If you are anything like me, then it must bother your Christian sensibilities when Sarah doesn’t treat Hagar well. As the mother of our faith, I find myself wondering how she can be so unjust! This ethical issue bothered the ancient Jewish rabbis, too. The way that they resolved it was by finding fault with Hagar – she must have done something that made Sarah treat her in such a lousy way! So they told stories that appear in Hebrew Midrash (scriptural interpretations that seek to fill in pukas). The stories they told were about Hagar becoming haughty and spreading nasty rumors about Sarah: that Sarah wasn’t righteous, that her faith was false and that was why she couldn’t conceive a child. And they told stories about Ishmael, too: stories of Ishmael being a bad influence on Isaac, mocking him and scaring him. Sarah, they said, was only trying to protect Isaac when she sent Hagar and Ishmael away.
When I read this, it feels uneasily familiar to me because I think we are all guilty of doing just what the rabbis did. Human nature is to seek order out of the chaos. When we experience something discordant or painful, our brains try to make sense of it by making up a story. If a stranger gives us a mean look that makes us feel uncomfortable, we tell ourselves that they are a jerk. Or if a coworker is short with us, we tell ourselves that he doesn’t like us. We create these negative images of others to protect ourselves from the vulnerability and shame we feel in those moments.
The problem, though, is that this is self-defeating. Rather than bringing the comfort and connection we are seeking, it causes fear and alienation. According to shame researcher Brené Brown, the best thing we can do in the face of discordance and pain is to challenge the stories we tell ourselves. We do this by stopping, taking a deep breath, and asking ourselves questions like: Is this story true? What assumptions am I making? What are the emotions behind this story? If we can challenge our assumptions and engage our emotions in healthy ways, we build resilience, which is a critical component of a happy life, Brown says, “Can you think of a time in the last few days when you told yourself story that might not have been true? What happens when you challenge the assumptions you were making?”