In Aaron Thier’s wonderful new novel, The World Is A Narrow Bridge (out today—do read it), there is a scene where Eva and Murphy, the two young prophets of the god Yahweh, are sent on a mission that terrifies them. As they begin the mission, Eva and Murphy are approached by Satan, who has been sent by Yahweh, to give them their final instructions. After Satan gives the instructions, he begins to leave for his next mission:
“You have to go so soon?” says Eva. “Right away?”
She looks devastated. Murphy, too, is unhappy. Satan frowns and chews on his lip. He doesn’t like to leave them like this.
“I’ll teach you a trick,” he says. “I’ll teach you an incantation that will protect against despair. If things are dark, and I’m not around to help, you can repeat it a few times and it’ll help. I assume you speak Hebrew?”
Eva shakes her head.
“You don’t speak Hebrew?” He seems incredulous. “Are you sure?”
“No need to apologize. Let’s see. The translation would go something like this: ‘The world is a narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to be afraid.’”
Murphy and Eva both repeat this very slowly. Eva says, “That’s lovely.”
Satan nods. “Just repeat it to yourself when things are bad. You could try different translations too. ‘Do not make yourself afraid, the whole world is a narrow bridge.’ It would really be better if you knew Hebrew.”
Before he goes, he tells them that they can reach him any time by picking up a pay phone. Then he bows deeply. He’s singing “Angel of the Morning” as he passes through the revolving doors.”
This surreal novel is quite wonderful and, like all wonderful art, is filled with little bits of insight about the human condition that are worthy of pulling out and thinking about, as the Stoics often did in their writings. In the case of this little epigram, fiction was inspired by reality. It was the real life Rabbi Nachman of Breslov who came up with that beautiful prayer sometime in the early 1800s. In Hebrew it is rendered כל העולם כולו גשר צר מאוד והעיקר לא לפחד כלל. In 1973, the prayer, Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar me’od, was broadcast as a song (written by Orthodox Jewish rabbi Baruch Chait) by Ariel Sharon’s command to his troops during the Yom Kippur war. The song has since become a staple of Israeli culture—there are now hundreds of versions available in every style, each one deeply felt and moving. (Kol Ha’Olam Kulo was even covered by Grammy Award-winning singer Ofra Haza, who many consider the “Madonna of the East.”)
The point is this life we’re living—this world we inhabit—is a scary place. If you peer over the side of a narrow bridge, you can lose your heart to continue. You freeze up. You sit down. So too with life. If we think too much about the journey we have to make, the one that begins with the trauma of birth and ends with the tragedy of death, the one that is so perilous and unpredictable, we’ll never make it.
The important thing is that we are not afraid. That we don’t overthink things. That we don’t give way to fear, as the Stoics tell us over and over again. Just repeat it to yourself—The world is a narrow bridge and I will not be afraid—and keep going. Like the thousands of generations who have come before you.