Why do we replay old uncomfortable episodes in our heads time and again? Granted, we’re not that happy with how we acted or reacted, but what’s the point in tormenting ourselves? Innate health professionals might say that we’re even coercing ourselves to feel negative by taking our thoughts so seriously, when naturally we could let go of those thoughts and move on.
Listen to the words of Reb Nosson:
“When some people learn mussar books, which talk in detail about the bitterness of punishment in Hell, they get very scared. When that happens, ‘the evil one‘ trips them up and makes them fall into a deeper depression until sometimes, God forbid, it could actually lead them to heresy” (בכור בהמה ד’ אות י״ז).
I think that when we obsess about fixing our past, we are living in that narrow-minded world Reb Nosson is describing called ‘fear of punishment’. Our souls know where we came from and where we’re going, so we want to improve. But one of the unhealthy ways of expressing desire to change could be perfectionism, nit-picking and an infatuation with our past mistakes.
This leads us to the following question: Although the Holy Zohar is critical of someone who’s fear of Heaven is only from ‘fear of punishment’, Rebbe Nachman said unequivocally that our main עבודה (service of God) is via ‘fear of punishment’. He said it’s impossible to start without it. Even the Tzaddikim need it, because there are “very very few” who serve Hashem out of love (Sichos Haran 5).
So is fear of punishment a bad thing or a good thing?
Back to Reb Nosson:
“In Hashem’s mercy He send us Tzaddikim, who teach us that even the lowest most despicable person has hope, because Hashem’s compassion is very very great. This celestial insight helps us not only avoid the depression associated with fear of punishment, but actually bring us so much joy” (ibid).
What joy is Reb Nosson talking about? Why would I be happy to be punished for my wrongdoings? Because it shows that I count. My actions count. I am significant. Even a person as dirty as me is important to Hashem. Even punishment itself isn’t some imaginary crane lowering me into an erupting volcano. It’s simply the exact actions I did with all the knowledge of it’s repercussions. When the veil is removed from this world and the truth shines, we’ll fully appreciate our actions. If they were good, we will experience their bliss. If they weren’t…
The fact that our actions count is reason enough never to give up hope and never to fall into the clutches of the other side, who wants to bury us when we mess up. Because if you believe that you can mess up, you have to believe that you can fix yourself too.