Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Purim: Legislating Joy?

It's almost Purim.

I've been invited to costume parties, drinking parties, dancing parties, book parties, and one Lent observance. All I really want to do is burrow under the bedcovers with a pint of Ben & Jerry's New York Super Fudge Chunk ice cream and not think. Or feel.

I started to feel better on Monday, to the point of being able to go to an afternoon meeting at school, despite trembling and perspiring from the sheer effort of being in public. Tuesday I felt well enough to take my older son to the regional competition for History Day, where he competed for a spot at the state competition. (His website, Disney and the Responsibility to Oppose Racism/Sexism, did not move on, but several of his classmates are going to state.)

Today I'm back to dealing with fatigue, anxiety, physical pain, and a talkative negative inner critic. Two steps forward, one step back. Overall it's improvement.

And Purim is still coming.

Online and on the doors of Jewish organizations around town are the signs ubiquitous at this time of year: Be Happy — It's Adar! I blogged about this seven years ago, writing, in part, "some people have really good reasons for being unable to be happy and are not necessarily in control of whether they are happy or not. When I'm in the midst of a depression, I simply cannot just be happy."

Yet Jewish practice places a great emphasis on happiness. Rebbe Nachman said,
מצוה גדולה להיות בשמחה תמיד
"It's a great mitzvah to be happy always!"

If you accept that a mitzvah is a commandment from G-d, then G-d wants us to be happy, which I'm totally down with, but if G-d wants me to be happy always, then why do I have depression? If we were happy always, happiness would become the norm, and there would be nothing to which to compare it. It would cease to be happiness. So perhaps depression is a way of savoring happiness, when it favors me with its caress, far more than if I didn't experience depression.

Image: Flickr/Brian Snelson: exfordy

But before we get comfortable with that, a couple of years ago, fellow author Amy Ariel wrote about how Purim is not just about how we Jews survived, or the piety of Esther, or the eventual triumph over the evil Haman, but that it's also a very serious story about sex trafficking. Francesca Littmann on Orthodox Social Justice writes,
"A closer look at the texts shows that the search for the new queen is far from the innocuous beauty pageant that was told to us in Hebrew school. Women are captured from their homes, rounded up into a harem, and given one by one to be raped by the king. After that one night, they are imprisoned as concubines, their freedom and dignity stolen from them. This part of the Purim story mirrors the cruel reality of human trafficking today."
If it was hard to be jovial during the reading of the megillah before, it's really hard now. And with this year's neverending winter, cabin fever and SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder—a form of depression), it's unclear if Purim is coming at just the right time or at the worst time of year.

But perhaps I'm just taking Purim too seriously. Or perhaps this is the real reason alcohol goes hand in hand with Purim. Drink until you do "not know the difference between 'cursed be Haman' and 'blessed be Mordechai.'" (BT Megillah 7b) Drink until you do not know the difference between a beauty pageant and sex trafficking. Drink until you do not know the difference between depression and ecstacy.

And don't give up drinking just yet; the four cups of wine at Pesach are just around the corner. It's really too bad that Jewish Disability Month was back in February, because I would imagine that Purim and Pesach are landmines every year for anyone who must avoid alcohol due to an addiction.

Maybe I can fulfill the mitzvah of not knowing the difference between "cursed be Haman" and "blessed be Mordechai" by curling up under the bedcovers with a pint of Ben & Jerry's New York Super Fudge Chunk ice cream. And not thinking.

Monday, March 10, 2014

What's in your book?

I'm not talking about novels. I'm talking about a life book. We all have one.

Growing up, I learned very quickly that credibility and legitimacy were earned only by having letters after one's name: PhD, MD, JD. D's count for more than M's: MA, MS, MEd, MSW, MBA. I have two master's degrees, and half of two more, but you can't trade them in and level up.

And so, after re-releasing Destined to Choose last year, after winning my company's sixth award for books I've published, it was odd when someone from my past congratulated me on my second master's. It's been 13 years since I was in school.

At the time I didn't know what to think about it, so thanked them and went on. But I started thinking about it again, in a general sense, and thought, "My personal and work accomplishments count for more than a handful of letters after my name, in my book."
Image: Flickr/Mike Licht

Then I realized: What book is this? What is in my book?

So here are a few entries:
  1. Nobody gets to bully me. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt. No more.
  2. I have a right to be acknowledged.
  3. I have a right to my own opinion.
  4. My experience is my experience and doesn't need supporting documentation.
  5. I have a right to be angry, disappointed, or otherwise upset when I am snubbed by someone else.
  6. I have a right to state my anger, disappointment, or upset, in an appropriate manner and venue.
  7. I have a right to expect others to respect me, my opinions, my experience, and my knowledge.
  8. Nobody gets to make me feel "small" or "less than" or "unqualified" because I have years of experience rather than a university degree in my specialty.
  9. Nobody gets to snub me, insult me, degrade me, or disrespect me just because they have letters after their name.
  10. I have a right to my own boundaries, and I have the right to set those boundaries where I wish.
I've been nice. I've been diplomatic. I've given respect to teachers and rabbis and community leaders because I believe people deserve 1) respect for what they've accomplished, and 2) respect for simply being human. Have they returned that respect? No. Not all.

Recently a rabbi told me that if my kids weren't in his class, it would be a shame because then they would "forget so much of the skill learning that [they] worked to get over the years."

Excuse me?! 

Why does not being in this one class mean that my kids will no longer learn Torah or speak Hebrew? Does he think that his class is the only Jewish learning my kids get? (He shouldn't. He's known me for nearly two decades.) See Entry Numbers 2, 5, 7, 8, and 9 above.

I taught my oldest both Torah and Haftarah trope for his bar mitzvah, even though the shul offers a tutor. My son didn't work well with the tutor, and I had the skills, so I taught him. It was a lot of fun. He knew most of the prayers from being in shul, and I taught him some of the fun, non-standard tunes for the prayers he'd be leading. He met with a different tutor occasionally to show that he did, in fact, know the prayers.

The day of his bar mitzvah, after services (in which he was, of course, awesome and mistake-free), the tutor with whom he didn't work came up to me and said, "He did really great. Now everyone will think that we taught him, but that's okay. We'll take whatever credit we can get."

Excuse me?!

It is a Jewish value to give credit where credit is due. The Talmud goes to great lengths to specify who learned what from whom, which is why you read things like "Said Rabbi Elazar in the name of Rabbi Chanina" in the Talmud. (Because everyone reads the Talmud, right? Of course right.) So, we have Jewish teachers, preparing kids for their bar or bat mitzvah, doing the exact opposite?

The Jewish school to which I sent my kids for eight years, and to which we paid many, many tens of thousands of dollars (even going into debt to do so), to which I donated hundreds of hours of time, drove dozens of field trip carpools, worked in the office, brought snacks, wrote marketing material, helped with fundraising, and even designed a custom science/Jewish image, has done a spectacular job of pissing me off. Again and again. I've been ignored, snubbed, insulted, and had my contributions gone unrecognized (and I'm not asking for a plaque; a thank you would have been quite sufficient—something beyond an email saying, "Oh, and thank you for that thing you did last month."). 

I've noticed that in our community, having volunteered in nearly every Jewish organization locally at one time or another, that they are very good at tapping volunteers until the volunteers are tapped out, then spitting them out and moving on. Those plaques I mentioned? They're only for those who give a lot of money. Bonus points if they have letters after their name (though one could argue that many of those D acroyms—MD, JD—also usually come with plenty of donatable income, at least once they pay off their student loans).

The funds are necessary; that's common sense. But so are hours of effort, expertise, passion, time given to do the things that the generous checks don't pay for. 

Those who give of themselves are at least as important as those who give of their money. 

In my book.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Smile and the world smiles with you . . .

. . . cry and you cry alone."

That was a popular refrain in my house, growing up, and it persists to this day, especially in English-speaking countries where people Do Not Talk about what's really going on with them. It's from a poem called "Solitude" by Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850 - 1919), and that saying has done society a great disservice. Many interpret talking about personal things as "airing dirty laundry in public," yet that's only if it's real people talking about real things. It may not apply to gossipy tabloids, reality TV shows, or TMZ. 

Image: frontriver/Flickr
At the other end of the spectrum is oversharing, something that, if you count Facebook users as a representative population, over half of people don't like. But oversharing can consist of anything from blurting out relationship status changes to the status of the baby's diaper.

The line between what should be kept private and what needs to be talked about, despite some discomfort, is imprecise. In the Jewish community, where there is already a concern about how we're perceived by other communities, the list of things that we Do Not Talk about is long and the stigma is real. But it is slowly changing.

The fact is that as much as 25% of the population, 1 in every 4, will experience a serious mental illness. In Israel, 14% of men, 25% of women, and even 3-5% of teens suffer from depression alone. And many, arguably a majority, don't seek help.

Talking about depression using statistics and quoted sources is all fine and well, but it's removed, sanitized, impersonal. It's one thing to say, statistically, one person in every family of four will experience a mental illness. It's quite another to read about someone's actual experience, the downs that evade description and the successes, both big (I wrote a book!) and little (I took a shower!). Sometimes those little successes are just as meaningful as the big ones.

Today I had a few little successes: attended a webinar, made some website updates, did some more tax-related work, and stood in a hot shower for twenty minutes, feeling for the first time in more than two weeks like I might relax just a bit. Maybe.

Tomorrow I'm supposed to be out in the world, and right now that is very, very frightening. It's hard to feel competent, able, proficient. It's hard to find the strength and the momentum to keep going. So tonight I will try to rest, and tomorrow, I hope—I pray—it will be better.