“Happy is the person who is anxious always. But one who hardens his heart falls into misfortune.”
“Happy is the person who is anxious always” does not sound like an effective formula for achieving peace and serenity. To paraphrase from the “Life of Brian” – for an adage in Proverbs - it “doesn’t sound very wise to me.” How can we understand this perplexing statement?
The medieval commentators generally cluster around a singular meaning. Since the Hebrew word for anxious (the JPS translation) is “miphakhed” or fear, a number of interpreters explain that a person who fears God will always be happy because this anxiety will prevent him from wrongdoing. For Rashi, the fear is one of punishment. Fearing the consequences of sin, he will employ self-restrain under temptation. For Abraham ibn Ezra, the bar is a little higher. The constant presence of authority reminds him always to set high personal expectations of virtue.
These interpretations make sense in light of the words but not in light of the overall context. Fear of God or punishment may keep you on the straight and narrow but will not make you happy, even if you are pleased with the outcome these tensions generate. Perhaps we find a clue to understanding in the second half of the saying: “but one who hardens his heart falls into misfortune.” In the chiastic structure of this verse, anxiety is the reverse of hardening the heart. The ability to keep the heart open is a source of personal joy.
My friend Liza recently gave me a book called Daring Greatly by Brene Brown. The title is from a speech that Theodore Roosevelt gave in 1910 in Paris: “…who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.” Roosevelt gave us the charge of failing as the cost of taking important risks.
Brown gives us the charge of making ourselves vulnerable so that we are able to take emotional risks with others. She contends that when we hear other people confess to their vulnerabilities, we find them to be courageous. When we confess to our own vulnerabilities, we feel weak. She asks us to see the capacity for vulnerability as an expression of courage and strength in ourselves.
Brown relates this discrepancy in the way we view vulnerability as a function of “not being enough.” If we admit a deficiency, we are affirming a position that says, “I am not enough.” Not wise enough, not thin enough, not a good enough parent or a good enough friend. She quotes author Lynne Twist who writes that our first thought upon waking is “I didn’t get enough sleep” followed later in the day by “I don’t have enough time.” She concludes that “before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor, we’re already inadequate, already behind, already losing, already lacking something.” This position of scarcity prevents us from experiencing life’s many abundances.
Happy is the person who is vulnerable always. This reading also colludes with the verse right before it: “He who covers up his faults will not succeed; he who confesses and gives them up will find mercy” (28:14). When we are able to articulate our weaknesses, we find compassion for ourselves and others feel mercy for us. We are not objects of pity because we admit our mistakes. We become models of authenticity because we do so.
Leonard Cohen wrote in his song “Anthem,” “There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.” Light comes to us when we are not afraid of the crack.