Story by Rabbi Stephen Slater and photos by Brit Huckabay
Achieving success can be immensely stressful. When I moved here a year and a half ago to assume the role of senior rabbi and CEO at Temple Beth-El, serving the 400 families of Birmingham’s only Conservative synagogue, I came under a lot of stress.
Stress is a slow killer. If left unaddressed, it saps our energy. It leaves us lethargic, unmotivated. It can lead to depression. Combined with heart disease it can even be a killer. I see stress as an opportunity for personal and spiritual growth. Let me share some strategies that have helped me to cope on spiritual, physical, intellectual, social, and emotional levels.
Both Physical and Spiritual Rest are Necessary
The work of Jim Loehr, the author of executive coaching books, shows that the goal should not be to avoid stress, but rather to tackle it head on. The key insight of his work is that we are built to thrive through alternating brief periods of high stress with periods of rest. There is a natural physical cycle of high energy, then low energy, which is necessary for remaining in a state of readiness for optimal performance. My central spiritual practice is a practice of rest. In the Jewish tradition, we call it Shabbat.
Shabbat is a program for physical and spiritual rest. It is effectively a 25-hour waking rest every seventh day. During this time, we clear our schedules to make time to connect with others, especially family, community, and close friends. The joy that we find in these connections is what anchors us during difficult periods. Shabbat means that we are defending time for some of the most essentially-human activities. Shabbat commands us to: Pray. Be quiet. Go for a walk. Read a book. Eat a good meal together with friends. Light candles. Turn our phones off. Leave the TV off. Take a nap. Learn something. Sing a song. Just connect. Shabbat is all about connecting with God, with others, and with your own soul. Shabbat is a communal practice that leads to human thriving, i.e. living life the way that God intended. But what about when it’s not Shabbat, the in-between time when stress is most likely to inundate our lives?
Transforming Work Stress into Physical Stress
You don’t have to carry that stress home with you, for your spouse to enjoy. A fast-paced 20-30 minute walk has been demonstrated to put people in a much happier, proactive mood, suffering less from the effects of stress. I find that a run gets my heart pumping, the blood circulating, and my lungs opening, and I come home feeling totally differently about life. For me, a swim is powerfully cathartic, especially following an emotionally or spiritually difficult experience. In particular, after I lead funerals, it’s important for me to spend some time in the water, releasing the spiritual taint of the encounter with death. Intense physical stress can displace the mental and emotional stress that we encounter during the work day.
Don’t Bundle Stressors
When something bad happens, we tend to associate it with all of the other bad things that have happened. For example, if I’m stressed at work, then I also think about my grandparents who are getting sicker far away from me, and then I think of all the big things in the world that I hear about on the radio or TV and can’t change, and that further stresses me. Then some of us think, “and this job probably isn’t the one I’ll have forever, especially if so-and-so doesn’t like my work, so I guess I’ll just brace myself for the worst.” And just like that, I went from being a little stressed about a work issue to feeling down in the dumps in general. This negative way of thinking happens many days, for many people. So it is important not to bundle up all of the problems together. We can only solve one problem at a time. Our Sages taught, Mi she Osek be Mitzvah Patur mi Mitzvah. “The one who is engaged in doing one mitzvah, or commandment, is free from attending to a different mitzvah.” This means that when I am working on one thing, I should not be trying to add a second thing. This bundling up of problems is one of the most common stressors in our society.
I was fortunate that from a young age, many people, beginning with my father and my teachers, older and wiser than I, took me under their wing and mentored me. People spent time with me. To this day, I feel that the greatest gift that I can give is the gift of my undivided attention. (Now in a world of unending emails, constant notifications, breaking news, and short attention spans that can mean that I tune out all of that supposedly “urgent” stuff.) But I believe that the quality time I spend listening to and enjoying my people and my family is the most important gift I can give.
If you make decisions that affect the lives of others, your professional role is complex or involves balancing multiple concerns and competing interests, you likely need coaching. Even if only you can make the hard decisions, it helps to have the listening ear of someone older and wiser than yourself as you face difficulties.
I also meet monthly with a mentor for spiritual direction.We begin with prayerful silence. After the silence, she listens as I raise the problems with which I am struggling. And the simple question that she asks each time is: “Where do you notice God in this?” And many times, I am able to discern how God’s presence is already there.
I find that prayer is the most powerful way of helping me de-stress. At the height of each Jewish prayer service is a time of silence. After all of the words that lift our souls up in praise and worship, we stand before the presence of the King in silence. At this time, I direct a wordless prayer to God. In the silence, I am able to let my mind be still. I am able to remember what truly matters in life. I frequently find that my perspective on my problems has changed. As a result, my approach to them has changed as well. This prayer allows me to align myself with the purposes of God. And when I am so aligned, I do my best work. I also find that I enjoy life more and with more confidence.
It is essential that you know what you are all about. Engage your religious tradition. Go on a spiritual retreat. Do some writing that addresses the question: What am I living for? Some people find such a big question hard to answer; so, let me suggest one that many people find more concrete.
Imagine your own Eulogy
Throughout the different seasons of each year, I have a practice of imagining what I hope to hear said at my eulogy. Then, I have a pretty good idea of what I need to be doing in order to achieve that. For this to be a useful exercise, we need something more concrete and specific than “Change the world!” or “Do what you’re passionate about.” I find that this practice also helps me to be more well-rounded. As my life changes and I grow, different things take primacy. I don’t just want to be successful professionally. I am first a husband. I am a dad. I am also a rabbi. I am a teacher and a preacher. I am the spiritual leader of Beth-El. For years, I have immersed myself in scholarship. I am a rabbi who cares about bringing about rapprochement between Christians and Jews. At the end of the day, I am a human just as frail and in need of God’s abundant daily blessings as everyone else. Just like everyone else, I need to make the time to notice God’s blessings and be grateful.
For further reading
- The Sabbath. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. New York; Farrar Strauss, Giroux. 1951.
- Stress for Success. Jim Loehr. New York; Random House. 1997
- The Depression Cure: The 6-Step Program to Beat Depression without Drugs. Stephen Ilardi. Cambridge, MA; Da Capo Press. 2009.
- Stress: 63 Ways to Relieve the Tension and Stay Healthy. Charles Inlander. EBSCO Publishing. 1996.
- Stress Management: Increasing your Stress Resistance. Barbara Brehm. New York; Longman Pub. 1998.
 Research conducted by Hans Selye in the 1930s first identified the slow-motion dying process, whereby stress leads to disease and eventual death in lab rats that were exposed to sustained stressors. Charles Inlander, 3-4.
 63 Ways to Relieve the Tension, 45.
 The Depression Cure.
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