Moments Of Sadness Are Normal, But Don’t ‘Get Stuck’ In Them
Fri, 05/15/2009
Special To The Jewish Week

Jonathan Katz, a social worker who has helped address the after-effects of the financial meltdown, says some people who’ve been hurt by the crisis fail to seek the help they need, either because they’re overwhelmed by emotion or because they’re embarrassed at having fallen.

But he likens such a response to that of the flood victim in an old, Jewish joke:

A Jewish homeowner is standing on the roof of his house, watching the waters rise all around him, when a rescue boat approaches his home. The boat’s captain shouts through a bullhorn that the man is facing certain death if he stays on his roof and lets him know that rescue is available. But the homeowner shouts back:

“No, that’s okay, God will take care of me.”

Twenty minutes later, with the waters now at roof level, another rescue boat arrives. The captain shouts through a bullhorn that the house is bound to be submerged, and he beseeches the man to climb aboard. But the homeowner declines the offer, saying, “God will take care of me.”

Once he reaches heaven, the homeowner is stunned and more than a little angry, even as he encounters God. He looks at God sternly, asking the Divine, “Why didn’t you take care of me?” And God answers: “But I sent a rescue boat.”

The moral of the story is that help is available and that no one should feel too overwhelmed or too embarrassed to ask for that help, according to Katz, director of Jewish community programs at the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services.

JBFCS and Katz’s division, in particular, are involved in the Jewish community’s formal response to the hardships caused by the nation’s economic crisis — Connect To Care, a program created by UJA-Federation of New York. JBFCS provides emotional, psychological and even spiritual support through the program, which also involves a host of other federation agencies, such as FEGS, the guidance and employment service and the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty.

With hundreds of thousands of people losing their jobs each month, with salaries sliding down and with the prices of consumer goods soaring, many Americans no longer feel as if they have any control over their own livelihoods. Many of those who’ve lost a job are having a tough time finding another; many of those who remain employed are working longer and harder hours; and everyone, business owner and consumer alike, is feeling the pinch.

And their perceptions are right, say many of the nation’s mental-health professionals, including several interviewed in the past few days by The Jewish Week: They — we — can’t control the financial chaos around us. But we can control how we respond to the crisis and to our own setbacks.

“We all have moments when we feel despair or panic or utter frustration or rage,” Katz said, adding that having those moments is normal. In fact, he continued, with all the world’s ills — global warming, the economic mess, conflicts throughout the planet — “if people don’t get depressed, there’s something wrong with them.”

But it’s important to avoid “being captured by the emotion and being overwhelmed by it,” Katz said. If you’re angry, for instance, it’s still not wise to “to burn your bridges with the company that laid you off,” since that company, of course, could help you in the future or even rehire you. Instead of acting impulsively on any of those emotions, Katz advised, you should reflect on how to handle them and think strategically.

Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, a psychiatrist and founder of the Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Pittsburgh, offered similar advice.

“You can’t help how you feel,” said Rabbi Twerski, the author of a new book, “The Sun Will Shine Again,” published earlier this year by ArtScroll as a direct response to the economic crisis. “But you can control what you can about your emotions.”

One of the many pointers he gives in his book, subtitled “Coping, Persevering, and Winning in Troubled Economic Times,” is that depression is normal in challenging times and has even affected sages as august as Maimonides. But the book cautions those who might be depressed to avoid falling into a prolonged state of despair or hopelessness — a “fundamental principle of the Torah,” it says.

While Jews are certainly not the only people affected by the economic crisis, they, like other ethnic and religious groups, often experience troubled times through their own prism, Katz suggested.

Many Jews, especially those in more observant circles, often associate an individual’s material well-being with how that person is viewed by God, Katz said, noting that religious Jews pray for parnassah, or a good livelihood. It’s a view, he added, that he and other Jewish mental-health professionals try to challenge.

One of Katz’s colleagues at JBFCS, Rabbi Simkha Weintraub, said he thought that simply belonging to the Jewish people continues to bring its own form of stress, especially in difficult economic times, when anti-Semitism often rises.

Whatever the case, it’s certain that a growing number of Americans are citing the economy as a “significant” source of stress, according to this year’s American Psychological Association Survey. The survey puts that number at 80 percent — 14 percent higher than last year’s figure. And it’s just as certain that stress takes a huge toll on personal health, producing such symptoms as insomnia, fatigue and depression and raising the risk of heart disease, diabetes and other conditions.

Experts like Katz and Rabbi Twerski say Americans can fight stress and even find happiness in any number of ways, despite concerns over the economy and other issues. High on everyone’s list is meditation, which, according to Rabbi Twerski and others, has deep roots in Jewish tradition.

Rabbi Jeff Roth, author of “Jewish Meditation Practices for Everyday Life,” recently discussed three ways in which Jewish meditation might be helpful. One is “concentration practice,” in which a person concentrates on a particular thing, which could be words of prayer, words of God or the person’s own bodily functions and sensations, like breathing. The practice can have a calming effect, Rabbi Roth said.

Another approach is to focus on the very things that are causing you stress, instead of running away from them. This approach involves paying attention to how your body feels while under stress — the beating of your heart, the hole in the pit of your stomach, the tension in your neck or muscles. And the outcome, Rabbi Roth said, is that sometimes your anxiety just disappears as you realize that emotions are part of being human and they come and go.

The third approach is to focus on God, leading to “a new understanding of the nature between self and the Divine,” Rabbi Roth said. Such an approach highlights a teaching of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of chasidic Judaism, that “everything is God and nothing but God.”

In the city, the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, on the Upper West Side, offers classes and a free, daily drop-in group through Makom, its center for contemplation, meditation and spirituality. Other Hebrew Ys and JCCs in the city offer similar activities.

These are some of the other suggestions mental-health experts have for fighting stress and finding happiness:

* Exercise, even for 20 or 30 minutes a day. That could mean walking through your neighborhood or riding a bike, Katz pointed out;

* Practice some form of relaxation, such as breathing exercises, yoga or tai chi;

* Take up a hobby, such as painting or gardening, or take a class.

* Volunteer at a non-profit agency. Helping others “can reaffirm your self-worth and your ability to contribute to the world,” Katz said;

* Allow yourself enough sleep. Taking a warm bath beforehand, playing soft music or drinking a warm glass of milk can help you relax;

* Those experiencing stress also might visit the Web site for the National Center for Jewish Healing (www.ncjh.org), which has posted a section on “Spiritual Resources in Times of Economic Crisis.”

Rabbi Weintraub, rabbinic director of the Jewish Board and the center, DOES HE MEAN “OF JBFCS AND THE CENTER”?, a JBFCS program, said the section includes a list of 10 outdoor “healing” activities, each accompanied by a biblical psalm. The section also includes excerpts from Jewish sources about earning a livelihood and seeking sustenance.