May 24th, 2019
19 Iyyar 5779
This week we read Parshat Behar in which we are given the laws of Shmita – an agricultural process in which we are commanded to let the land lay fallow once every 7 years. We hear about the plentiful blessings we will receive if we follow Gods law and on the other side of the coin, we learn that if we do not follow God’s laws, curses of many shapes and sizes will rain down upon us.
The first of all the curses described, greater than any sword wielding enemy or natural disaster, is the curse of anxiety; described in the taxt as “calamity, panic and frustration in all the enterprises we undertake.” Rabbi Ibn Ezra suggests that this curse carries with it the sense of being scared suddenly without knowing what to do. As human beings, when we are scared or panicked it makes it hard to listen, to heed instruction, to understand the challenges before us or even to see clearly. Some may refer to this reaction as fight or flight. Some of us may freeze. Some may lash out. Some of us run. In these moments of panic, we can neither understand others nor ourselves well enough to navigate our way out of the challenging situation. Our Torah describes this experience as the converse of the blessing that had been laid out previously in the text: “you shall be able to lay down unburdened by anyone.”
When suffering from panic, “Now the sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight. Fleeing as though from the sword, they shall fall though none pursues. With no one pursuing, they shall stumble over one another as before the sword.” The text paints a picture of someone cowering in fear. Running and quaking as though in the midst of a hot pursuit, despite the absence of an enemy coming up behind. And so, since this month of May is mental health awareness month, I want to take a few moments to explore this concept of anxiety and how this “curse” manifests in our world today.
Today, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the US.
Today, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the US. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety impacts 40 million adults in the united states age 18 or older – roughly 18% of the population and 25% of children between 13-18. And the numbers continue to rise. Some might even say that worry and anxiety are emblematic of the human condition and in fact, in 1992, the Journal of Medical ethics published the following statement:
It is proposed that happiness be classified as a psychiatric disorder and be included in future editions of the major diagnostic manuals under the new name: major affective disorder, pleasant type. In a review of the relevant literature it is shown that happiness is statistically abnormal, consists of a discrete cluster of symptoms, is associated with a range of cognitive abnormalities, and probably reflects the abnormal functioning of the central nervous system. One possible objection to this proposal remains—that happiness is not negatively valued. However, this objection is dismissed as scientifically irrelevant. (Richard Bental)
We place qualifiers on certain emotions such as anger or sadness, uncertainty or fear, associating them as “negative” and therefore, placing judgement on ourselves when we inevitably experience them. However, pure, unadulterated happiness, is in fact, so rare that the psychiatric community suggested pathologizing IT rather than it’s mirror opposite. And yet, as human beings, we continuously strive for it and hold ourselves to a standard that seems, at times, unattainable and even perhaps, impossible.
In her book “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone”, Lori Gottlieb writes, “No matter how open we as a society are about formerly private matters, the stigma around our emotional struggles remains formidable. We’ll talk with almost anyone about our physical health…but bring up anxiety or depression or an intractable sense of grief, and the expression on the face looking back at you will probably read, get me out of this conversation, pronto.” In our rational minds, we know that all human beings struggle at some time in their lives. As we isolate ourselves in the silo of our anxiety, we make ourselves feel not only imperfect but totally alone.
According to Psychology Today magazine, one of the greatest sources of anxiety in our modern world is technology. Anyone with a smart phone is familiar with the dopamine high that is associated with opening up our screens and scrolling through the world of the internet. Instagram and Facebook allow us to engage with one another’s lives, stay current with the milestones and memories that our friends (and any celebrities we may follow) choose to share. The internet is a magical thing that allows us to stay connected to one another and to the world at large. And yet, it can also be a source of deep sadness, judgment and anxiety when left unchecked.
The age of social media has ushered in the notion of “reality curation” meaning the focus on self-presentation and the ways in which we curate the images of ourselves that the world sees and in so doing, curate the way our realities are perceived by others.
The age of social media has ushered in the notion of “reality curation” meaning the focus on self-presentation and the ways in which we curate the images of ourselves that the world sees and in so doing, curate the way our realities are perceived by others. Social media is full of images of happy memories, life cycle milestones, perfect couples who are “so in love” and never fight, happy babies who from the looks of it, never cry, spit up, or break things.
We carefully select the images that we want to share. We filter them and edit them, removing all imperfections and evidence of the human condition. It makes sense when you think about it. Why would we post images and memorialize our darkest and saddest moments? We wouldn’t make a photo album full of photos of our puffy faces after a long, cathartic cry or a sleepless night spent trying to console a screaming newborn. Why would we post this on the internet for all to see? However, through this act of reality curation, we create a false sense of reality for ourselves and for each other. We establish the perception that the baseline is in fact, happiness or dare we say, perfection. And then we judge ourselves and each other when we fall short of this goal.
Furthermore, we live in a world where uncertainty is becoming obsolete. The advancement and accessibility of the internet allow us to find answers to even the smallest uncertainties we face each day.
Alexa, will it rain today?
Ok Google, how long will it take me to get to work today?
Hey Siri, read me that text while I drive.
Google maps and Waze allow us never to have to worry about getting lost. We can avoid awkward run ins at social gatherings by checking the guest list through Paperless Post or Evites. Even online dating apps allow us to see how many mutual friends we have with a potential match so we can assuage our nerves before a date.
We never have to wait for answers and as such, we obtain a false sense of control through our access to information. Not to mention the fact that we are able to consume information and data at rates of speed that were unfathomable even a decade ago. In our world today, we are no longer required to face the uncertainties of daily life which renders us unprepared to navigate life’s big questions and the inevitable challenges we all know we will face. By keeping ourselves insulated from life’s small ambiguities, how do we self soothe when we are faced with questions to which we have no answer?
By keeping ourselves insulated from life’s small ambiguities, how do we self soothe when we are faced with questions to which we have no answer?
On Thursday, as I walked back in the building, I had a conversation outside with a 5 year old ECC student who was struggling to come to grips with the loss of her first pet; a fish who survived a whole day in a plastic bag only to die when she was transferred to her new home. This child was struggling with life’s big questions. Why do living things have to die? Why did this particular fish die even though it seemed like they had done everything right. We talked about how hard it is not to have answers to some of her questions and how frustrating it can feel not to be able to understand why things happen. I asked her if she was feeling better now, two days after the death of her pet, and she said that she was starting to feel better and even forgot about it sometimes but then when she thought about it again it made her sad. Her mom shared with me that they were planning to get another fish once they got their tank ready to sustain a new pet. The child said she hoped these fish would survive but was now prepared for the possibility that it wouldn’t. This child’s innocence and unabashed willingness to confront her own sadness in the face of uncertainty was adorable and refreshing. As I walked in from the circle contemplating this drive by pastoral encounter, I thought to myself, how great would it be if we could all approach life’s vulnerabilities with such a sense of openness and truth.
So in returning to the opening words of our parsha, I want to turn back to the commandment around shmita, the laws commanding even our land to be given a moment’s rest. Though this seems like a purely agricultural law, it is in fact, a grave reminder to us all that too much of a good thing is never in fact, a good thing. When consumed in large quantities, any blessing can become a curse. Our biblical ancestors were commanded to allow their land to lay fallow every 7 years to rest and allow the land to revive itself. Even during a time of plenty we are still required to engage in the act of shmita. We are still obligated to give ourselves and our land an opportunity to recharge and to rest. So too with the consumption of information.
We can acknowledge that the age of technology has brought with it many gifts and blessings. But as we learn in our Torah, with blessings come the potential for their sister curses. May is Mental Health awareness month and as my friend Mike Rosen, a poet and mental health advocate, told me “more than 1 in 5 Americans will experience a severe, debilitating mental illness in their life time... which is more than will ever experience having blue eyes.” So perhaps we can give ourselves a moments rest from the exhausting act of working so hard to attain perfection. Perhaps we can afford ourselves the kindness of acknowledging that to be human is to be imperfect and that when we allow ourselves to be supported by others, we are offering healing not only to ourselves, but to our entire community.
Perhaps we can afford ourselves the kindness of acknowledging that to be human is to be imperfect and that when we allow ourselves to be supported by others, we are offering healing not only to ourselves, but to our entire community.
As Jews we acknowledge that we are all made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and so even the human experiences that we characterize as “negative” are in fact, God given. Earlier in our Torah, we see Moses erupt in anger and smash the first set of tablets in reaction to sin of the golden calf. Following this reaction, God commands that the broken tablets not be discarded but rather carried with them as they continue their journey. We glean from this that as we walk through our lives, we will inevitably misstep, fall down and indeed, feel broken. And yet, we carry our broken pieces with us on our path as they too, are a part of us and they too, are holy.
 Gottlieb, Lori. Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, HER Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed . HMH Books. Kindle Edition.