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Sitting With Pain
Our Search for Bittersweet Meaning
"Everything can be taken from a person but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances" -Viktor Frankl
Originally, I wrote a completely different issue of Moneyball Judaism than the one that you will read this week.1
Every week, Moneyball Judaism goes out on Sunday night. The night before, I write my first draft of the next week’s issue. However, after following my standard writing cycle this week, I had a change of heart at the eleventh hour.
My original draft focuses on the horrible events in Israel last week through the framework of Moneyball Judaism. However, after much thought and candid feedback from some of my most loyal readers, I decided to put that draft in the someday/maybe file. Hopefully, we will learn that material together soon, but it does not seem appropriate, at least for this week.
In general, my love of Moneyball stems from habitual impatience. I appreciate the value of a good process, but I get nervous when decisions are made based on a far too optimistic view of ourselves. Thus, the default stance of most issues has been how we get decision-making wrong and how we can fix it by being more realistic.
Instead, this week it seems more appropriate to focus on what people do right, particularly what we can do right when everything seems wrong.
While I haven’t been to Poland in over twenty years, I only needed one visit to places like Auschwitz, Sobibor, and Treblinka to understand, in some small way, that millions of people were once forced to endure suffering that I will never fully comprehend. When I walked the grounds of those horrible places, all I could feel was pain, and I was OK with that.
But as I learned more about the Holocaust, I started to wonder an innocent yet problematic question: Did the people imprisoned in these horrible places ever experience joy? On the one hand, if you live somewhere long enough, there will be opportunities to celebrate special events or enjoy the company of others. On the other hand, the idea of imagining someone laughing at a joke living in one of the worst places in the world seems impossible to imagine and possibly offensive to comprehend.
Viktor Frankl did not have to imagine this question; he was a Holocaust survivor who turned his suffering into an approach to psychotherapy known as “logotherapy.” Frankl’s answer in Man’s Search for Meaning was that people actually experienced moments of joy in concentration camps, and, in fact, it was the ability to find moments of meaning that allowed many of them to survive. Regarding laughter, Frankl describes how, despite deplorable conditions, prisoners still found time for art, laughter, satire, and joy:
The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of a trick learned while mastering the art of living. Yet it is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent. To draw an analogy: a man's suffering is similar to the behavior of gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the "size" of human suffering is absolutely relative.2
For Frankl, “Humor was another of the soul's weapons in the fight for self-preservation.”3 While there was nothing “funny” about his situation, Frankl argues that the choice to find joy even in terrible moments is an act of human freedom, the kind that allows people to persevere even in the worst moments. Suffering fills every ounce of space it is given; thus, we can choose to block some suffering by bringing other emotions into our mental space.
This experience and others give rise to what Frankl ultimately calls “logotherapy,” a philosophy and method of treatment that focuses on humanity’s search for meaning as our ultimate motivation and the recognition that one can find meaning in all circumstances.
The dust has not settled from the tragedy that just befell the State of Israel, so I am not going to make any prescriptions for how a person should find meaning at this moment in time. But just as Kahneman and Tversky teach us that our minds are hardwired to search for mental shortcuts,4 Frankl reminds us that our minds are also hardwired to seek meaning.
Right now, Israel and Jewish communities worldwide are grappling with the anger, pain, and fear that come with a tragedy of such epic proportions. But each person will find their meaning through this tragedy in their own way and in their own time, and we have an obligation to allow them to sit with that pain and when necessary, sit with their pain. Rick Hanson argues that “when others are not at peace with our pain, they have a hard time being open, compassionate, supportive, and helpful with it.”5 The more we run towards those hard emotions, the more we can allow ourselves and others to find the meaning that will allow all of us to find the motivation to keep moving forward.
And when that moment happens, it does not mean that the tragedy was not horrible. It means that we are mixing many feelings together to make sense of the unimaginable we will be forever obligated to remember.
I wanted to write about Susan Cain for a while, but I always assumed that my first issue about Cain would summarize her fantastic book Quiet. Yet while there will come a different appropriate moment to write about her first book, this week’s issue will focus on her more recent work Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole. What started as Cain’s search to understand why some people are moved by sad music turned into a fascinating analysis about “the recognition that light and dark, birth and death- bitter and sweet -are forever paired.”6
What happened last week was not “bittersweet.” It was just bitter. But as people pick up the pieces, we see moments of meaning and inspiration, everything from record lines to donate blood, inter-group solidarity to keep people safe in a time of danger, and donations to expedite bringing more reservists from around the world back to Israel.
Do any of these moments make things “better”? Of course not. But they are bittersweet; we wish the moment did not require them, but we are grateful that someone steps up when it tragically arrives. Cain writes:
…utopias [are impossible], and by implication…we should cherish what we have, we shouldn’t cast it aside in favor of an unobtainable perfection. But we can bring the bittersweet tradition to our respective domains, to the corners of the world over which we have some small influence.7
Perhaps Bittersweet is the right book for you at this moment, and perhaps its moment has not yet come. But in a moment where we feel mostly darkness with some small cracks of light shining in, it’s worth trying to recognize how we will hold these big feelings all at once.
In the meantime, to paraphrase Stephen Dubner, take care of yourself. And, if you can, someone else, too.
Susan Cain and Tim Ferris
Ways to Focus Your Attention
Pray:8 Of course, we should always pray for Israel, but challenging times require that we focus on our prayers in particular ways. I recommend this special prayer for prisoners and captives, or Psalm 121. In particular, I hope you will give special attention to Omer Neutra, a former student of mine from the Schechter School of Long Island, who joined the Israeli army and was taken captive by Hamas.
Talk: For parents, your children will naturally have questions, and it can be hard to know how to answer. This webinar from the Jewish Education Project is a great place to start.
Donate: While there are many worthy places to donate, I feel moved at this time to donate to Magen David Adom (Israel's Red Cross), Natal (the Israeli Trauma Center), and Zaka (Israel's Search and Rescue Service).
Understand: Many organizations will communicate with you on social media and email; it can be hard to understand which communications are most relevant. I recommend focusing on the daily podcast from The Times of Israel, communications of Home Front Command, the public relations website of the IDF, and the Secure Community Network, which provides support and security services to Jewish organizations 365 days a year and provides crucial information in times of added security concerns.
You may have noticed that last week’s issue was completely the same, with no reference to recent events. I’ll admit that was a tough call, and I have no idea if I made the right decision. But with a week to write, I analyzed my words more than ever before.
Although he did not discuss it for many years, it’s worth mentioning that Danny Kahneman is a Holocaust survivor, albeit with a very different story than Frankl. Although actually born in Israel, Kahneman came from a family of Lithuanian Jews who later settled in France. Kahneman’s family was forced to hide from the Nazis once the Nazis took over France in 1940.
I rarely mix professional milk and meat, but I sent a version of these suggestions to my wonderful congregation, the Astoria Center of Israel.