No More All Or Nothing
On Spies and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
In his 2nd century work, The Enchiridion, ancient Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus argued that people are disturbed, not by things, but by the views we take of them. In other words, it is impossible to have any kind of feeling without first having a thought about what’s happening. This type of framing is an early example of what later came to form much of the thinking around Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
Dr. Aaron Beck crafted CBT through his work at the depression research clinic he founded in the University of Pennsylvania. He began to detect a pattern among his patients. They interpreted events in negative ways that were damaging to their self-respect, and fatalistic. It was as if they had thought themselves into a condition that was later called “learned helplessness.” Essentially they kept telling themselves, “I am a failure. Nothing I try ever succeeds. I am useless. Things will never change.”
The complexities of CBT are far beyond the realm of this post but in short, it manifests into different types of distorted thinking, one of which I would like to highlight this week in relation to the events of this weekend’s Torah portion.
First, a brief refresher. Moses sent twelve men to spy out the land. But 10 of them came back with a demeaning report. Sure, the land is good, milk and honey, yada yada yada. But these people are brutal. Even the land itself is formidable. Caleb tried to calm the people with his sunny outlook “We can do it.” But the ten said that it could not be done. The people are stronger than we are. They are giants. We are grasshoppers.
And then the most demoralizing response. The people lost heart. “If only we would have died in Egypt. Let us choose a leader and go back.” God’s anger is incited. Moses begs for God’s mercy to win out. God relented but only to a point. Of that generation, only Caleb and Joshua would make it into the land.
As head-scratching as this incident is each and every year we come to it, what’s perhaps most perplexing is the fact that their report seemed to be a lie. Only much later, in the book of Joshua, when Joshua himself sent spies, did they learn what actually happened when the inhabitants of the land heard that the Israelites were coming:
“I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that dread of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt in fear before you … As soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no courage left in any of us because of you.” (Josh. 2:9-11)”
The spies were petrified of the Canaanites, and in feeling so, totally did not notice that the Canaanites were petrified of them. They felt dread. How can you not notice that in another person?
One answer comes from what we can now identify as one of the archetypes from CBT which is all-or-nothing thinking. Everything is “either or.” That was the spies’ verdict on the possibility of conquest. It would be a futile effort. There was no room for shading, nuance, or complexity. They could have said, “It will be difficult, we will need courage and skill, but with God’s help we will prevail.” But they did not. Their thinking was polarised.
We are guilty of this too. Think about a particularly acute moment of being overwhelmed. In the depths of that, how easy is it to think it will never get better? It’s very challenging to understand that even with its challenges, things can improve incrementally, especially when we feel alone in it. Either we’re in out or we’re out of it when in actuality, we’re almost always in between.
One major step we can take to help ourselves in this battle is to be in therapy. Yes, you too! While fully recognizing that not everyone has easy access to mental health coverage, helping to make that so is vital for the betterment of our world. Through therapy, we can understand the deepest parts of ourselves in order to better process through the types of moments described above. We can begin helping view our lives through a much more nuanced lense.
A final lesson comes from the Torah portion from this weekend. At the end of it, we read the commandment of the ritual fringes, called tzitzit. We hold on to our tzitzit as a tangible reminder. The blue thread in the tzitzit is there to remind us of the sea and the sky. Those are elemental aspects of the universe that illustrate to us that the world moves, time advances, and we do too. Thus the tzitzit/fringes themself become a form of cognitive behavioral therapy, saying: “Do not be afraid. You are not alone.
Obviously not all of us wear these fringes. Yet, the idea symbolizes something universal. As Epictetus argued, it’s how/what we feel that affects how we see. That’s the work we need to do. In those moments when we feel alone and fatalistic, we need to find those buoys in our life that help keep us afloat. They serve to show us that when we feel like it’s all for naught, it’s usually not. Wherever you are on this journey, find your reminder. Hold on to that thing in the moments of chaos that allow you to pause, see your feelings behind the thoughts, recognize them, and keep moving. You are not a grasshopper. You are in control. See yourself for all that you really are.