No one gets through life without being tested, repeatedly. So when we come face to face with the terrors that can keep us up at night, how do we achieve grace under fire?

This week’s Torah portion contains the famous episode of Jacob wrestling with the angel. At long last, brother Esau is ready to exact revenge for the “stolen” birthright and has come with a small army to confront Jacob. In advance of that confrontation, Esau’s “angel” came to do battle with Jacob.

Jacob was no stranger to this dynamic, however. Clashing with Esau in the womb, Jacob’s earliest encounter with conflict began in utero. Born in the midst of a power struggle, Jacob lived a life that can be characterized as one challenging battle after another, more or less—what we would call “the human condition.”

But is that such a bad thing?

The Disempowered Reaction to Stress

Some people engage stress by reacting in these opposite ways: They become super-aggressive and even violent, or they abruptly disconnect. Others, however, take the middle road of passivity, attempting to dodge any form of conflict. Even at a cost to their well-being, vested interests or personal integrity, people who are frightened of conflict will cling to being “non-confrontational” to avoid difficult individuals or situations.

If you ask such people whether conflict avoidance works as an effective strategy, however, the honest ones would admit that it does not. Whether they become entirely passive or passive-aggressive, these folks are simply trading one form of suffering for another.

Similarly, have you ever noticed that the very people who complain so bitterly about wanting to be “free from suffering” seem so unbelievably attached to it? They insist that stress is an external and arbitrary imposition that keeps them from being happy, which is just so unfair! Offer them a solution, a new mindset or a coping strategy, however, and they are not so quick to get on board. Oddly, we often seem to be addicted to the very things we say we don’t want.

Never Letting a Crisis Go to Waste

In Vayishlach, Jacob gives us a role model that takes the engagement with conflict to a new level of empowerment and transformation.

Jacob sent messengers to see if he could appease Esau and avoid conflict. But then he set the stage for the encounter. He didn’t waste his time and energy resenting it, complaining or making it wrong. Instead, Jacob prepared himself to engage. While the text is translated as “prepared,” the term literally means, “repaired.” When Jacob centered himself with truth and integrity, he repaired himself.

And so, when Jacob wrestled with Esau’s angel, he authentically engaged it “full-out”; yet at the same time, he stayed humble. At the end of the nightlong struggle, when Jacob prevailed, he did something that seemed to make no sense. Jacob asked the angel to reveal its name and to give him a blessing. Imagine getting mugged—and then asking the mugger for a blessing! How strange is that?

What can we learn from this odd request? Consider this: If we confront a stressor with a direct encounter—face it, engage it and wrestle with it—can learn from it and even make it our teacher? It is only then that it can become a source of blessing. As Viktor Frankl, said, “Suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.”

So stress can either open you up or shut you down. Those are the possibilities. If you choose to open up, you may stay engaged with the discomfort, but by wrestling with its meaning, you will see that there are lessons to be learned, and that the pain can help free you to become a bigger, better and wiser human being. Like Jacob, you, too, can emerge from the darkness into the dawn of a new persona.

Is that not a blessing?

Internalize & Actualize:

  1. What stressful situation or person in your life have you been coping with through aggression, denial, blame, stonewalling or disproportionate attack? Write down the feelings that arise when you think about the situation or person. Next to each one, write if it is a positive feeling that promotes growth or a negative one that causes stagnation.
  2. Now, reflecting on what you just wrote, make this situation (not the person, but what that person represents) your “teacher.” Think about ways you can learn from it (even if your lesson is to do just the opposite, for knowing what not to do is a gift). List five possible positive outcomes from what until now you saw as purely negative.
  3. We often try to avoid stress and stressful situations whenever possible. Think through some things or people you have been intentionally avoiding. Then think about proactive ways you can engage and deal with them by choice, rather than waiting until it is unavoidable.