It’s time to stop looking over our shoulders.
One of the harrowing predictions of the Tochachah (Admonition) is “You will flee, though there will not be anyone chasing you” (VaYikra 26:17). What is so terrible about that? Certainly, a false alarm is annoying, and running away for no reason is not an enjoyable experience; but would it be better if there actually was a hostile enemy in pursuit? The verse reads like a warning from Hashem against improper behavior with the threat of a dreadful punishment, but it ends up depicting a mere inconvenience!
A sharp psychological insight is shared in the sefer Chanukas HaTorah (Rav Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Cracow, d. 1663). Fleeing for one’s life when no one is chasing is, in fact, significantly worse than actually being pursued. As terrifying as being attacked by a real enemy undoubtedly is, it cannot compare to the incessant feelings of panic and paranoia experienced by someone imagining a threat. When one is able to see his attacker, there is a possibility to successfully avoid him. Even if the prey is eventually overtaken by his aggressor, the assault takes place, and then the victim can, at least, finally stop running.
By contrast, one who is in constant fear of an unseen danger will never be able to escape – because there is nothing tangible to escape from! As long as the threat lies in the mind of the “pursued,” the anxiety will continue no matter what he does or where he hides. There is no end to this terror, because the attack never happens and, therefore, never passes. This is the dreadful outcome forewarned in the Tochachah: Fear itself.
Those who struggle with anxiety might relate to this unfortunate reality. Anticipatory fears are often significantly worse than the actual materialization of those threats. Obviously, a clinical diagnosis requires professional intervention and support, but there is a meaningful takeaway here for everyone.
How often do we work ourselves into a frenzy by worrying about an imagined physical, social, or financial catastrophe? A child likely experiences more pain when seeing the needle than during the actual injection. The thought of a potentially awkward situation can be more uncomfortable than the interaction itself. And the worries of possible financial stressors tend to undervalue the resilience and support that we are capable of accessing, should a need actually arise. In short, we take flight when there is no one in pursuit.
Keeping this insight in mind, we can challenge anxious thinking by analyzing the accuracy of our perceived dangers. In many cases, we are either overestimating our threats or underestimating our abilities to manage them. With a reminder that we are often the ones causing the most harm to ourselves, we can avoid mentally subjecting ourselves to the curses of the Tochachah.