You Are Stronger Than You Think (Responding to the Struggles of Life)
Essays 2020 / Finalists
Strength in struggle. How?
How to get through pain and loss? How to respond to tragedy? How to go on?
The questions are universal. The discussion is huge and vast.
I want to make an attempt here; to approach the topic of resilience in the face of struggle through my own experiences.
There was a time in my life that I thought I couldn’t.
Nothing made sense. The landscape of my life looked completely different. I didn’t recognize it. I didn’t recognize myself. Everything had changed.
I come at the questions from this vantage point. From the not knowing, from not only feeling stuck, but blind. From feeling suicidal.
I was suffering from extreme and acute mental illness, and what I want to explore here, is how key concepts in Torah and Chassidus saw me through. And how these concepts can help see people through their own struggles, pain, strife, even tragedy. Because that’s what the mental illness was to me – an intelligent, successful woman who was brought to her knees, almost to death – a tragedy. But I’m here and so are you if you’re reading this. And we all have our things, big and small. What helps us in times of struggle? What can we hold onto?
I will discuss the following three concepts as they are understood by Chassidus:
- The idea that G-d does not give us more than we can handle.
- The concept of silence and acceptance and not trying to understand Infinity with our finite minds.
- The idea that we are part of a whole; a bigger picture of Judaism and the Jewish people.
I will relate these ideas to my own experience, but I believe they are universal in their applications to all human struggle, pain, and even tragedy.
Physically and emotionally, I’d always been healthy. I’d never dealt with mental health issues, there were no hereditary factors, and nothing unduly stressful, certainly not traumatic, about my life. Then I gave birth to my oldest son and become a statistic. I was one-in-a-thousand women to be struck with post-partum psychosis.
The period of psychotic illness was blacker and bleaker than my most wretched nightmares. It was a strangled existence, the tortures of sleeplessness, loss of faculties, loss of identity. Crazed by sleep-deprivation, I wanted out, I wanted to die. My family rallied by me. I had a new baby. Between the bitterness, a voice whispered ‘You can’. I held onto it, to my strength, to my intelligence, my core, the wavering belief that maybe I was still normal. Even as I could do nothing: I was a college-level science teacher but my mental capacity was almost nil, I couldn’t read two lines in a kid’s book. I fought alone, with just a few people at my side, against the demons that were taking me over, and against the stigma outside. I had to fight off the stigma within my own mind too; I thought I was crazy, I thought I could never be sane again.
But after three months on a psychiatric unit, it was clear I was recovering, thank G-d. Not completely healed, but ready to be discharged, on the road. Good enough to give my bed over to the next patient. Now the questions hit hard and fast. Why go on when life was still such a struggle? I was predisposed to this now; it could strike again. Shame and blame, even as I’d done nothing to make this happen. The whole gamut of feelings, as rational thought opened up to me again, and I thought: Why? For what? The suicidal thoughts resumed.
But I resisted them. I took my baby and got out of there. We went home. I still couldn’t sleep properly, had buzzing in my head as if my brain was swathed in cotton wool, buzzing that slowed me, impeded daily functions. But I went on, and on.
Today, just over a year later, I’m teaching, working, mothering, and no one would dream I had the worst of all mental illnesses. My son is one and a half; we’re growing, leaping together. Last semester, two of the classes I’d taught passed the collegiate exams with flying colours. These were chances to reflect. To look back and see how I’d passed, how I’d come this far.
“G‑d does not make impossible demands on His creations.” (Avodah Zara 3a)
A loving parent doesn’t set their child up for failure. They don’t give them a task that is beyond the child.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, (refered here thereafter as ‘the Rebbe’) took the idea further (see for example Igros Kodesh, vol. 22, p. 356.) He explained that the greater the challenge, the greater therefore the inner strengths to overcome the challenge. Challenges then, are indicative of strength, because the harder the challenge G-d sets for you, the more strength He will endow you with to help you pass. He will never give you something that you don’t have the physical/spiritual energy to get through.
Sometimes you look at someone struggling with a certain trial and you can’t fathom being tested in that way. It’s inconceivable to you, because you haven’t been given the strength to handle it.
Chasidim relate that the Rebbe once told a man who found himself in quandary and inner turmoil over a relationship forbidden by the Torah, that he envied him. The man was expecting horror, rebuke etc. Envy?
The Rebbe answered that a trial of this magnitude would only be presented to someone who had a correspondingly high level of inner strength. The Rebbe saw straight through the challenge to the strength of the man, who saw himself as struggling with something base and lowly. “Only the strongest are tested in this difficult manner,” the Rebbe explained, “Don’t you see why I am envious?”
When I was in the hospital, just post-birth, first being plagued with the symptoms of anxiety and mania, I lay in bed, silently moaning, craving the sleep that wouldn’t come. The hours brought pain and despair. In my state of anguished desperation, I remembered the Rebbe’s words. I held onto them all night, at first contemplating that G-d must have given me great strengths because I couldn’t see how I’d get through, and as I got weaker and weaker, and couldn’t hold the thought anymore, I just repeated this sentence to myself: ‘G-d hasn’t given me more than I can handle.’
I didn’t sleep but I made it through the night. And impossibly, as my faculties were shutting down from lack of sleep and from the mania taking over my mind, I felt a whisper of G-d’s presence too.
Later on, a question that kept plaguing me, was why? Why did G-d make this happen to me? I was a new mother, a wife, a teacher. Thousands of women give birth every day. Why me?
In Likutei Iggeres Hakodesh (bnei hayeshiva), in a letter the Rebbe writes on 13th Cheshvan, 5732, to a petitioner struck with tribulation, the Rebbe references the pasuk “Hacheiker Elokei Timtza” (Iyav, Chapter 11, pasuk 7). Iyov, who was stricken with every trouble, was asked then, Can you find out the mystery of G-d? Now as then, it applies; If you scrutinise and analyse G-d’s ways, will you understand Him?
The Rebbe brings an analogy of a person who comes into an operating theatre and wants to stop the operation in its tracks. “Why are you cutting people, removing vital organs? What’s going on here?” He asks.
One of the doctors take him aside. He explains, “You look at the surgeon and you think he’s a sadist, he’s crazy. What is he doing? But through the fact that he’s cutting away, he’s giving the patient the chance for long life.”
“But that’s absurd. He’s cutting and causing bleeding; with this he heals?”
But of course, we know that sometimes the cutting away of cancerous parts is needed for ultimate healing.
We are like that man who knows nothing about the medical world barging into a theatre and demanding an explanation.
In the book of Vakiyra, Chapter 10 (Parshas Shmini), we have the story of Ahron, the High Priest’s, two son’s sudden and tragic deaths at the inauguration of the Mishkan. His response. “Vaidom” – He was silent.
In Igros Kodesh, vol. 13, p. 205. The Rebbe discusses Ahron’s response as one to emulate. Yes, silence in the face of tragedy – with regards to explanations, not with regard to outcomes.
This also applies to one’s behaviour with someone who has suffered loss. For a mourner there are no explanations. Nothing will make sense, or add up. The only thing one can do, is be with the mourner, sit with him in his sorrow. Indeed, Rambam rules (Laws of Mourning 13:3 and 13:9) that “one is not permitted to speak before the mourner speaks first.” However awkward or uncomfortable, your silence is what you can give the mourner now, until, of course, he wants to speak with you.
To me, in my own grief over what had happened to me, the idea of silence appealed as well. Not just a physical silence, but an absence of explanations. The social workers, well-meaning as they were, tried to help me find a narrative, make sense of the experience, look for explanations in my genetic makeup, in the trauma of birth. But I found the explanations brittle, the narrative weak. What about others in my family with the same genetic makeup? What of all the other women who’d experienced traumatic births? Why me? The explanations bred more questions and more confusion. They made me feel worse, by giving me the sense that there was an element of control – and it pointed back at me, that somehow it was my fault, because I was predisposed etc.
In some way, I wanted the silence. I wanted to think that this was from G-d, period. It made me feel better to think He’d willed it this way, that it was part of something bigger that I couldn’t understand. Because I genuinely couldn’t.
Growing up, there were many ideas we learnt and spoke about. This idea of a Master plan was one of them. As were Klal Yisroel, one nation, being part of something bigger. But to what extent do we really know these ideas, feel it in our bones?
A few years ago, I went with a group of women to Auschwitz. At first there was just despondency and numbness. The train tracks, the barracks, the stripping of dignity, seeing the rows of holes for toilets. To see it as the lowest level of physicality drives everything else home. The towers, the fear, you are scared of your own shadow, of the caw of a bird.
And then we stood at the bombed gas chambers, and someone started up a tune. And we danced. We linked arms. And I had the sense then of the endlessness and grandness of what is ours. The strength that was in our hands, holding firm. An unbroken, undying circle of observant women, in a place that had known every brutality against our nation. I had this sense then, that if I were to go, or my neighbour, the one I was holding hands with, the circle would still go on. And we would be forever part. I was touching the ethereal. Something much bigger than myself.
In that fleeting moment, it was about our hands. And their hands – the inmates’ – gnarled and worn before their time, and now just fingerprints in the heaven. It was about every Jew’s hands, and every Jew’s soul since the beginning of time. When I walked out again through the gates of hell, something had shifted.
On the average Tuesday afternoon, though, there is no whiff of flames, no phantom ghosts in the ground, no tune, and no gentle swaying. There are no hands.
But that experience did something; somewhere, in a deep place I knew. And I learnt.
‘Ve’ahavta lereacha komacha’ – You shall love your fellow as yourself (Vayikra 19:18, Parshas Kedoshim) is said to be the foundation of the whole Torah.
In Tanya Perek 32, the Alter Rebbe explains how to achieve the mitzvah of Ahavas Yisroel. The question asked is: How is it possible to love someone else like yourself?
He explains that Klal yisroel is one neshama – soul – manifest in many bodies.
The Likutei Torah in Parsha Netzavim explains that each Jew is likened to a different part of the body. There’s the head, the intellectual, those with the ideas. The feet, the one’s who run to do what needs to be done. Each person has a unique advantage, but we need each other. True, a head person has the brains, but he needs the feet to get him places. We all have what to give one another. We have what to take from others, too. Needs that they can fill. And so we form a fully faceted person with one soul.
It works both ways. The law is brought there, that if one letter is missing from a Torah Scroll the whole thing is invalid, but each individual letter needs to be whole too.
In these ideas, I had the dual sense of being vitally needed, on the one hand, but being part of something bigger, part of an unfolding story. And I always would be, and if, in illness, my role was now a quiet one, the show would go on still.
I got comfort in that.
These are three very different concepts that were pivotal for me. That helped me heal in the period following acute illness, of questions and confusion as I fought to reintegrate into life, into society. I believe these concepts have widespread application, the power to change people’s feeling, mindset and ultimately actions.
In short, to implement:
- Know without a shadow of doubt that you can handle what G-d sends your way. He never puts the bar too high, so if He’s given it to you, He’s also given you the strength to go through it. This one’s a game-changer, it fills your mind with ‘I can’
- Accept, don’t question G-d. There’s a time to be silence like Ahron. Not because there are no answers. But because if you think you understand, you’d have rationalizations and more questions. For now, the fact that you don’t understand is the best answer. Chassidus brings a term from the Kadmonim, “Ilu yodativ reisiv” – If I would understand Him, I would see Him (and He would thus be no G-d). Or, as Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, legendary leader of Polish Chassidic Jewry (1787-1859) put it pithily, “A G-d mere mortals can understand, is not a G-d I want to serve.”
- And finally, internalize the concept that we as Jews, are part of a whole. This is a long story; you are coming somewhere in the middle. You are integral to the story, but there’s also a foreword, many chapters that have come before. You don’t have to do it all, but you are lucky to be part.
As I wind up this essay, I think that perhaps I should’ve made this more specific. Titled it ‘Response to mental illness,’ ‘Healing after psychosis’ etc. After all, mental illness is unfortunately a prevalent and very much a contemporary issue. But living my life, with all its ups and down, for a year and a half, post psychosis, I know the ideas I’ve presented here apply to life now just as well.
It’s like I said from the start. This is about it all, struggles in whatever shape and form. It’s a huge and universal topic and this is only an attempt. To talk of addressing and responding to struggle is a conversation that doesn’t end, because struggles keep showing up. Because we are here to grow.
Here’s a thought to finish.
The very first Rashi on “Bereishis bara Elokim es hashamayim ves haaertz” – In the beginning G-d created heaven and earth (Bereishis 1:1), explains the ‘beis’ of ‘bereishis’ as ‘bishvil Yisroel’ and ‘bishvil Torah’ – because of Yisroel and because of Torah, which are both referred to as ‘reishis’ – first, G-d created the world.
The Rebbe explains something that is similar to the first thought I’ve presented, but there’s an added dimension here. We say in davening, before the Shema, ‘Hamechadesh btuvo bchol yom tamid maseh bereishis’ – G-d renews daily, perpetually, the work of creation. And each time, according to this Rashi, He’s doing it because of Yisroel and the Torah. Therefore, in each day, in each moment, there must be a benefit and use in recreating it for Yisroel – for you. In each moment, even the darkest, there’s a chance for you to grow and achieve. Even if that means that you sit there and breathe in the dark. That too can be growth. For in each moment, in each renewal of the world, G-d sees your chance and potential. He did it for us in Bereishis, originally, and He does it for us time and again.
At times life has to be lived in moments. In tiny increments, breath in, breath out. But know that G-d gives you everything you need for that moment. He’s given you the moment, recreated the whole world for you, right then, because you can do it.
Because you are stronger than you think.