Question: Recently I started to think a lot about death and I can’t stop thinking about it. It worries me a lot and I’m only 22 years old. I’m worried that G-d forbid I’ll get sick and die early. I don’t know what to do. I keep having such thoughts and its very distracting. Is there anything that I can do? What’s the Jewish point of view?
Answer: Your question is excellent and to the point, and I hope that others who are also suffering from invasive thoughts will feel less alone after reading your question.
Some points to consider:
1. Most of us take it as a ‘given’ that our thoughts are useful and are meant to be taken seriously. Our mind, we assume, is entirely a friendly place and any thought found there is what wanted to be put there. It is always jarring to discover that we each have thoughts which are not useful or intended and to begin the process of learning to ignore some thoughts while attending to others. This filtering process, which is difficult, is a strong indicator of our maturation and should be considered a significant part of becoming a wise adult. Some thoughts are meant to be addressed, and others are meant to be ignored.
2. It is sometimes the case that our fears emerge in our dreams and, at times, in our invasive thoughts. It may be useful to consider why you are frightened by the thought of dying. While the fear of dying is very, very common, it is always useful to ask myself why it is that I want to live. Am I choosing life or just trying to avoid death? Don’t shy away from the tough questions and if you need someone to talk it out with, don’t hesitate to seek a good listener, professional or otherwise, who can help you process your thoughts about life.
3. I once heard from Rabbi Azriel Tauber (well known teacher, counselor and public speaker in our community) that he had occasion to meet with a girl who was suffering from panic attacks and thought that she was dying during the attack. The fear of dying became central in her mind. As she was a religious girl, Rabbi Tauber employed what is known as a paradoxical suggestion (Victor Frankl popularized the concept, though I cannot tell you if Rabbi Tauber got the idea from him) that she should consider what a religious girl does when she thinks she is going to die. Clearly, that is a moment that calls for introspection, repentance (Teshuva) and closeness to G-d (Deveikus) as one prepares oneself to meet his/her Creator. The girl took his words very much to heart and the next time she had a panic attack she deeply immersed herself in Teshuva and closeness to G-d and, lo and behold, the panic attack passed. After one or two more such incidents they were never again to return. As Rabbi Tauber explained it, the Inclination brings a person to fear of death in order to throw the person off and distract him/her from life’s mission. If a person uses the moment to do the opposite and strengthen his/her attachment to the life mission, then the Inclination has no reason to bring such confusing thoughts.
4. I once heard an important story about a fellow who was troubled by invasive thoughts that came to him during the silent Amidah prayer (Shemoneh Esrei). He consulted with his teacher who directed him to a certain Jew in a nearby town. The fellow set off on his journey and arrived at the town before nightfall. Rather than check in at the inn, the fellow went to the home of the Jew he was meant to consult with, where the candle was still burning brightly. He knocked on the door and there was no response. He went around to the window and saw the man immersed in his Torah study. Impressed, he understood that he was not to be disturbed, and even his knocks on the window went unnoticed. After waiting some time, he saw the fellow get up from his studying to prepare himself for sleep. He ran to the door to knock and, when there was no answer, he ran back to the window and knocked feverishly there. Still no response. The Jew inside finished putting away his books, put out his candle and went off to sleep. With no option of going to the inn any longer, the fellow curled up in front of the house and tried to sleep as best as he could. Bright and early in the morning the Jew came out of his house and brought in the visitor. He warmly welcomed him, gave him a warm drink next to the fire and showed him where he could rest until the time for morning prayers. The fellow was incredulous.
‘Were you studying in this room last night?’
‘Did you hear knocking on the door and on the window?’
‘You seem like such a nice man, why didn’t you open the door for me last night?’
‘You came here to learn something, right?’
‘Yes, I did.’
‘Well, you now know that this is my house, and I decide who comes in and when. The same is true of your mind. It is your domain and you decide what comes in and what does not.’
The story conveys an important message about our sense of being owners of our minds. This has implications for many things that feel like ‘pulls’ in our lives. These pressures often feel compelling because we do not assert our ownership over our minds.
I hope that the above is useful for you. If you are looking for what is above to ‘fix’ the problem, then look elsewhere. Nobody can give you ownership of your thoughts; it is something you need to assert.
My best wishes to you to find the strength inside you and in your relationship with G-d that most people look for in others. Others cannot fix, save or solve anything. Only you in conjunction with the One Above…