I’m a little bit crazy; I hear voices. Sometimes, I even talk back to them. According to the Jewish faith, we all hear voices. The yetzer ha-tov (good inclination) and yetzer ha-ra (evil inclination) speak to us constantly, suggesting courses of action and activities. They’re a bit like the angel and devil characters in those cartoon shows that sit on your shoulder and tell you what to do. They’re both necessary, even. The yetzer ha-ra is the source of passion and drive. The yetzer ha-tov however is the one we’re supposed to listen to. As a kid, I used to wonder what the big deal was. Clearly, you listen to the nice looking angel, avoid the scary looking devil character and all is good. Why would anyone have trouble once those two appeared? In fact, I deeply wished that they would appear and sit on my shoulders and make it obvious because I had a very hard time figuring out what to do and clear, out-loud directions would have been nice.
It was only years later that I realized that my problem was exactly the same as that of the cartoon character’s. I was having trouble deciding which of the voices in my head to listen to. And just like in the cartoons, the voices themselves make it more difficult. The angel voice is often very quiet. Sometimes, it’s a little whiny or naggy, interfering with a good time. Sometimes, it’s slow, pedantic and boring. Sometimes, it sounds desperate – and desperation is never pretty.
The devil voice, on the other hand, that one is pretty on the ball. It tells me that it’s perfectly OK to ignore my work, to indulge in habits and behaviours that I know to be unhealthy, to be selfish, to lie, to do the things that I know are comfortable and easy and wrong. It often sounds like a friend, like someone who would make my life happier. Occasionally, it is loud – so loud that the choice seems obvious – whatever will shut up the screaming is a good thing. No? You’ve never done that? Never given something to a screaming kid just to make the noise stop? Now, imagine that same noise in your head. How good would you be at saying no?
I’m not, very. Often I give in. I have to be pretty clear with myself to not listen to that voice of desire that masquerades as need. If I do tell the screaming to stop, it switches to persuasion. It can be pretty deceptive, too. It promises that this time, it’s going to be OK. This time, doing the dangerous thing will lead to success, not disaster. This time, I’ll be able to stop after only one cookie. It claims that this activity is something I deserve. After all, I’ve worked so hard (at ignoring this voice) and done so well (at not hearing it) that it’s OK to take a break. It slips in, suggesting, cajoling, and of course, if that doesn’t work, screaming when I least expect it. It waits until I’m exhausted, or frustrated, angry or depressed, overwhelmed or hurried. That’s when it comes up and promises relief.
I am rarely as strong as I need to be to make that yetzer ha-ra shut up. I, in particular, can’t win an argument with it. It’s a heck of a lot smarter than me from what I can tell, and it sabotages my arguments because that voice is part of me, and can use my arguments and ideas, intellect and wisdom against myself. And the yetzer ha-tov? What on earth is the angel voice doing? It’s a polite voice. If you don’t request its opinion, it won’t give it to you. It will talk quietly, and only when there’s space, and it won’t interrupt. It doesn’t win arguments because it doesn’t argue.
It seems like a ghastly, unfair battle. Of course the yetzer ha-ra is going to win. Every time. I’m shocked when it doesn’t, even. The battle steals a ton of resources. I could be doing dishes or sending out resumes, writing friends or learning something new. Instead, I’m just writing, praying, walking, or even just sitting there trying to get the yetzer ha-ra to shut up before it convinces me again. It’s a worthwhile battle though. Winning, however temporarily is fantastic. If I can manage to hear the right voice – if I listen with sufficient care to make the right choices – I win.
I can accomplish more. My mood is better. I, only for a moment, feel good about the choices I’m making. My confidence increases. And the yetzer ha-ra is less loud, just a little less, just for a bit. It comes back – mostly I succeed for only moments at a time – but for a while there was a space of actual quiet in my head. Then, the yetzer ha-ra goes on to scream even louder and the battle begins again.
It’s all I question of which of the voices in my head I hear. And so, I continue with the battle, knowing that I will hear better the one I listen to more.