Over the last year, to varying degrees, we have all experienced the unnatural feeling of not being able to connect with others. Professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a fellow of the Society of Experimental Social Psychology and Association for Psychological Science, cites research suggesting that the immediate effects of social isolation related to the pandemic have already been observed. There have been surges in mental health concerns, substance abuse and domestic violence.
Preliminary surveys suggest that even within the first month of COVID-19, loneliness increased from 20% to 30%, and emotional distress tripled. This is not surprising as we learn in the Torah, “It is not good for man to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18). As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, zt”l, said in his book “Morality,” “The human condition is overwhelmingly about relationships.”
So how do we deal with the discomfort of disconnection resulting from COVID-19’s social isolation?
There is much to learn from the diaries of Anne Frank. As the well known story goes, Anne spent over two years isolated in a secret annex hiding from Nazi murderers. Her diaries offer an incredible and inspirational story of resilience. Though there is no comparison between the severity of her circumstances and ours, her story is a treasure chest from which we can draw, learn and adapt.
While the end of the pandemic might be in sight, it could be a long time until our lifestyles revert to how they were. Furthermore, the lessons we can learn are certainly worth taking with us.
Anne’s resilience came from a strength she discovered internally, not externally. In her isolation, Anne found her innate kedusha, holiness. According to Jewish mystical tradition, kedusha is the inner light inside each one of us, that points us towards an elevated, meaningful and impactful life, no matter the circumstances. This light emanates from the soul that the Torah refers to as the Image of God. It’s the sacredness in every human to exercise Godlike qualities even in the face of challenges; our human capacity to be good, creative, and transform feelings of chaos into feelings of order; our sacred potential, the source of our dignity, and our responsibility to actualize it, is ever-present.
It is this potential that the third of the Ten Commandments addresses. “Do not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” calls us to recognize every place that God’s name is found, including our own image of God, and honor it.
Seen through this lens, the challenge of isolation is actually an opportunity to activate our inner godliness by coming to know and refine who we are and what we stand for. In Anne’s terms, it’s about cultivating our imagination in isolation.
Cultivating imagination means going to a space in our minds that is without boundaries and where anything is possible. Within this ability is the capacity to interpret what is happening now, to re-understand what happened in the past, and to dream about the future. We can imagine how we want things to be and what we want from ourselves. According to Judaism, these abilities are not just cognitive, they are godly. Just as God is free, we too are free—to actively construct our understanding of the world in a way that transforms our experiences, no matter how challenging, into an opportunity for elevation. Reframing her relationship to her experience was the godliness that Anne was able to access.
Anne writes in her diary, “How wonderful it is that one need not wait a single moment before starting to improve the world… ”
Anne saw that despite her circumstance, she could still improve her own internal world through her imagination, her holy resilience. She was able to live freely even though she was physically confined to hiding. Anne’s resilience expressed itself in the form of the personal growth she achieved. Through writing in her diaries (sometimes to herself and sometimes to an imagined friend, Kitty), she came to know and refine who she was and what she stood for. She improved her world right then and there. Improving yourself is improving the world—and that can be done even while socially distanced.
As the Holocaust survivor and Austrian psychiatrist Vicktor Frankl, author of “Man’s Search for Meaning,” said, in any situation, even the most challenging, a person has the ability to find their “will to meaning.” This means that we can always approach a situation by elevating it with purpose.
Anne found her “will to meaning” through writing in her diaries. How can we do this?
We can write. Start keeping a diary. Write to an imaginary friend. Anne wrote to Kitty; we can, too. And focus your writings on these questions: Who am I? What do I stand for? How am I going to make the world a better place?
Alternatively, speak. Find a friend who will listen or better yet, who wants to meet regularly to discuss these important questions. Be careful, you might end up with a new best friend. Just imagine if everyone would have done this with just some of the extra time they’ve had to themselves over the last year. Our world would be glowing!
“I know what I want, I have a goal, an opinion, I have a religion and love. Let me be myself and then I am satisfied. I know that I’m a woman, a woman with inward strength and plenty of courage.”—Anne Frank.
Dr. Perry Bell is a child and family psychologist in Morristown, with the Center for Child and Family Development. He specializes in programming related to social and emotional learning. He can be reached at [email protected]
Rabbi Nitzan Bergman is a rabbi in Baltimore, and global director of Project Aseret, a collaborative to share a realistic and applicable understanding of the Ten Commandments as core values. He can be reached at [email protected]