Research and experience teach us that children need to feel safe, secure, and comfortable within themselves and the environment around them. To accomplish this security, they seek proximity to their parents or other caregivers. As adults, we also need to feel safe, secure, and comfortable in our environment and within ourselves. And we also seek out safety, security, and comfort from our loved ones. As adults, we learn to achieve inner comfort without physical proximity. How do we do that?
Research has shown that throughout our lives we build mental representations within us. These are internal images of safety and connection that have been built by continuous experiential interactions of comfort with the people who love us that we trust. They can be images of our parents, friends, spouse, or any loved one about whom we feel, “I can count on you to be there for me.” When we are seeking comfort and security, we have the ability to tap into those images and open an internal reservoir of comfort and connection. We accomplish a mental "proximity" that comforts us, similar to the child seeking its parent’s presence but without our significant other being physically present.
We know countless stories of people who endured through great challenges, trials, and tribulations beyond human capacity. When asked how they made it through, they acknowledge a superhuman strength they conjured up from the presence or often just the internal memorialized images of the people who loved them. Oftentimes, just the thought of those people is enough to hold them up and keep them strong.
A Correlating Torah Insight:
The Torah describes how the Egyptian wife of Potifar constantly tried to seduce Joseph into sleeping with her. After years away from his family, living in a foreign land, alone and destitute… what stopped him from accepting her offer? Rashi brings a medrash which says that Joseph saw the image of his father when he found it most challenging to reject her seductive offers. This medrash is often understood to mean that his father’s image represented a morale standard that Joseph strived to adhere to, and that image brought him back to his senses.
However, in line with what we described above, perhaps the image of his father played a different role for Joseph. Perhaps Joseph knew all along the path of righteousness, and he knew that choosing to accept the offer of Potifar’s wife would lead to the opposite path. Maybe within the depths of his lonely, destitute condition, he was losing hope. The strength to carry on a life against the cultural norm—a life of kedusha, sanctity, and his natural drives and desires—was becoming too heavy. It was becoming too difficult to choose the path of righteousness in the midst of his despairing circumstances. At that climatic moment of pain and struggle, he recalled the image of his father. We know from other medrashic sources that the bond between Joseph and his father, Jacob, was unique and profound. After years of suffering, the experience of that bond was still deep within Joseph’s heart and soul. The image of his father conjured up all the emotions of love, warmth, and connection that Joseph grew up with. Perhaps it was the memory of that deep bond which gave him the internal strength to choose righteously in that moment of intense trial and challenge.
All of us have relationships from our past and present that conjure up feelings of comfort and closeness. Those memories are more precious than gold. They are what give us strength through our life challenges and support us through our tough moments. Mental representations bring light to the dark spaces in our lives.
We have lots of opportunities to build those bonding experiences within us, and we need them. We’ve all got dark moments when we need to tap into our reservoir of light within, and it's our experiences of love that shed the most light into those moments.
Take a moment to think about the precious people and moments that you carry around with you. Then take a moment to think about the people to whom you are precious and how you are the source that creates precious moments of security and comfort for them. Now start planning your next memorialized moments.
You can't always plan those moments, sometimes they just sneak up on you, but you can be more aware of them, thereby setting the stage for more of them. Whether it be setting up a coffee date with a loved one, making a phone call, planning a day trip, or a 2 week vacation, you can make those momentous memorable experiences happen.
Rabbi Joshua Marder, MA, LMFT has trained with the leading couples’ and family therapists of our generation. In addition to offering monthly couples’ workshops, he practices both couples’ and family therapy in the Chicago area. He serves on the Chicago Center for Emotionally Focused Therapy board, leads a monthly consultation group for couples’ therapists, and provides supervision for therapists looking to train in EFT for couples. To see more articles and videos by Josh, you can go to his website at www.builttobond.com.