Rabbi Robin SparrOn Self Care, Mental Health, and Seeing the Divine Spark in Ourselves and One Another

By Rabbi Robin Sparr

Last year, I outlined a Yom Kippur sermon titled, “When the Task is Too Great,” inspired by the incredible load I saw many of my colleagues and friends, and many of you, bearing every day. Between 5777 and 5778, the world had shifted. No longer content with merely balancing work, children, aging parents, and community obligations along with financial or health woes, many of you had taken on new tasks. You were so busy PERSISTING! in the face of social turmoil, political upheaval, and legislative and executive policies which directly contradict the best principles of Judaism. I wanted to acknowledge and address all you were doing, and explore the ways it might be wearing you down and what might be done about that.

Ironically, I did not get to write nor deliver that sermon. A week ago, Dana counseled us to “put on your own oxygen mask before helping others.” A year ago, I failed to heed that well-known and wise advice. While pushing myself to complete tasks I perceived not as “TO-do’s” but “MUST-do’s,” I neglected my own health and fell ill, remaining so through most of the fall and winter. So much for practicing what I preach.

Another year has flown past, and, alas, we find ourselves continuing to PERSIST, continuing to contribute our physical, mental, emotional and financial resources to correct injustice in the world, all while fulfilling our duties in every other area of our lives.

When we notice our phone batteries dwindling down, hovering at 20, 10, or 5%, we know we have to recharge STAT, and we make it a priority to plug in. Yet when we feel ourselves becoming depleted, our own power at 20, or 10, or 5%, we know we need to recharge ourselves, but we too often fail to actually do so, thinking our TO-do’s are today’s MUST-do’s. We just keep plugging along, in “low power mode,” until something within us fails or breaks.

On top of all we are carrying, many of us bear invisible burdens of physical illnesses which are not visibly obvious, and mental illnesses which continue to be stigmatizing. In the US, nearly 1 in 5 people has some sort of mental health condition, and the number of those seeking treatment has risen dramatically in recent years, while we are simultaneously facing a severe shortage of mental health professionals.

Rabbi and chaplain Sara Davidson Berman, author of Ben’oni L’Benyamin: From Sorrow to Strength: My Journey With Depression, speaks frankly about living with clinical depression, and offers both insights and reflections from our tradition. In her ongoing work, she routinely acknowledges our society fails those struggling with mental illness, and that her own openness has sometimes negatively impacted her career.

Rabbi Berman writes, for the Days of Awe:

Instead of focusing on the sins I have committed against others, I have created a personal al chet/ashamnu—a reflection on the way I have sinned against myself. Depression lies; it tells sufferers that they are not good enough. The sin I have committed against myself relates to believing that lie.

For the sins I have committed against myself [an alphabetical list]:

Accepting the lies that depression tells me
Blaming
Caring too much what other people think about me
Doing too much
Excessively worrying that I did the wrong thing
Failing to see the spark of God within me
Guilt
Hatred
Insecurity
Judgment
Keeping silent
Lying about my feelings
Minimizing my accomplishments
Not believing I’m good enough
Obsessing over my mistakes
Punishing myself
Quitting
Refusing to recognize my goodness
Self-loathing
Twisting words
Underestimating myself
Vicious thoughts
Wanting to be someone else
Yearning to go to sleep and not wake up

For someone who has never experienced depression, this poem may seem overly dramatic or difficult to relate to; however, to someone who has been through it, it is very real.

I’d like to take a moment to ask, and for you to consider, sincerely: How are YOU doing? How are you feeling, in your body, in your mind, in your heart and in your spirit?

What are you carrying, and when are you planning to put it down for a few moments? Please take a minute to reflect.

Every human, each one of us, has a need to be seen and heard. We need to know someone is aware of us, sees our struggles and triumphs, and cares.

On Rosh Hashana, we are told, God inscribes our fate for the coming year in the Book of Life. On Yom Kippur, our fate is sealed. Perhaps the traditional thinking around God inscribing and sealing us is in response to our human need for validation. We’ve made mistakes, and seek compassion and forgiveness. We’ve struggled, and experienced both triumphs and failures. We’ve extended kindness and charity, and achieved various successes, and we seek acknowledgement and appreciation.

Who do you see? In what ways do you express your SEEING of others?

A friend was telling me about his kids’ devotion to the game, Minecraft, and other online gaming, and he noted their mother did not understand the games, nor did she make any effort to do so. As time passed, the kids had stopped sharing not only their enthusiasm for gaming, but even their everyday bits of news, joys and sorrows, because they realized she was no longer hearing them. My friend, on the other hand, though not a gamer himself, made it a point to listen closely, to ask questions and to investigate the games on his own, because he realized gaming was the conduit for conversation with his adolescent children.

In my women’s clergy group we come together online for support, to share or seek ideas, and sometimes to vent. The most powerful comment I frequently read is, “Shamati” – I hear you.

Recently, a member courageously posted this, edited to protect her privacy:

chavrotai: this year, back to school and the high holidays are coinciding with one of the most challenging bouts of depression I can remember experiencing. I would welcome and appreciate a) tips and tricks for getting through the days and the season when your brain is constantly lying to you and b) reminders that I’m actually pretty dang good at this and/or the world will not end if my sermons are less than perfect (see above re: brain constantly lying).

Here are but a few of the responses (also edited for privacy)

  • V’ahavta: sometimes, when it is too hard for me to love God, I let God love me. And then I can go on.
  • Don’t let PERFECT get in the way of GOOD
  • You matter.
  • On bad mornings: I commit to just getting out of bed to go to the bathroom, then I commit to putting on clothing, then my shoes, then to leave the house, go to my car etc. I give myself permission to change my mind and go back to bed at any stage (and I sometimes have done that). But mostly I find by the time I am out of the house with keys in hand I am relatively ok to go to work. Remember to just aim for good, and not perfect. It is enough.
  • You are beloved and needed by so many – your family, students, friends. They don’t need you or love you for what you do but for who you are. This is just as valid as the other stories your brain is spinning. Try spinning a variation of “I am loved and enough as I am” – because you deserve to hear that story too
  • Please be gentle with yourself.
  • Ugh lying brains are the literal worst. Sometimes i imagine that i am just moving into another room in my head, where i can’t hear the toxic chatter, or where it’s just a muffled background. Sending my anxiety and depression into quarantine….
  • You are enough.
  • I hear you and see you and love you.

And sprinkled among these: many, many iterations of Shamati – I hear you.

One of the most quoted phrases from the Torah is the statement made by the Israelites when offered God’s laws. They responded, “Naaseh v’nishma! – we will DO and we will LISTEN.” This is generally held up as evidence of the Israelites’ unwavering faith, a commitment to DO the laws even before they have heard or understand them. Yet, again and again, we read of their failures to follow the precepts and laws set before them. They did first, and asked questions later – but by so doing, they seem to have missed quite a lot.

I talk to my mom nearly every day. Sometimes I listen with rapt attention, and we have lovely conversations. Sometimes, my focus wanders as she details the minutiae of her days. Sometimes I realize I’ve missed something important. I often regret that I lack the courage to apologize and admit I was not really listening, and wish I could ask her to please go back and tell me that again.

When talking with others, we too often listen in order to respond, instead of listening to try to hear the words said and unsaid. In this way, we fail to see our friend, we fail to notice the break in the voice, the shifting gaze or uncomfortable posture as they struggle to share their truth. And we miss an opportunity to see, and to deeply connect, with the Divine in another person. As often as possible, we must remind ourselves, the onus cannot be on those suffering to ask for help – it is upon us to reach IN.

We move through these Days of Awe seeking forgiveness from others and from the Eternal One. We hear how we need to change ourselves and our world. Perhaps we can take a minute to focus on forgiving ourselves for not doing all that is expected of us, and find a way to accept our own forgiveness.

Let us take a few moments to consider the words of Rabbi Rachel Barenblat’s A Personal Confession, on page 301 of our machzor. Please read quietly, at your own pace, but softly aloud so that you can take in these words through both your eyes and your ears, in the hope they will find resonance in your soul:

In this new year, may we all find the ability to move our needs just a tiny bit higher on the to-do list.

In this new year, may we all find the resilience within ourselves, and the support from those around us, to face our future with hope

In this new year, may we listen with open hearts and minds, and allow ourselves to see the Divine in every person we encounter

Shana Tova, and g’mar chatima tovah—may we each be inscribed and sealed for blessing, for health, for strength, for hope, and for peace for ourselves, our loved ones, and the world around

Kein y’hi ratzon—may this be God’s will.

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