May 21, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

I Have the Power…Or, Do I?

In the May 14 edition of the Jewish Link, there was a Point/Counterpoint discussion about the legitimacy of segulot and the people who sell them. The focus of my article this week isn’t to weigh in on this discussion; when it comes to Jewish tradition, philosophy and halacha (law), I defer to one’s rabbinic authority.

Instead, I thought I would talk about how we think of ourselves when it comes to facing challenges, such as those that motivate many people to seek out segulot (e.g., difficulty finding one’s soulmate, difficulty conceiving or battling an illness). Specifically, do we believe we have the ability to improve our problems through our own efforts? Or, do we largely feel helpless and at the mercy of external forces?

Of course, Judaism holds that everything comes from G-d. Within this belief is the recognition that nothing is entirely within our ability to control or to change. However, Judaism also maintains that God wants us to do our part and not to rely on Him entirely to take care of everything. So, clearly, there is an acknowledgment that we have the ability to influence our situation for the better or worse based on how we respond to challenges.

To help illustrate this concept, I’d like to share a parable that I heard many years ago:

There once was a man who was a devoutly religious Jew. He was stranded in an ocean with no means to get safely to land. He prayed and prayed for God to rescue him. After an hour, a small boat happened to be passing by and offered to rescue him. The man called out, “Thank you, but not to worry. I have complete faith and trust that God will save me.” Reluctantly, the small boat sailed on. The man continued to pray to God and after another hour, a larger boat happened upon the man and offered assistance. By now, the man was very fatigued, but he again declined the help, insisting with confidence that God will rescue him. After another hour, the man was on his last vestiges of strength when a helicopter flew by and offered to lower a ladder to save him. The man declined yet a third time and then drowned. The man then awakened to find himself standing before God. In disbelief, he said, “God, I don’t understand. I followed the Torah religiously my whole life. Even when I was stranded in the ocean, my faith in You never wavered. Yet, when I needed You most, You let me down and I died. Why didn’t You save me?” God replied, “What do you mean? I sent you two boats and a helicopter!”

In the field of psychology, there is something called locus of control, of which there are two types: internal locus and external locus. These terms refer to where people think control over their problems lies. People with an internal locus of control strongly believe they have the ability to improve their problems through their own actions. People with an external locus of control strongly believe their problems are largely out of their control and so they think they have very little ability to improve them.

There is a lot of research that demonstrates the power of adopting an internal locus of control when responding to personal challenges. For example, research suggests that arthritis patients with an internal locus of control are less affected by their arthritis and have better emotional health than patients with an external locus of control. In other words, the belief that they could improve their disease was correlated with better psychological and physical health.

One could say these patients fooled themselves into believing they had any control over their arthritis. However, that wouldn’t be true. For example, while they can’t control the fact that they have arthritis, they certainly get to decide whether or not to live a healthy lifestyle, and this can have a real impact on their disease progression. Feeling empowered also affects our emotional health, making us feel uplifted and encouraged.

If we believe we have some measure of control over our condition, we’re likely to feel hopeful and positive. This breeds confidence and we’re motivated to do our part to help ourselves. However, if we have an external locus of control and believe we have very little control over our disease, we may adopt a more defeatist attitude. We may think, “Why bother doing any of this stuff my doctor recommended? There isn’t much I can do anyway. It’s out of my hands.”

You can see how a person’s belief that she can improve her health is strongly related to her willingness to do what is within her power. In other words, her locus of control influences how much effort she makes. Too often, we convince ourselves, “I’ve done all I can and nothing worked, so it’s hopeless.” In fact, oftentimes, we did not do all that was within our power. Too often, we sell ourselves short and then convince ourselves we couldn’t have done any more.

Of course, ultimately, we won’t always be successful in improving a problem no matter how hard we try. Having an internal locus of control doesn’t guarantee success, because many problems are beyond our control to change. In these situations, we need to be flexible in our attitude so we don’t waste our time, energy and money trying to move an immovable object. Otherwise, we may end up feeling angry, depressed or frustrated when we’re ultimately unsuccessful.

This leads us to another truism within psychology, which is that it can be very therapeutic to accept that we can’t control certain things in life (those who struggle with addiction and have attended 12-step programs know the benefits of relinquishing control to “a higher power”). How do we know when to relinquish control vs. when to assert our will to try to make positive change in our life? With practice (and, sometimes, a little weekly psychotherapy) comes insight, wisdom and understanding.

Dr. Gur-Aryeh is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Saddle Brook, NJ. He works with a wide variety of clients seeking mental health treatment and specializes in mood disorders and addiction in particular. If you would like to contact him, you can do so at [email protected], at 201-406-9710, or through his website at www.shovalguraryehphd.com.

By Shoval Gur-Aryeh, PhD

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