“We wish we had died! We wish we had died!”
Cry out the people who personally experienced miraculous salvation.
“If only we had died in Egypt, or in the desert…”
They were afraid of potential war in Kanaan, but it still doesn’t seem logical.
They’d prefer to have certainly perished in Egypt or the desert, over the possibility of death OR the
possibility of victory and freedom in the Promised Land?
How is it possible that an entire nation collectively lost its will to live?
Maybe this episode is offering an insight about the psychology of trauma and anxiety.
This cohort witnessed unprecedented Divine revelation after years of multigenerational oppression.
Trauma dysregulates emotion and distorts cognitive function.
These people had moved from stable misery to ostensibly unstable salvation.
In the desert, they needed to take the very notion of survival one day at a time.
They only had one day’s worth of sustenance and didn’t know from one day to the next when or whether they were moving. But that level of uncertainty and angst they were already living.
To go from already struggling with that, to even more fear or more unknown may have felt like more than they could bear.
I remember when I was young kid, our school would sometimes invite Holocaust survivors to come and speak to us. At one assembly, upon hearing particularly horrific descriptions of what the speaker endured, I remember being startled by my own thought:
“Wow- if I had been alive then, I think I’d have preferred to have been killed fast, rather than go through that torture and survive.”
I wasn’t a suicidal child, but the idea of a certain level of torture seemed like too high a price to pay. Victor Frankel discusses this at length in Man’s Search for Meaning.
Death isn’t palatable but it’s clear. Lack of clarity, and the possibility of protracted suffering can and often does snuff out a person’s will to live.
When great people in the Torah express their existential ambivalence, and it gets canonized, maybe that’s G-d’s way of acknowledging that this is a universal human struggle. The will to live is powered by a sense of purpose and often threatened by fear of suffering or the unknown.
When people say they wish they died, they generally mean that they’re in so much pain, or so afraid of possible pain, that they can’t imagine facing it. Cumulative angst like this can create a sense of futility and helplessness, which can weaken to the point of surrender. “I wish I could die” is desperation-speak for “I can’t do this. I don’t think I can endure this pain or fear. And I can’t envision an end to it, and so I’m crying out for the only escape I can imagine.”
An antidote for this is hope. Individual, psychological, national, and spiritual. Hope creates the belief in the possibility that either the pain will subside, or that there is some transcendent purpose, worthy of enduring and surviving it.
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