Sacred Learning to Thaw the Freeze

by Ayana Morse, Executive Director

So many things feel like they’re crumbling right now. As I try to make sense of how to respond to this moment, I’ve been sitting with the framework of fight, flight, and freeze. The framework offers us base choices for how we respond to perceived threats based on our animal brain’s early sense of survival. And it strikes me that the backdrop of the pandemic is playing a more significant role in which of these responses sits at the forefront.

UCHealth offers: “The fight-or-flight system focuses on things that happen quickly, are uncommon, feel out of our control, or seem likely to hurt us in serious or scary ways. Though driving is riskier than flying, it feels familiar, in our control, and thus, survivable…COVID-19 pushes all the same mental buttons as flying: sudden, unfamiliar, out of our control, and potentially deadly…COVID-19 is not an imagined danger, the risks are real, but fight or flight-driven thinking can lead to decisions that won’t keep us safer and may make things worse. That’s because fear has another unfortunate side effect. It can shift us into survival-mode thinking which not only leads to hoarding of things like toilet paper; it can also narrow our focus to just ourselves and our immediate circle.” 1

My impulse to “freeze” predates the pandemic, and seems to show up when the stresses of the world play havoc on my nervous system. I distinctly remember finding out I was pregnant as Trump won the presidential election in 2016. The need to close my walls to the world around me had never felt stronger. I sought comfort in the numbness, in drawing back in and burrowing inside a shell. When thinking about the fight-flight-freeze framework, I can see how my response in that moment was to threats both real and imagined that lay ahead. 

I also circle around “flight” with some regularity, and the question of whether or not to stay in America is a pretty common conversation in my home. I don’t remember if this question emerged when Trump first took office, whether it stemmed from having Holocaust survivors in my family, or if it was born out of an adventurous spirit around cultural exchange. The origin of the question ultimately isn’t important, as it now holds each of these ideas and we continue to circle it again and again. 

And then, in the wake of the mass murders in Buffalo, I witnessed a call for white people to take responsibility for our racist family members. This call has rightly demanded that I find a way out of the freeze, bypass the question of flight, and find a way to shift back into action because there’s so much to fight for. Because for so many people there aren’t options. There is no freeze. There is no seeping into the numbness. This call to accountability, to own and break down racist, misogynistic ideals and values, feels especially charged and challenging. Each day brings new devastation on Black and Brown bodies, trans bodies, women’s bodies, and it’s hard to know where to anchor the fight. 

At SVARA, we’re wrapping up the selection process for the fifth cohort of fellows in the Teaching Kollel, and part of the interviews is learning together. The text we’ve been exploring hones in on the idea that there is divine power within each one of us and that our learning can be a sacred anchor. 

ומניין שאפילו אחד שיושב ועוסק בתורה ששכינה עמו שנאמר בכל המקום אשר אזכיר את שמי אבוא אליך וברכתיך
From where do we learn that even one person who sits and engages with Torah, the divine presence is with them? It is written, in every place that brings to mind G!D’s name, G!d will come to you and bless you.

When I first encountered this text it was the spring of 2020, early in the pandemic, and what felt resonant for so many people was that it offered a way to find comfort in solitude. The idea that G!d could be with us, even if we couldn’t be together. Learning it this time around, two years into the pandemic and on the heels of Buffalo, Uvalde, anti-trans legislation, and the potential loss of Roe v. Wade looming, I’ve been struck by the catalyst this text might offer through the word u’v’rachticha. That even when we’re alone, if we’re engaged in learning, G!d will be with us and bless us

In my quest to shed the freeze, I’m holding on to the idea that if G!d does elevate a person’s learning to be sacred, that learning holds energy in it. And if that learning holds energy within it, it can move us forward in moments when numbing ourselves feels like the only viable option. The Integrative Psychiatry Institute offers that inspiration can be a useful tactic in overcoming the freeze response,2 and if we consider learning as inspiration, it becomes an action step. Just like the prayers we offer before we learn or as we fight for human rights and dignity, our intentionality carries sacredness that can move us from freeze, from solitude, toward a new world where people are valued as their whole selves and we don’t have to live in fear. 

This weekend we come into Shavuot, a holiday that centers learning as a truly holy act. What blessings might we uncover through our learnings and how might they lead us out of the freeze and into action?




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