On the self-destructive quest to feel secure
‘Security. A word that these days seems simultaneously both to conceal so much and to reveal so much.’ – John Berger
A man is told that he will die from a fall. Such is the terror this generates in him that he decides never to leave his home again. But confining himself to his house doesn’t remove the fear.A sense of security is not so easily gained, for fear has its own authority. He could, after all, fall down the stairs—he lives in a mansion and there are many flights of stairs. So he decides,‘for safety’s sake’, to confine himself to the ground floor. But soon he realises that the floors downstairs are polished: couldn’t he easily slip and break his neck? The dining-room, however, is fully carpeted, so he decides to live only in that room. Ordering his staff to serve his meals there, he never leaves the room. Yet still he feels unsafe: he thinks,‘I could still stumble and fall, hit my head and die’. So he orders an armchair to be placed in the middle of the room, away from all sharp objects and hard surfaces and—in a moment of triumphant certitude —insists that his servants tie him down into the chair. A sense of security descends. No danger now of a fall, he thinks. The loss of his freedoms is nothing compared to the relief that his fear can never come true. But when he hears the rustling above him, and feels grains of plaster on his skin, he looks up and sees the ancient crystal chandelier over his chair unmoor itself from its casing and begin to fall towards him…
I read this story as a child and it has never let me go. Today, Iassociate it with the quest for ‘security’: the efforts of individuals, groups and nations attempting to design projects that will guarantee their security.The recurring fantasy of total control over one’s fate was mocked millennia ago within the Biblical myth of the Tower of Babel.Yet we still try to design a solution to what is essentially a psychological and existential dilemma: that none of us knows how or when we will die. The story reminds us that viewing the world through the prism of our fears restricts us in damaging ways. It also reminds us that the stories we are told—and tell ourselves—can shape our fears, as well as contain them and that this world-view can unwittingly catalyse the very thing we fear. The world may be a dangerous place, but more often than we are aware it is we who make it dangerous.Although we know there are people ‘out there’ who hate us, it can be hard to bear the reality that ‘security’—what it is, what we need in order to achieve it, where it comes from, and what we feel threatens it—is an internal experience. Implicitly, this story invites us to construct more life-enhancing stories than those ghosted by our fears.
I recently had a conversation with a young Jewish woman who was preparing a Channukah pageant for local children at the provincial Arts Centre where she works. She’d been approached by a woman in a hijab and a conversation had ensued. The woman said she’d just arrived in the UK from the Middle East with her child and was exploring the neighbourhood.The Centre’s publicity had caught her eye and she was wondering if the event was open to everyone. Something about this conversation felt ‘troubling’: the visiting woman seemed ‘glassy-eyed’ and had a ‘vacant’ look; she seemed rather needy and during a follow-up conversation the next day she hadn’t seemed satisfied by the resources offered to her that were available in the area. The woman telling me this story started to wonder if this woman was hiding something: why should a Muslim woman be interested in the details for a Channukah event? Perhaps she was a suicide bomber and this open event, where anyone was welcome, would make a perfect target. Perhaps, she thought, she should cancel the event, just in case.
She called the CST—the Jewish community’s self- appointed ‘Community Security Trust’—to report her suspicions and seek advice, which was duly provided. Although she felt they were ‘measured and reassuring’ in their response, she nevertheless decided, on reflection, to cancel the event. She regretted the lost opportunity for children of all faiths and none to come together, dress up and celebrate, but once her anxiety had been triggered she couldn’t rid herself of her ‘gut feelings’.
This story—and it is not a parable—filled me with an immense sadness. I knew that this enlightened young woman had a sound understanding of how we uncon- sciously project onto others disowned feelings from within ourselves, and then feel ourselves threatened by those very feelings. If even she had succumbed to collective Jewish unease about Muslims, what hope was there for our collective well-being in the UK, when the community is led by those with a less psychologically-informed and more outwardly belligerent approach to questions about security?
Who will reflect on the ways in which our own unconscious aggression, our own explosive rage, is projected—so that we feel we live in a hugely insecure world that is liable to blow up in our face, metaphorically or literally, at any moment? Who or what can we trust, we say, if we can’t trust our ‘gut feelings’? Our deep fear of annihilation may be generated in the earliest stages of our lives and can re-awaken when catalysed by a current situation; or it can be projected forward as a picture of our future.
Here the personal and the collective merge. As a community, have we any sense of the historically-deter- mined unconscious hostility we hold within us that is continually being projected that we are then obliged to protect ourselves from? And what terrifying crimes do we unconsciously imagine we have committed that would need to be punished by all those aggressors ‘out there’ waiting to attack us?
We are driving ourselves mad because of a spurious fantasy: that there is something called ‘security’ that we can achieve and possess.
The stories we tell ourselves—about the persecutory world ‘out there’ and the undying hatred of our enemies— provide a sort of comfort: they offer a coherent narrative for our lives. By constantly reaching for and repeating the same familiar story—the story of our insecurity—we unconsciously fabricate for ourselves a kind of security. It is, of course, a pseudo-security, but its advantage—it offers ersatz ‘meaning’—can outweigh (and help us avoid) the painful psychological task of facing up to the innate vulnerability that is intrinsic to being human.
We are driving ourselves mad because of a spurious fantasy: that there is something called ‘security’ that we can achieve and possess. But feelings of ‘insecurity’ are psychological, spiritual, existential – such feelings can’t be eliminated by more of this chimera we name ‘security’.
Today, bitachon is used in modern Hebrew to mean ‘security’ in a military/political context. It’s travelled a long way from its original meaning in Biblical Hebrew: ‘trust in what we cannot see’. The prophet Isaiah demanded trust in the unseen and intangible—‘God’—rather than in human power alone. Of course since the Shoah such trust has been exposed as hopelessly naïve, even dangerously deluded. In our post-Shoah world, where bitachon has become secularised, Jews put their trust in what they can see, and in the power of their own hands. Who dares to disagree with this pragmatism? Who would disavow this realpolitik? Even the religious settlers on the West Bank with HaShem in their hearts have an Uzi in their hands.
So is that to be the last word on ‘security’? Is that what a 3000 year-old tradition of Jewish struggle to articulate a moral vision comes down to? ‘Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition’? Perhaps Isaiah’s understanding needs re-visioning. Perhaps to experience ‘security’ we need a renewed faith in aspects of ourselves that we Jews used to attribute to the Holy One of Israel: a capacity for compassion and reverence towards other human beings, a capacity to discern forms of idolatry that offer false security, a capacity to transmute anger into a passion for justice, and an enduring capacity for truth-telling that holds the impossible tension between love of the Jewish people and a responsibility to the ‘other’, the stranger, the outsider, who may never love us but whose well-being is still our concern.
Rabbi Howard Cooper is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in private practice, the Director of Spiritual Development at Finchley Reform Synagogue, and an author. His latest book is The Alphabet of Paradise: An A-Z of Spirituality for Everyday Life. He blogs at www.howardcoopersblog.blogspot.com