Friday, July 30, 2010

Oy. Friday, July 30, 2010

“One does a mitzvah, and this is the thanks one gets?” – The Dybbuk, “A Serious Man”

Poor Larry Gopnik. The physics professor’s wife is in love with a family friend who is too nice to hate. His son would rather smoke pot than study Torah, and his daughter wants a nose job at 16. His tenure is in danger because some anonymous person is writing letters accusing him of improprieties, and a failing student is trying to blackmail him.

Larry’s brother is a gambling deadbeat and lives on Larry’s living room couch, and there’s not enough cash to cover his son’s upcoming Bar Mitzvah. By the time Larry gets into a car accident in the Coen brothers’ dark comedy “A Serious Man,” you can’t stop laughing. But you’re not laughing at Larry. You’re laughing at yourself, because you know how it is to be downright bewildered when so many bad things happen that you really wonder if the Universe itself is conspiring against you.

Larry is a decent fellow, and he wants answers. Is God doing this to him? If so, why? What is he supposed to learn? How is he supposed to act? What message is he not understanding? Desperate, he visits a series of rabbis. But the rabbis seem to have as many questions as Larry.

“I too have had the feeling of losing track of Hashem,” says Rabbi Scott, using a casual Hebrew word for God. “I too have forgotten how to see Him in the world. And when that happens you think, well, if I can't see Him, He isn't there any more, He's gone. But that's not the case. You just need to remember how to see Him.” But then, he manages to compare Hashem to a parking lot.

Rabbi Nachtner isn’t much help either. He’s got a story about a dentist who discovers the words “Help Me, Save Me,” written in Hebrew letters on the teeth of a “Goy” (non-Jew). The dentist becomes obsessed with the finding, and he asks, “Maybe I'm supposed to help people generally, lead a more righteous life? Is the answer in Kaballah? In Torah? Or is there even a question?”

Larry can relate. He wants answers too. But Rabbi Nachter responds, “Sure! We all want the answer! But Hashem doesn't owe us the answer, Larry. Hashem doesn't owe us anything. The obligation runs the other way.” So once again, no answers for Larry. Is there a meaning in his suffering?

As it happens, things get a little better for Larry. But he never sees that burning bush. He never gets unequivocal answers to the questions he asks of God. He never learns why life is so hard, and why bad things happen to good people. But as a physics professor, he is also aware of The Uncertainty Principle, which he teaches in class:

“It proves we can't ever really know... what's going on. So it shouldn't bother you. Not being able to figure anything out. Although you will be responsible for this on the mid-term.”

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Snap out of it. Thursday, July 29, 2010.

“No matter how you're sad and blue, there's always someone who has it worse than you.” – “Keep'n it real,” Shaggy

“There’s always someone who has it worse than you.” That’s something a lot of people who suffer from depression hear, from loving and well-meaning (or sometimes irritated!) friends and family. Let me step forward and say, on behalf of all who suffer from clinical depression: It’s not helpful.

Don’t get me wrong. If someone is a little blue, feeling sorry for himself, or not looking at the big picture, such an admonition might be exactly what’s needed. But people with clinical depression already feel guilty and worthless for feeling guilty and worthless.

Believe it or not, we’re already aware that millions of people are blind and deaf, that the number of homeless is growing by the day, and that children are starving in Africa. These newsflashes don’t cheer us up. On the contrary, if we’re in an emotional low, they simply make the world seem even more hopeless. Why should we be happy when so many are suffering?

That’s because true depression is not the same as a case of “the blues.” It’s an illness. No one tells someone with breast cancer, “Cheer up! At least it’s not in your cervix!” or someone in a wheelchair with multiple sclerosis, “I betcha you could walk – if you really wanted to!” But for some reason, it’s perfectly acceptable to tell someone who is depressed to “Be happy! Things could be so much worse!” Hello. That’s just what we’re afraid of.

One of the ways such advice can miss the mark is that my “bad” is not necessarily your “bad,” and we can’t compare “bad.” Try telling a woman mourning her lack of fertility, “Kids are loud and messy anyway,” at the same time as you tell an overwhelmed mother, “At least you have kids.” My financial worries can’t be “compared” to your loneliness; it’s apples and oranges. Which is worse: having your home burn down, or blown to bits in a tornado? Should the fire victim be relieved he’s not a victim of the winds, and vice versa?

You see, when you tell me my problems aren’t so bad because others’ problems are worse, you’re telling me my pain isn’t real. And needing to prove the depth of my pain to you only makes me feel worse.

Don’t get me wrong. You might be 100% accurate that there is a better way to view my situation. You might have an idea that may help me. You might be able to help me reframe my outlook so it’s not so bleak. But FIRST – please – acknowledge that my suffering is real. Validation, in and of itself, is a powerful antidepressant. When my feelings have been validated, I’ll be much more open to suggestions and advice.

None of this is to suggest, in ANY way, that people with depression can’t or shouldn’t care about the less fortunate. In fact, lending a helping hand to someone in a bad situation is also a powerful antidepressant.

I serve on the board of an organization that raises funds for medical clinics in Africa. I’ve spent countless hours, and a great deal of effort, assisting the group, and when we raised a tidy sum of money at a benefit recently, I felt happy about it. I am thrilled when I receive a letter from the little girl I sponsor through Child Fund. And I feel gratified when I am able to help someone Facebook who is feeling suicidal.

But I do these things because they’re the right thing to do, not because I see the suffering of these other people to be “real” when mine is not. Feeling good as a result of helping someone in need is simply a nice side effect. Don’t shame me by trying to make me feel terrible about my feelings. Empower me by acknowledging my experience – and then let me choose to empower others by helping them.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Afraid to live. Tuesday, July 27, 2010.

“I’m afraid of getting well. I don't know who I am if I am not like this.” – Krystal, on a depression discussion board

The longer you’ve been depressed or anxious or suicidal, the more foreign the idea of getting better may seem to you. You might have a hard time remembering ever being happy or calm, even though it’s certain that at some point in your life, you were.

You may have formed an identity out of these feelings. Your friends might only know you this way. The only topic of discussion you’re used to might be how bad you feel, how terrible your life is going. And you haven’t functioned in a long while, so expectations of you might be low. If you got better, people might expect more from you. So getting better seems like a scary idea.

If you’re suicidal, the idea of dying might actually be a comforting thought. The idea of living might seem much more frightening. Killing yourself might have been your Plan B for a long time. You haven’t had to worry about planning for the future, because you haven’t planned to be here. So why would you want to get well?

You can see how your mind can trick you into sabotaging your mental health. As they say, the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know. So while there are some people who try every conceivable measure to heal from depression or anxiety, others cling onto these feelings like a security blanket. Because if you weren’t sad or scared, who would you be?

I promise you that there is a “real” you beneath these feelings. I promise you that the effort of getting well is worth it. And while I’m not there yet myself – I’ve got a long way to go – I know feeling “better” is better than feeling bad.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Good or ill. Monday, July 26, 2010.

“We are all angels. It is what we do with our wings that separates us.” – Father Harlan, “Northfork”

Some people believe that people are evil at heart. They might believe this consciously, as part of a greater belief system, such as a religion that tells them human beings are evil by nature. Or they might believe it subconsciously. There are people in my life who seem to find store clerk always clueless and the waitress always rude. I have to believe that deep inside, they are expecting the worst of others and therefore, they find it.

I tend to find that most people are mostly nice most of the time. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have my fights with the credit card companies, or that there aren’t a few individuals that are the bane of my existence. But I honestly believe that humans are basically good at heart. When individuals aren’t good, it means something has gone wrong.

I look at New York City as my example. This is a city of more than 8 million people crammed into an area of 305 square miles. And yet – this comes as a surprise to most people – it has the lowest crime rate among the 25 largest cities in America. In 2002, New York City had the same crime rate as Provo, Utah.

In 2007, the city had less than 500 homicides. That’s 500 too many, but my point is this: if human beings were truly evil at heart, how do 8 million people of divergent ethnic groups and economic classes co-exist in such a small space, with so comparatively few killing each other? How many terrible things do NOT happen? We have no way of counting.

While we want to be wise in our dealings with others – we want to keep our doors locked, our purses and wallets in hand, and our Social Security Numbers secret – I believe we can still look at others with optimism. Most people are pretty decent. Most people won’t abuse us. And we’re adults and find ourselves in negative relationships again and again, we might have to look in a mirror.

No one ever asks to be abused, and no one ever deserves it. But we may be attracted to people that abuse us because we believe the lie that we deserve to be treated poorly.

The world is full of good people: good men and women, good doctors, good counselors, good social workers, good police officers. To be sure, there are plenty of bad apples among them. But if we find a bad one, we can keep looking until we find the good one that we need – and that we deserve.