April 15, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Appreciating the ‘Bitter’ Along With the ‘Sweet’

Part III: 

On the Pandemic Of ‘Loneliness’

In the post-Pesach article we considered the drastic transformations in our lives that resulted from the onslaught of COVID-19. Due to the variable manifestations of this virus and the wide spectrum of its victims, no one is impervious to contamination. Still, given the reality that we are wired to seek “meaning” in all aspects of life, we crave answers that will allow us to tone down the high level of “anxiety” that permeates our surroundings. I’m sure that I am not alone in the struggle to find a common denominator that will add meaning to the contradictory and confusing variables—one that would allow us to discover the “positive” side of this challenge. As a student of Torah and psychoanalysis, I use my passion for both, to help relieve some of the anxiety and depression as well as the feeling of being overwhelmed that has invaded so many lives. I can now help others to climb out of the black hole of fear and sadness and begin to see some positivity in this challenge. Based on my own subjective feelings, as well as conversations with friends and colleagues, it didn’t take me long to discover the reality that in one way or another most of us share in the experience of loneliness, which also seems to span a spectrum from truly being alone to feeling alone, even in a crowd. For some, the culprit is the imposed but necessary mandates of isolation and social distancing. These restrictions are a small price to pay for securing our lives.

Studies conducted by psychiatrists, epidemiologists and researchers find that the outcome of loneliness represents a threat that “looms ahead for a sizable population, especially the senior population.” There is no doubt that social distancing and isolation play a major role in flattening the curve and saving lives. Yet, the fall-out of these measures include a host of high-risk medical and psychological illnesses. If these findings are not considered, the implications could be disastrous.

Based on my own research and professional experiences, I found that loneliness is hardly limited to the older generation. More often than not this is caused by the reality that for so many it is difficult to own up to one’s loneliness. For example, in the case of COVID-19, young mothers, overwhelmed by their new roles such as caretaker, teacher, housekeeper, cook and medical practitioner, as well as tending to children, spouses and elderly parents, have no space to breathe or take a break. Yet, with her husband up in his home office and the children running back and forth from their designated classrooms, overwhelmedness does not do justice to the reality of this situation. Ironically, she feels alone, even in the midst of this crowd, because no one is meeting her needs. Rather than asking for help she second guesses herself, and the following thoughts may run through her mind: “I am blessed with a healthy family and a successful husband. What right do I have to complain? I have a wonderful life.” But does she?

Regardless of the source, loneliness on a temporary or permanent basis can be catastrophic if unaddressed. The good news is that in addition to mental health services, our Torah also recognizes the pain and suffering that accompany the many faces of loneliness. Our rabbis teach us that in the case of every challenge, the question of “why?” remains unanswered. Yet, if we dig deeply enough we can find answers to the question of “l’mah—for what reason” did Hashem place this trial at my doorstep? Given the above insights, the next time we feel overwhelmed, anxious or alone we need to remember that we are entitled to these feelings. In the case of COVID-19, the fact that one is healthy and financially secure does not render one impervious to feeling alone, even in a crowd. The last thing we need when being overwhelmed is criticism, even if one knows that the negativity is coming from a place of tension, overload and frustration.

Rabbi Efrem Goldberg, in his shiur on Parshiot Behar-Bechukotai, references the Rebbe on pasuk 35:35: “V’chi yamuch achicha…. If your brother becomes impoverished and his hand falters in your proximity, you shall hold onto him, a proselyte, and a resident, so that he can live with you.” The Rebbe posits that the word “brother” speaks to the idea that all of klal Yisrael are brothers and sisters. Moreover, he also explains that in the act of taking the needy into one’s home and releasing him from the yoke of his problems, the giver as well as the recipient are both the beneficiaries of this act. The recipient is made to feel uplifted physically, emotionally and financially from his suffering, and at the same time, the ba’al chesed receives his payback as well. This comes in understanding exactly why he was put in this situation. Indeed, reaching out to a neighbor, friend, or stranger allows the mission of nosei b’ol im chaveiro and treating the recipients of our chesed as brothers and sisters and showing them that we feel their pain.

It is not difficult to see the connection between the Rebbe’s words and the situation we find ourselves in today. We never asked for COVID, but now that we know what prolonged loneliness feels like we are up and ready to find those who can reap the benefit. To illustrate this idea in real-time, Rabbi Goldberg tells the story of a beggar who almost starved to death during a devastating famine. In the process of seeking help, he happened to approach the novelist Leo Tolstoy. Unfortunately, even though Tolstoy wanted to help, when he searched his pockets he realized that he had misplaced the money he expected to be there. Instead, he took the hands of the unfortunate man and offered his compassion, saying, “Don’t be angry with me, brother, but I’m so sorry, but I have nothing with me,” to which the beggar responded, with light in his eyes: “But sir, you called me ‘brother,’ and that was the greatest gift you could give me.” I believe that the mission of seeking out the positive aspects of COVID-19 is truly transformative. It brings us back on the path of nosei b’ol im chaveiro and at the same it goes a long way in helping us understand the role our challenges play in our journey toward spiritual growth and renewing our relationship with Hakadosh Baruch Hu as we count up to the re-enactment of our Har Sinai experience. Let us pray that Hashem rewards us for committing to this mission of taking on the burdens of our brothers and sisters, making sure that none of God’s children will ever walk alone!

By Renee Nussbaum, PhD, PsyA

 

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