Toward Resilience and Acceptance: Choosing Life 5778

Posted by on Sep 30, 2017 in Blog | 1 comment

Recently a friend and dearly respected colleague posted on FB that he had been the victim of a small but upsetting FB attack, comprised of a single word: queer. He’s been a gay activist most of his life, he’s a mensch among mensches, he’s experienced homophobia before, but he marveled how it was possible that he could still be “instantly destroyed” by it.

 

It’s a core wound of his.

 

Recently, in the space of a few days, I was attacked online by two people I would never have expected…One, a Buddhist chaplain, had misread my email that 20 other people read correctly and took offense where none was present; another, a rabbi who teaches mindfulness, attacked me on FB because I responded to a request from a friend about suicide awareness. It wasn’t even one of those that says, “I know only a few of you will respond.” It was just about awareness.

 

Both people apologized to me, but, like my gay friend, I was instantly destroyed. In the case of the chaplain, it took me an hour to be able to go to the patients’ room to be present to people in pain.

 

It’s a core wound of mine, to be falsely accused of being unkind.

 

And no matter how much work we do on those core wounds, they never go away. We learn to manage them, we learn to put space between the match and the fuse, we learn to ask for help. But they are there.

 

The chaplain apologized a few days later, acknowledging that she hadn’t understood the email. The rabbi apologized almost before the words were out of her message, and excused herself because of her overwhelm about all the things that are wrong in our world right now. The list seems endless, and overwhelming, and those of us who tend toward catastrophizing and apocalyptic thinking are seeing the end of democracy or a repeat of 1933, and worse.

 

And all those raise our stress levels and our short fuses.

 

We live in a time when people spew whatever is in their thoughts, with no regard for whether it might hurt another person, especially a person not right in front of them. The President says “there are many fine people” among Neo-Nazis and white supremacists, people chant, “Jews will not replace us” or “Go back to where you came from” or pretend—or maybe they really believe—that racism is worse for whites than for African Americans. And it’s not just words: some in Congress are eager to take health coverage away from more than 20 million Americans. The Justice Department wants to restart the war on drugs, impose maximum sentencing that will adversely affect the African American community…the end of DACA, the attempts to defund Planned Parenthood’s family planning and cancer screening programs… I have to stop. But you know the list goes on. And on.

 

And social media communication—non-verbal communication—poses a particular problem: since only 7 percent of communication is the words alone—7 percent, social media communication is dangerous from the beginning. We don’t know a person’s intent based solely on the words. We don’t. That’s true of regular old snail mail, or letters, too, and of course emails. But social media draws rapid fire response, so that we hit the ‘send’ or ‘post’ button before we’ve thought through how our words might be construed by others. And the anonymity and distance it provides seem to encourage people to use words people would never dream of saying to a person’s face.

 

My concern is that we are losing our souls in this environment, that we are wounding or being wounded to our core, that we are becoming inured to the daily onslaught of attacks on ourselves, our loved ones, on what the torah would refer to as the widow, orphan and stranger—that group of vulnerable folks, and we will forget both how to be with each other and forget that we are all connected. That each instance of being “instantly destroyed” makes coming back from it that much harder.

 

So how do we come back from all this?

 

Judaism offers us several paths, including this High Holy Day reflection period.

 

I am student of Mussar, the Jewish psychospiritual practice that helps us put space between the match and the fuse. Its main proponent in the 19th century, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, taught that we can’t just rely on our intellect to change ourselves to align our behavior with our values. We must engage the heart and emotions. My teacher, Rabbi David Jaffe notes, “No matter how many times someone studies the verse “Love your neighbor as yourself,” one will not love one’s neighbor more unless one feels in one’s heart what it means to love oneself and one’s neighbor.” [1]

 

Mussar, which means something like instruction or self-reflection, is perfect for the High Holy Day season—it’s perfect for every season, really, and if you’re interested in learning more, please let me know…It guides us to take a serious spiritual accounting of ourselves, to take stock of who we are and what we are doing.

 

It also stresses the Jewish concepts of responsibility and mindfulness and improving our characters—becoming mensches.

 

My Mussar chevruta—study—partner was bemoaning how hard it is to live life right now with the desire to keep informed, the need to study, the need to work, to care of her dog, and her husband and her home, and maintain relationships and practice self-care. Her kids are gone, but she is still overwhelmed by all the input that comes her way.

 

Can any of you relate to that?

 

We were discussing a passage from Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato’s Path of the Just—Mesillat Yesharim, an 18th ethical text about the kavannah—intention—we need to prepare to do what he called Divine service and mitzvot…I think of it as the kavannah for doing good in the world, for attaching to what is important. He says we should not approach those actions impulsively, when we are unable to “think clearly about what” we are doing. [What would he say about Twitter, I wonder?] Rather, we should arouse ourselves and patiently prepare our hearts until we enter a state of contemplation; then we should enter that stage and consider what we are about to do. This is basically the same instruction I give wedding couples after we sign the ketubah and before they process down the aisle on the arms of their parents: center yourselves together, block out all the family and friends, be there with each other and recognize that you are about to change your life—you are becoming part of a couple, no longer an individual responsible only to yourself. Be present. Be ready.

 

For each of us, when the potential for hurting someone else appears, center yourself—make a space between the match and the fuse—and ask if this is really necessary and if it is kind. If you answer either of those two questions with a “no”, then don’t do it. It goes without saying that it must also be true, even in this time, in this country.

 

Take the time to stop and consider. A friend told me that he rarely communicates via social media, because it takes him two days to think through all the permutations of how his words might be taken, given the responses he has received from people in the past, who don’t read his sense of humor off the screen. He might be a model to us all. Whatever you can do to be more mindful, do it. Whether it’s meditation, Mussar, prayer, affirmation reminders on your mirror, therapy, journaling…Reb Mel Gottlieb, the president of my seminary taught us, “Any way is a way if you make it way.” Practice, practice, practice…

 

If someone has not taken that time for mindfulness and you feel attacked, let me suggest that you take a moment, center yourself, and—this is really hard—judge that person for the good. (We call this

דַן לְכַּף-זְכוּת

Dan l’kaf z’cut in Hebrew). Imagine some reason that isn’t about you that lets you forgive. For example, if someone cuts you off on the freeway, consider that they might be rushing to their child’s hospital bed. If someone sends a nasty email, recognize that they might be projecting their own hurt onto you. Or they might not realize how their words sound without their tone of voice. Be gentle. Or, experience it as an opportunity for growth yourself.

 

The Talmud tells the story of Nahum Ish Gamzu, a man whose response to everything was Gam zu l’tovah – this too is for the good. Everything. Was for the good.

Rabbi Nahum was once sent to Rome to try to persuade the Emperor to treat the Jews more kindly. He was entrusted with a gift to the Emperor, a box filled with gold and diamonds. On the way, he stopped at an inn for the night. The next morning, he continued his journey, not knowing that the innkeeper had stolen the contents from the box, replacing them with sand and soil.

 

When Rabbi Nahum reached Rome, he handed the box to the Emperor. The Emperor was enraged when he found the sand and soil, thinking that the Jews wanted to mock him. Nahum was thrown into prison and certain death awaited him. However, Nahum was not dismayed and said, as usual, “Gam zu l’tovah” – “this too is for good.”

 

At his trial, one of the Emperor’s advisers averred that the Jews could not have dared to mock the Emperor. He suggested, therefore, that perhaps this was no ordinary sand and soil. The advisor had heard that when our patriarch Abraham fought against the kings, he threw sand and soil at them, which God turned into arrows and weapons, which won the day. Maybe this sand and soil were of the same kind!

 

The Emperor had been at war for some time, but could not defeat a particular enemy. So, he ordered this sand and soil to be used. Indeed, the miracle happened, and the enemy was defeated!

 

Nahum was immediately freed from prison and the petition of the Jews was granted.

 

His attitude was rewarded, and while God’s deus ex machina saves the day… the message resonates. The story Nahum told himself was that it would all be okay. And, I think that if Nahum had died, he would have been okay with that too.

 

Just the act of thinking outside your normal frame of mind can bring a measure of calm to you.

 

On the other hand, the reverse can also be effective. When Sheryl Sandberg’s husband died, and she was working through her grief, Adam Grant, their friend and her co-author of her excellent book, Option B, told her to think of the worst that could happen when she was feeling hopeless. She looked at him like he was crazy, and told him, “What could be worse?? I lost the love of my life with no warning, before he was 40, and now I’m raising two young, fatherless children alone!!” The friend, a psychology professor at Wharton, replied quietly, “He could have had his heart attack while he was driving with your kids in the car.” She immediately felt a wave of gratitude that she still had her children. Try it. It really works. For me, it works every time. And you can come up with some truly epic worst case scenarios…About two weeks ago, I slipped in my kitchen, breaking a bowl, spreading wet cat food that was covered in ants all over the floor, hitting my head, and generally shaking myself up. Really, ants all over me, the floor, the kitchen…But we came up with much worse scenarios, including a concussion, broken elbow, larger insects…And we felt better.

 

Another way of looking at this is to rewrite your story. Don’t feel stuck in the version in which you are the victim—even if you were. Figure out what lessons you can learn from the experience and move on. Each year I come back to the idea that Rabbi Alan Lew expressed—that forgiveness means being able to give up the hope for a better past. If we can let go of hurt sooner rather than later, and use the past as learning opportunities, then we have a chance for growth. Stop holding onto the grievance: let it go. Even if you don’t mend the relationship, at least stop letting the person rent so much space in your head. Now. Today. Let it go.

 

Another lesson—that is really challenging right now, I think, is to practice optimism. That doesn’t mean ignoring the reality of a situation—but accepting the reality and moving on from there—recognizing your strengths and previous episodes of success and mining them for the lessons you can draw from them. Think, “This will be hard, but I can rise to the challenge.” And then, figure out how to rise to the challenge.

 

Don’t personalize it. As the former queen of personalizing, I have finally (almost) learned that most unkind words and acts people do to me, or to others, is not about me (or others), but about the person. If you think about it, you know this is true, even if it feels really personal. That chaplain who let loose at me: whatever triggered her truly had nothing to do with me. And the mindfulness rabbi noted the same thing in her apology: she had been too stressed out. Her harshness directed at me was NOT about me.

 

Practice gratitude. This technique is foundational to our people—indeed the word Jew comes from Jacob’s son Judah, whose name includes the word for gratitude… Count your blessings. Recently, at work, we had a patient who was mostly in the hospital for months, until she died two weeks ago. She was a beloved person—four months in the hospital and she still had a crowd of friends and family visiting her. Staff came by regularly—and she remembered everyone’s name and was grateful for what we gave her. I prayed and talked with her every day I was there for 4 months. She soaked up our love. The weekend before she died, I gave her my last prayers, and love and gratitude, and left her room, in tears. A nurse let me cry on her shoulder and reminded me what a blessing it had been to know her. I continued to cry, but I felt instantly better, because she reminded me of what I knew but couldn’t access at that moment. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to know her.

 

Gratitude practices have been shown to improve our cardiac health, our memory, our longevity, our relationships… Whether it’s keeping a gratitude journal, remembering to say thank you every time something has come your way or someone has done something, or recounting your blessings or gratitude at the end of the day… do something. Every day. The more we do something, the more it strengthens our gratitude muscles.

 

And here’s my favorite one: HELP others. Research shows that people who help others experience more resilience when things are hard than people who don’t. Small acts of kindness—giving directions, holding doors open, listening to someone in pain…decrease the impact of a stressful day. That patient who died, even in her dying process, gave love and caring to the rest of us. And she received it back in spades.

 

We are living in hard times. People are throwing all sorts of anger, unkindness, harshness at others. Our lives are more complex. Our health might be challenged. But we can use the tools of our tradition—that are being shown to be verifiably successful to foster our own resilience to withstand the slings and arrows aimed at us. Let’s send the lessons out, practice them, and send love back into the universe, as we choose life.

 

Many thanks to Reb Irwin Keller, Rabbi David Jaffe, Rabbi Lisa Bock, Don Kaplan, and Tara Pope’s article in the New York Times, How to Build Resilience in Midlife.

[1] David Jaffe, Changing the World from the Inside Out: A Jewish Approach to Personal and Societal Change.

1 Comment

  1. This is quite wonderful, and comes at a perfect moment for me. Thank you, Meredith!

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