We entered the training base in the dead of night. It was hard to see much, aside from the glittering barbed wire fence, dusty rectangular warehouses, and a wide scattering of dingy thin tents flapping in the soft night breeze. We were really in the desert now, with nothing but endless sand, a magnificent clear sky of bright stars overhead, and small furry animals that skittered across the ground under the moonlight, disappearing behind the tents that would serve as our sleeping quarters for the next two months.
I tried not to think too hard about the essential nothingness that would be separating my bed from the desert’s myriad wildlife. I also tried not to think too hard about all the things that had led up to this night, or the things I didn’t know yet that I couldn’t possibly prepare for.
It was my first night of basic training in the Israeli military and leading up to this moment, I was a bundle of nerves. Actually, I had always been a bundle of nerves. Anxiety seemed to be ingrained in my personality, a pile of bricks on my chest I assumed I was destined to carry until I eventually dropped dead. With the desert sand seeping now into my boots, I recalled that first day of graduate school back in the U.S., in the security intelligence program that I was so unprepared for that I was sure I would fail out after the first semester.
Right before I left to the program, my mother had given me the following advice to quell my nerves: “Don’t be anxious, just be curious!”
She was suggesting a paradigm shift, a way to translate a negative sensation into something positive. I was trying to follow that wisdom, but easier said than done. Over the years, I had tried everything to alleviate my chronic anxiety: psychiatric medication, yoga, aromatherapy, acupuncture, homeopathy, you name it. What I hadn’t tried yet was getting the beans kicked out of me by a bunch of teenaged soldiers in the Israeli desert.
When it came to serving, I didn’t really have a choice if I was going to move forward with my career. After completing my master’s degree in security intelligence, I returned to Israel and quickly discovered that without the IDF service under my belt, I was automatically disqualified from scores of security jobs in Israel. So, at age twenty-eight, I joined the Israeli military. My comrades were a decade younger than me, but much to my amazement I blended in with every other soldier in that courtyard wearing a solid olive-green uniform and black leather boots.
Look, Ma, I made a friend!
I was so exhausted that night my usual anxiety-induced insomnia didn’t stand a chance; after sweeping the courtyards and scrubbing the floors of the mess hall along with the other soldiers, I passed out immediately on my cot. When I opened my eyes the next morning, it was still dark outside. I could just make out the rusty cots in the tent set up in two rows on top of a block of cement intended to keep out the flooding that plagued the Israeli desert during wintertime. There was vague shouting in the background, the urging of soldiers a few beds away to wake up and get ready.
I glanced at my watch and groaned. It was four o’clock in the morning.
There was suddenly a very pubescent-looking male commander standing over me, his fists on his hips. He screamed at me until I flopped off my cot onto the concrete. He screamed while I dug around in my kitbag, disoriented, looking for my undershirt, my uniform, my new shiny black boots. He screamed at the back of my head as if he wanted to blow it right off into the sand.
I had no time to think, only to move.
After breakfast, the commanders had us practice running into the underground shelters in the event of a rocket attack from Gaza. They pointed to a jagged crater in the middle of the base where a rocket had landed just a few months ago and told us if we didn’t run fast enough that’s what our faces would look like.
This realization should have made my anxiety shoot through the roof. Strangely enough, it had the opposite effect on me. Every time there was a drill—whether I knew it was a drill or not—I didn’t have time to think, only to run. And each time after I made it with the other soldiers into the underground shelter, I took a breath and smiled to myself, thinking, “Well, hey, you’re still in one piece, aren’t you?”
On the third day after breakfast, we trudged out toward the weapons warehouse to receive our guns. After being fitted with our helmets and gear, we stood outside the warehouse to receive our Soviet-era M-16s. I held the long rifle gingerly in my hands like a newborn baby. I had never shot a gun before and was afraid I might break it and get screamed at. But I had little time to be nervous, because just as I slung the strap of the M-16 over my shoulder a rock came flying out of the sky, bouncing off the top of my helmet with such force that I was momentarily thrown off balance.
In an instant, I had the M-16 cocked and ready to fire at some unseen enemy, even though in reality I had no idea how to shoot a gun yet. The other soldiers gripped their guns as well, their eyes darting around the periphery of the warehouse. But the rocks weren’t coming from a gang of terrorists. They were falling from the sky.
Within seconds, we were bombarded with the largest pieces of hail I had ever seen in my life. Chunks of ice the size of tangerines were coming down with such a fury it was as if we were at war with the heavens. The hail made loud thunk sounds as they bounced off our helmets, sending us shrieking for cover under the sloping roof of one of the warehouses. But we weren’t safe there either; within minutes the remnants of a flash flood rushed into the area, sending heavy rivulets of water over our boots and into the first floor of the warehouse.
In the background, the commanders were shouting at us to climb the ladders into the attics. As I scaled the stairs, all juiced up with adrenaline and my gun swinging against my back, instead of descending into my usual anxiety, my senses trilled with joy.
And that’s when it hit me: a lot of my anxiety had been caused by my lack of ability to live in the present. My mind was usually buzzing back and forth between the things I regretted in the past and the things I worried about for my future. It was a rare moment that I lived fully in the present.
For now, at least, soaked through to my underwear and clambering up the stairs like a wild creature, the army was forcing me to live in the present only, and it liberated me.
From shooting an M-16 to shooting pinball: clearly, a soldier with many talents
The Lessons Learned
Sometimes people are anxious because they actually have something to be anxious about (like a flash flood). But others are anxious out of habit (guilty as charged). Israeli basic training kept me so busy and physically engaged that my brain began to retrain itself, letting go of the things that didn’t matter in the past or future so I could focus fully on the present.
By the end of basic training, I came up with this list of rules to live by if you want to kick your anxiety in the butt:
Rule #1: Don’t be anxious, just be curious. (Solid advice, courtesy of Mom.) Life is going to throw you curveballs no matter what, so you might as well try to enjoy the ride.
Rule #2: Keep physically active and make it routine. Strong body, strong mind, baby.
Rule #3: Have a sense of humor. Sometimes your plans will get screwed up and you can’t do anything but laugh it off. Sometimes, when you catch yourself getting a little neurotic, you need to have a good laugh at yourself.
Rule #4: Live in the moment, deal with issues in the moment. Like when you wake up in the middle of the night in your army tent with a wild desert cat sleeping on your chest. Don’t panic… (I’m kidding. This is a rare exception. Proceed to scream and hurl that cat across the tent.)
Rule #5: Strive for self-acceptance. You can only be who you are. Whatever skills and talents you have are a gift; don’t compare yourself to all those other soldiers.
Rule #6: Stop being anxious about the mistakes you made in the past. It’s done. Move on.
Rule #7: “The best possible way to prepare for tomorrow is to concentrate with all your intelligence, all your enthusiasm, on doing today’s work superbly today. That is the only possible way you can prepare for the future.” (Dale Carnegie, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living)
So, next time you catch yourself ruminating, pull yourself back to the present. Put the circumstances in perspective. Be kind to yourself. And instead of being anxious about the things around the corner that you can’t possibly control, just be curious about the gifts you might find along the way.
To learn more about my adventures as an American serving in the Israeli security community, check out my forthcoming memoir here. You can also sign up for my newsletter to be notified of the book release.