Joseph Stalin once said that “In the Soviet army it takes more courage to retreat than advance.” At the time it must have sounded brutal; now that he is dead and the iron curtain gone we chuckle at such quotes, but to me it has a different, perhaps deeper, meaning. I doubt “Old Joe” meant this when he said what he said, but it is nonetheless applicable.
Explosions tend to follow the path of least resistance. Explosions in tunnels are particularly dangerous because rather than trying to punch through many-feet-thick walls, the energy released by the blast simply follows the hollow path of the tunnel until it disperses at the entrance or exit. Human beings tend to follow the same path—the path of least resistance. We quit jobs we don’t like, we walk out of marriages we find difficult, we cheat on exams rather than study for them, and we get high, drunk, or both to escape life’s challenges.
And at the time it all seems like a good idea, the escape is fun and satisfying and provides a much needed break or release from the stress of daily living, the notion of retreat is appealing and subsequently liberating, but then comes the crash. The hangover. The warrant. The arrest.
And six months, or six years, or six decades later we look back at our lives, it seems to all go by so fast, and we ask ourselves, absolutely bewildered, how and why did I end up where I am? And we cannot answer that question because it was all such a blur. All that running, all that constant escaping from life and its challenges left little time for looking over our shoulders. And there we are, six months, years, or decades later, strung out on something of which we took too much, or lying in a pool of our own vomit, bottles of jack strewn about our dump of an apartment, standing at the center of our wasteland of a life with the ex-wife and four estranged kids staring at us from a distance. The friend, hurt and confused having tried desperately to approach, giving up after being constantly rebuffed, standing far, far away with a tear running down his cheek and sadness in his eyes.
When you see your life, with all its potential, floating away and dispersing like a cloud following a storm…that’s when you realize the absolute magnitude of your monumental mistake. Suppose we human beings possessed the omniscience with which to fully comprehend the extent and consequences of potential actions before we do them—the ability to see what would happen if we choose the path of least resistance—it would take more courage to retreat than to advance.
But we don’t. We aren’t omniscient. We are, while possessing free will, nevertheless creatures of instinct, and fight-or-flight is the strongest of our instincts. We are wired to fight when necessary and flee when possible. So when the going gets tough…we run because it makes the most sense—at the time.
However, assuming we understand that following the path of least resistance can have consequences as bad or worse than the very problem from which we are running, what then are we to do; what options have we left?
We are told that Hashem never gives a person a challenge that he cannot overcome, and I can bring a proof from Avraham Avinu. Thrown into a fire for believing in God contrary to the rest of the world, asked by his God to leave his homeland for another, wed for decades and having no children, finally having a child and being commanded by his God, the God whose law he had followed to the letter and beyond, to sacrifice his beloved son. By any natural order he should have given up, but he didn’t. Because he knew with every fiber of his being that Hashem would never give him a test he wasn’t equipped to pass.
And that is how we should, and must approach all of life’s difficulties; fully aware of the fact that God would never give us a test that we are not equipped to pass, because then, and only then, will we have the strength to fight rather than flee—to continue fighting even when the situation seems impossible, and life too much to bear.