting upset. Now he’s clapping. Doesn’t work. He tries screaming. Doesn’t work.
First, he’s looking for somebody else, and then he falls into something close to despair.
What I think’s going on at that point is a profound sense of helplessness – “I can’t get my needs met.” “I live in a world where I can’t get my needs met.” And that experience of disappointment hope – that feeling of helplessness – it doesn’t belong to children, belongs to all of us. When we hope big, when we’re disappointed, the injury is to our sense of competence and our ability to make our lives work. And the pain is the pain of helplessness – “I can’t make this happen.”
What we know about children is they choose these two ways around having that experience of helplessness. And these are kind of classic, old, old studies. One is anaclitic depression, which is just to stop doing anything. It’s better to be kind of numb and not have any experience than reach out and try, and then have that experience that, “Oh, my lord, I can’t make my life work.” And the other is avoidant attachment. “I’ll just start not trying to connect, because I’m so kind of concerned that I’ll be disappointed again, and have this experience of helplessness.”
Something else is going on here, Which is that these emotions that got the child or us to move forward, this faith in ourselves, they actually brought us to a lot of pain. So we begin to distrust our emotions. And so this affect as information becomes fake news. “I don’t know if I can trust this.” And that’s where we end up with this story, I think, which is that if we have a poor relationship to our emotions, then we begin to engage in those counterfactuals. “What if that had happened? What if this has happened? What if I’d done that? What if she had done that?”
There’s this remarkably tragic event that was going on in Sweden – I think it’s still going on – called “resignation syndrome.” And these are Syrian refugee children, and they actually would arrive in Sweden and kind of integrate into the schools and do okay, and their parents would apply for citizenship and get rejected. And then they would appeal. And at the point of the appeal of the appeal, that children would go to sleep. And they would sleep for a year. And they wouldn’t kind of feel anything when they were touched, but they were sleeping. And the psychiatrist in Sweden said, “This is the healthiest thing they can do. They’re just trying not to kind of be in the world right now, because they cannot bear this kind of hope, and waiting and all that.”
And the remarkable thing is that they wake up – back to the kids they were – once the parents get asylum. They somehow know [from] the movements of the parents, the way they’re being touched, [and] they begin to kind of wake up again.
So everything I told you, I think it’s sort of true for children. But it’s a metaphor too. For all our discipline. It’s all our experiences. These things don’t go away. They’re not just traits, they’re states. They’re things that happen to us, and we can kind of become afraid of hope. And us adults, you know, we’re our own parents. We’re our own reflection. We have to depend on ourselves. And so this issue of helplessness becomes really important to us. This is what’s called existential anxiety – “I’m alone in the world. On some level, I mean, I have support and all that. But I’m kind of accountable in a lot of ways to make my life work, and that’s terrifying.”
This accountability becomes this really kind of important element in my book about the 10 reasons not to change. There’s basically the father of social psychology, Kurt Lewin, who had this idea about force fields. And he said that,for all of us, there is a place between forces that are restraining us and forces that are pushing us forward. And those forces are not just in our heads, the forces have to do with all kinds of stuff around us. And so each of our field, this field that we’re sitting in, as we try to kind of move forward in life, belongs to us. It’s unique to each of us. And so you set a goal and you can’t get to it – the reason why you’re not getting that goal is because you’re tied up in this tension between these restraining forces and these forces pushing you forward. But I believe that in all of us, these two things are always there, which is: hope is one of the forces is pushing you forward. With this, the thing you use to get through uncertainty. And your terror about your accountability is always pushing down, because hope reminds you that you’re in charge. And so hope generates, in some ways, that terror.
And so you’ve got this thing, always pushing you down, and this thing, always pushing you up, but if you begin to have these experiences of helplessness, the anxiety wins out. You begin to not move forward.
This is an example of the opposite. Harold draws his life, he’s in charge of his life, he draws a tree, he draws a dragon to protect the tree, he forgets he drew the dragon. So he gets scared, his hand begins to shake in anxiety, he creates a sea of anxiety and begins to drown in it. But he’s efficacious enough to build a boat to get out, he still has some sense that he can make his life work.
So when we’re seeing somebody who’s kind of stuck, and when we’re stuck in our own lives, it’s my belief that that dynamic is what’s going on, is that we’re struggling between the wish to hope and then the terror of hope, and then this sense of our own accountability. And two things happen when we’re engaged in this fear of hope – something very close to anaclitic depression, which is we get unmotivated. And the other is, we have a perturbed relationship with the people that helped us. We don’t want their help. They scare us. Hopeful people are the scariest people to us. So I developed this idea around, I don’t know, 25 years ago in this program, and I asked people who had been treated for psychiatric diagnoses for long periods of time, “what are the things that get in the way of you changing?” and that’s the stuff that I took and then sort of attitude to my newer book, which is about all of us. And they never talked about their diagnosis. They talked about these things. These are the 10 reasons not to change.
- “I don’t want to get excited about my life again.”
- “I don’t want to raise my expectations, and then be hurt by them again, and have that sense of helplessness.”
- “I don’t want other people getting excited for me, I don’t want to have that experience of letting them down again.”
- “I don’t want to look at where I am in life. And if I begin to change, I have to kind of face that.” And hope is going to kind of bring up the sense that I’ve got a long way to go to my goals.
- “I have to take these small steps and each one will feel insulting to where I want to be.”
- “I have to be accountable for what’s next. If I kind of get better at life, people are going to see it and I’m going to see it, and I’m gonna expect more out of myself, leading to more disappointment.”
- “The world will become unknown to me, and , that means a world of all these potential disappointments. I’ll have to face the I’m kind of driving this bus.”
- “I’ll lose a kind of support around me of, people that are worried about me.”
- “I’ll lose a sense that people are kind of have me in their minds if I do well.”
- And one person said “I’ll destroy the negatives.” This is back when we had negatives and film, and what they were talking about is “the bad things that happen to me, people won’t see anymore.”
Now, some of these may not apply to all of us. Some of them may be applied to psychiatric patients, but I believe a lot of them apply at least in my own life, to the reasons why I don’t move forward. I also think that when someone doesn’t move forward, they’re doing something actually kind of beautiful in caring for and loving themselves. Because what are they protecting? When they’re trying to protect themselves from disappointment, what are they protecting? They’re protecting hope. They’re trying to make sure that they can hold on to whatever hope they have. Because they’re not sure if the next disappointment will take that from them.
And so when we’re stopping ourselves, there’s actually something kind of self-loving to it, because we’re trying to kind of hold on to this very valuable thing in our lives.
And so, what’s the right way to help a person who is struggling with this? It’s remarkable how little it will help to talk to him about “You’ve just got to hope,” or “You just got to do that thing.” Because they’re struggling with this tremendous fear of doing it. And here is sort of how it looks to cajole somebody, I think, into hoping, or to moving forward, which is the same thing as trying again.
Now in my field, we call that resistance. We have all kinds of names for it, we have some really horrible names like “noncompliance,” and things like that. But in reality this gentleman’s trying to just — he’s contemplating jumping. And things are getting worse for him, as his friend kindly tries to talk him into it. He’s up there, thinking he’s gonna do it. But this cajoling into jumping is the thing that’s terrifying him most. And this is the trap we get into when we try to kind of talk people into hoping or changing. Remember, those 10 reasons not to change are all about that, that every time you change, you’re raising hope. The person who’s terrified of hope is terrified to change because of that.
I’m not going to get too far into some of the ideas of how to help with this. Because I’m sort of more interested in just talking to you about this idea of fear of hope. And I can send out recordings of my longer talks. But you really can’t help people with hope.
You can’t get them to generate more hope, but you can help them with faith. And by the way, that’s the pit in the peach. You can help people with faith. And “faith in” is really the center to what fear of hope is about. [It’s about] the person’s faith in themselves. “Can I pull myself out if there is disappointment?” [This is] what some people call ontological security in a way. “Can I keep kind of moving forward in the world, even when bad things happen,” is kind of the central thing that needs to happen.
And remarkably, this is what we find. There are these things in therapy called common factors. As it turns out that with all this talk these days about “best practices in psychology,” that about 15% of it has to do with best practices. Most of it has to do with relationships that are about a person who has faith in you, and a person who’s your ally. We also know that most change, 40% of all change, has to do with what’s happening in your life. And the more a person can feel more competent in their lives, more able to kind of manage their lives, the better off they are with fear of hope, the more self-efficacious they are, the better they are on fear of hope.
And this is really the goal. The goal is, “Can I have faith in myself, that if I hope, if I allow myself to hope, that I’ll be able to bear the disappointment? That I will not fall into this pit of deep experiences of helplessness?”
Robert Scheinberg: Thank you very much. That gave us so much to think about and to process, and hopefully to discuss. And I’d just love to share some reactions, which are primarily, I would say, reactions to some of the material in the book, but some of the things that you shared in this presentation. And especially the diving-board videos are so evocative for me.
So first, I just want to say, I found your book so perceptive and so honest, and also so deeply respectful of people who don’t change, and their reasons for not changing. And I just really appreciated presenting a language so that people who are essentially — like, they’re in control of their own decisions to change or not to change — and helping them to understand why it is that they don’t change can also be an engine towards helping people to change.
So Razel and Kent and I discussed “what are some of the ways that we see analogues in Jewish traditional texts to the things that you spoke about?” We thought of some examples of people in the Bible who seem to be “stuck” in a way that might correspond to fear of hope that you’ve written about and talked about, and also that Kent has researched in the lab. People who seem to be analogous to people on the diving board who are, in some cases, being cajoled to jump, and then it turns out that they are resistant. I want to share two such examples, and then to see if you think these could be examples of fear of hope.
There are two Biblical examples. One is the Biblical book of Jonah. The story is read on Yom Kippur, quite likely because it’s a time when we’re focused on thinking about ourselves and making change. Jonah is called by God to speak to the people of Nineveh and warn them that they’ve been wicked, and that God will call them to account. And Jonah’s response is running away. But at this point in the story, we have no idea why he’s running away. He has not yet told us. He boards a ship, there’s a terrible storm, and Jonah knows that the storm is his fault, and he asks the sailor to throw him overboard. And they do throw him overboard, and then he is swallowed by a fish.
All of this is a tremendous effort, and significant pain and discomfort, to go through, that Jonah is enduring, just so he can avoid doing the thing that he’s been asked to do. That thing that he’s been asked to do doesn’t seem all that difficult, because then the fish spits him out onto dry land, and God again says, “Jonah, go to the people of Nineveh and warn them they’ve been wicked and God is going to call them to account.” And finally, Jonah does what he’s asked to do, and talks to the people of Nineveh, and it turns out he’s wildly successful at this, gets them to repent from their wicked ways, and then, Jonah, in the next conversation with God, says “God, I knew this is what was going to happen, and that’s why I ran away.” And so it could well be.
There are different interpretations exactly why it is Jonah doesn’t want to fulfill this mission, but one possibility is that there’s something about the consequences of success that are making Jonah uncomfortable. It could be, “Well, what is God going to ask me to do next – how can I follow that up, after being the most successful prophet that anybody can imagine, getting the capital city of an empire to change their ways?”
I want to just share the second example, which is Moses. And the conversations between Moses and God, at the Burning Bush, so remind me of the scene of the two people on the diving board, where God is in the role of the one trying to encourage Moses to take on this task. And we should note that at this point, Moses, again, is not a fearful person by nature. The first thing we know about his adult life are that he quickly and courageously intervenes in three different conflicts that could have resulted in bodily harm. He comes out on the side of the vulnerable party in each conflict. But then God gives this role to play, and then we see that he’s on the cusp of change, but he just also wants to run away. He’s going to raise objection after objection for why he can’t do what it is that God wants him to do. And some of these objections look to me like fear of hope, or also – I’ll put on the screen some of the reasons why, according to Ross’s book, people are resistant to change.
So, his first question is like “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the people?” God answers and says, you know, “Don’t worry about it, but it may be that the answer is you’re someone different and more capable than who you thought you were.” And that might be a scary proposition for Moses. And staying the same might protect you from sole accountability for your life.
The next thing Moses says is “So what exactly am I supposed to say when they say ‘Who sent you?’ What exactly am I supposed to say?”
And God’s response is very opaque, saying “Well, my name is Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh” (“I Will Be What I Will Be”). You should tell them ‘Ehyeh/‘I Will Be’ sent me to you.” Which is not particularly clear, and it’s just a reminder that this is an assignment that involves a lot of uncertainty about the future, even the nature of God, who is sending Moses, is an enigma, and that this kind of leadership task is necessarily going to include a lot of unknown and uncertainty, and that’s what’s involved in this process.
And then Moses says, “Well, I’ve never been really good at talking, neither in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” And looking behind Moses’s words could be a concern that if he grows in the way that God wants him to, well again, that will set the bar higher for Moses. I have found that to be a very powerful theme in Ross’s book. And this is just a quotation: “When you make positive change in your life, you inevitably raise the expectations of others. Doing so, you risk that others will witness you as the author of your own life, and then expect more out of you.”
And then, with the last thing – and here, Moses says “Okay, God, please, just make somebody else Your agent.”
And then I see God’s response here to be kind of interesting, because God’s getting angry, and he says “There is your brother Aaron the Levite. He, I know, speaks readily. Even now he is setting out to meet you, and he will be happy to see you. You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth.” And at this point, the conversation is over. Whether that means that Moses has just been beaten into submission, or that there’s something in this conversation that changes Moses’s mind. This reminded me of something, Ross, that you quoted from Kent’s research, which – I want to just include the whole thing here.
“In one study, Harber placed a live tarantula in a clear Plexiglas box attached to a fishing reel that the participant used to lower the box o’ tarantula toward them. People with reduced self-worth inaccurately saw the tarantula as closer to them than it actually was. Most important for our discussion, the participants’ sense of self-worth at that moment was induced by Harber and his labmates: those in the high-self-worth sample had raised their sense of worth by recalling a time when someone helped them in a meaningful manner; while those in the low-self-worth group had recalled a time when they didn’t get support.”
And so, if Moses is more likely to have the most accurate perception of what this role is going to be, and what his responsibility will be, when he is reminded of the connections that he has with others and the support that he can potentially have, that will be when he is most likely to take on the assignment.
So I’m going to stop the share… I know shortly we’ll have the opportunity for some general questions, but I’ll just pose, Ross, one question to you, which is that: it seemed to me that many of the Biblical examples of people who seem resistant to change — very often, the change that they’re being asked to do is, like Moses, “Leave your really happy life” – or you’re happy and at peace for the first time in your life – “and fulfill this world-changing mission, which is frankly going to make you probably less satisfied than you are currently.” I’m just wondering if – is it fair to use a concept like fear of hope to think about the calculation that somebody who has the opportunity to step into a major leadership position, because they feel the responsibility to do so. Is the concept of fear of hope relevant in such a case?
Ross Ellenhorn: I think so. This is really great. Thank you for inviting me. This is really wonderful. What I hear in that story, and in Jonah too, is kind of the fear of expansiveness. Like, if I keep growing, every growth means another moment of uncertainty, because now I’m on the edge of another growth, another moment where i have to face uncertainty. And will there be a point in that expansiveness where I’ll be too big for myself? I will have gotten to a point where i can’t master my own experience any longer?
And all of that’s requiring hope, because hope’s the thing that’s going to pull you through that. And also, you’re going to feel resistant to hope because it’s pulling you to that edge, you know. It’s pulling you towards expansiveness, being bigger than you were, being more engaged in the world, more competent. All those things that can lead to greater disappointment. That’s what sort of rang in my ears when you were talking, is – yeah, about getting bigger than you are right now. It’s a beautiful thing to do, but it’s terrifying, right. We all should be trying to be as expansive as we can, you know, but I know in my own life, every change towards expansiveness means a combined terror that I’m now at the edge, that I get bigger than I can handle. Does that make sense?
Robert Scheinberg: I think so. A comment just came in the chat: “Moses may be more afraid of pain than of growth.”
Ross Ellenhorn: Of emotional pain, or physical pain, or?
Robert Scheinberg: I mean, it can also be that Moses may know that by signing up for this assignment, he is – there are going to be times of severe pain for him.
Ross Ellenhorn: Yeah.
Robert Scheinberg: He’s probably happier, before he accepts the assignment, than he’s ever been. Now, I remember, in that conversation, Kent and Razel, that we had beforehand – Kent, I think you had suggested that Moses might not actually have been happy if he had not accepted the assignment, because he knew he had unfinished business, and that it would be a source of nagging concern for him, if he knew that there was something he could do to dramatically ameliorate the condition of world that he was not doing.
Razel Solow: And that he was not reaching his potential.
Ross Ellenhorn: Right. I mean, psychologically, that’s what I think about, is: there’s something profoundly loving about not changing, but it’s a much bigger risk, much bigger risk, not to change, than move forward. I mean, it’s the risk of emptiness, or the risk of not knowing how expansive you can become. And living a life where you never got as expansive as you could. That’s about as risky as you get. But it’s a tricky risk, because it feels so comforting to just sort of stay home. But it’s really a sort of significant one.
But also, both stories are about challenges where helplessness was a real potential, right. Like, “I’ll go and I’ll tell them this, and they’ll just give me the finger,” you know. It’s like, each one of those are about collapse, the potential for collapse. And I’m sure that was what was terrifying them too, right. “Can I handle that?” But again, that is the feeling that we have at the points of growth. “Okay, I’m here now, am I competent enough to do what I’ve just got to?”
(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. This program was the public culmination of “Minds and Midrash,” which gathered rabbinic scholars, behavioral scientists, and mental health clinicians in the United Synagogue of Hoboken community for monthly discussions).