What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid?: Dis­cov­er a Life Filled with Pur­pose and Joy Through the Secrets of Jew­ish Wisdom

Michal Osh­man

  • Review
By – December 13, 2021

Michal Osh­man begins her book What Would You Do if You Weren’t Afraid by recall­ing a mem­o­ry from her first day work­ing in a high-pow­ered posi­tion at Face­book. On the wall was a sign that read: What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” It was a seem­ing­ly innocu­ous piece of office décor that stuck with her, encour­ag­ing her to con­front her crip­pling (if high-func­tion­ing) anx­i­ety through Hasidic wis­dom. The way I embrace it,” Osh­man explains, Hasidut teach­es how to replace fear and anx­i­ety with joy and pur­pose” in prac­ti­cal, every­day ways. Draw­ing heav­i­ly from Vic­tor Frankl’s pop­u­lar mem­oir Man’s Search for Mean­ing (first pub­lished in 1946), Osh­man dis­tin­guish­es a mean­ing­ful life from one filled with ego and instant grat­i­fi­ca­tion. It is a thought-pro­vok­ing, well-writ­ten guide for any­one, Jew­ish or not, who is look­ing to nav­i­gate life’s many challenges.

Each of What Would You Dos ten chap­ters focus­es on a spe­cif­ic Jew­ish con­cept, such as bit­tul, liv­ing with­out fear; tzimtzum, find­ing joy through mak­ing more space for oth­ers in our lives; and chin­uch, help­ing oth­ers, espe­cial­ly chil­dren, find their own pur­pose. Each of these con­cepts is explained in terms of its Hasidic con­text and how Osh­man inter­prets the tra­di­tion­al def­i­n­i­tions for every­day life. Using per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al exam­ples, the author makes these con­cepts relat­able to twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry life. In fact, in some ways it’s like a sec­u­lar Jew­ish ver­sion of Rab­bi Alan Lew’s This is Real and You are Com­plete­ly Unpre­pared (2003), espe­cial­ly in its explo­ration of how we can fill what Fran­kl calls our exis­ten­tial vac­u­um: the empti­ness that lives in us all as we go about our dai­ly lives, ignor­ing the needs of our souls and the peo­ple around us. Liv­ing in a time in which self-care is a cul­tur­al buzz­word, Osh­man argues that think­ing beyond our imme­di­ate wants is a more ful­fill­ing, tran­scen­dent way to find joy. Vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty and com­pas­sion are not weak­ness­es, but oppor­tu­ni­ties to live authen­ti­cal­ly and grow as individuals.

While Osh­man straight­for­ward­ly acknowl­edges her socioe­co­nom­ic priv­i­lege (and her goal to use this to help oth­ers), the larg­er point here is a relat­able one: we all have inse­cu­ri­ties and anx­i­eties that drag us down, no mat­ter how good our lives might look from the out­side. In our cur­rent cul­tur­al moment — when sick­ness, pover­ty, job inse­cu­ri­ty, and civ­il rights ero­sions are all too com­mon in Amer­i­ca — these con­tem­po­rary tragedies are exact­ly why we need What Would You Do if You Weren’t Afraid. As Fran­kl states, in suf­fer­ing and even in fail­ure there must still be mean­ing.” We can­not always choose the cir­cum­stances life hands us, but Osh­man makes a con­vinc­ing case that we can adjust our mind­set to meet life’s chal­lenges with grace and joy.

Discussion Questions