I’ve never cried when a celebrity suddenly dies. It has always seemed like something that just happens. Certainly, it’s a sad day when an actor or musician, athlete or politician has “cashed in their chips” early. I mean don’t get me wrong, I’ve been shocked and saddened when I’ve learned of the lethal overdose of a promising young athlete or when the news breaks that a famous actor has lost his battle with cancer. But Robin Williams wasn’t just any comedian. He wasn’t your typical actor or entertainer. Robin Williams was the textbook definition of “comedic genius.”
Robin Williams grew up in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan only a few miles from my childhood home and, while not Jewish by birth, he was widely known as an honorary Jew—both for his brand of humor (always peppered with a Yiddish expression and Jewish inflection) and for his unwavering commitment to Jewish causes. I’ve cried several times in the past couple of days since hearing of his untimely death. He was a brilliant at entertaining us.
Like most of my generation, I was first introduced to the silliness of Robin Williams as a young child tuning in to every episode of Mork and Mindy. It was my mimicking of Robin’s goofy antics in kindergarten that led the teacher to tell my parents I was a “class clown.” And then I found my father’s audio cassettes of his standup routines, “Robin Williams: A Night at the Met” and “Reality… What a Concept.” I listened to those tapes dozens of times and brought them with me to summer camp to entertain my friends. The counselors told my parents I should be a standup comedian. Not long after that my dad took me to see Good Morning Vietnam in the theater and then I bought the video tape as soon as it came out, memorizing long segments of the movie and then performing them in front of my class at my Jewish day school. The teacher told my parents that I should tone down my R-rated humor.
As news of Robin Williams’ suicide by hanging (asphyxiation) has now been confirmed and his publicist has explained that he had been struggling with severe depression, we must now find ways to take this tragedy and bring about some positive from it. Many have noted the irony that behind the comedic mask of Robin Williams was a very dark human being who was suffering from depression. Robin Williams had it all—fame and fans, riches and rewards. He had a loving family and countless friends who cared deeply about him. Looking at his life I’m reminded of the Biblical character Jacob who also had it all, but suffered from depression.
At least, that’s what I’m learning as I reflect this week on the meaning of “strength.”
During the seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot, Jewish tradition invites us to sefirat ha’omer. Literally, it means “counting of the measure” of barley. And, in ancient Israel, for seven weeks people took daily account of the ripening of the grain. But in medieval, urban, diaspora Europe, Kabbalistic teachers creatively reframed the ritual as sefirot ha’omer: taking account of the sefirot, the spiritual qualities of God as reflected in the human soul.
Each week we are invited to explore the role played in our lives by one of the following inner qualities: Chesed/Love, Gevurah/Strength, Tiferet/Balance, Netzach/Endurance, Hod/Gratitude, Yesod/Foundation, Malchut or Shechinah/Presence.
Towards the end of this week of gevurah, strength, I find myself inspired by psychologist James Hillman. We talk so much about “ego strength” and “integration,” says Hillman, that we have only one picture of the healthy psyche: one that holds it together through all stress and strain. However, no person’s psyche holds it together all the time. Everyone falls apart once in a while.
Falling apart, which Hillman calls pathologizing, is a normal function of the psyche. It’s actually a strength of the psyche. We fall apart, says Hillman, so that the parts can speak.
Falling apart, however, does not feel good, so we try to banish it by explaining it away. Sometimes we label it by naming a symptom it creates, such as depression. Or we say it’s an appropriate response to a sick society. Or we reframe it as a step on the path to joyful transcendence. But the explanations may not hold anything together. Sometimes a psyche keeps cracking: therapeutic problem-solving doesn’t glue it together, and reaching for God’s pure spirit seems irrelevant.
For me, pathologizing is not merely theoretical; I have lived it for six years. After a car accident, I experienced chronic pain. Then, I experienced exhaustion from a malfunctioning organ. Conditions changed at my job, and my workplace became a daily challenge. My mother and then my aunt declined and died. (I sought treatment for injury and illness, and addressed workplace issues.) Publicly, people knew I was ill and grieving, but they also saw me cheerfully continuing to work, raise teens, maintain friendships, care for sick relatives, blog and more. Subjectively, however, I experienced depression, rage, and anxiety.
My family doctor had me fill out inventories to diagnose depression. My therapist insisted I was responding sanely to abnormal conditions. My colleagues told me to pray about it. My health-educator swore by deep breathing in the shower. A friend suggested I focus on the positive. None of this increased my sense of well-being.
Lately, I have more good days, but I don’t know what I healed from or am moving towards. I do know I met a “me” I didn’t know before, filled with dark passions I thought belonged only to other people. Yes, I am a wiser counselor, parent and friend, with greater empathy and tolerance for a range of emotion. Finally, I understand that the whole range can be indicative of inner strength. Suffering and disintegration are part of the speech of the psyche. Sometimes, when we work too hard to hold a fragile self together, we silence that speech. And sometimes the speech will burst through anyway.
Life requires a great deal of strength, including the strength to face our own selves when we seem to lack it. So I have gleaned, as I take account of my strengths during this week of gevurah.
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We all know people who at some point in their lives may be suffering or depressed and give up hope for any change or improvement. They experience a total sense of powerlessness in their lives and we experience it as well in our efforts to help them. Within our tradition, there is even one startling passage in the Talmud that suggests that during the Hadrianic persecutions in 135 CE, the Jewish people should have refused to have any more children and cease existing within a generation. One can only imagine the despair that must have been felt by the author of that passage.
This week’s Torah reading begins the story of Joseph and his brothers. After the brothers sell Joseph and deceive their father Jacob with a bloodied coat, Jacob falls into inconsolable mourning and refuses to be comforted for the loss of Joseph. The next chapter begins with Judah going down, leaving his brothers and family.
“… and Judah went down from his brothers .…” (Genesis, 38:1)
The Ishbitzer comments on this verse: Why did Judah go and wed a wife at this particular time? As he saw how Jacob refused to be consoled, and as he was the one who had to bring Joseph’s coat to his father, he became greatly depressed, and felt as if, God forbid, there was no more hope. So he went to marry a wife, saying, “perhaps I will have good children from whom will grow an everlasting structure.”
Then afterward, the Holy One, blessed be He, caused him to understand the following. If, God forbid, it is as you think, and there is no hope for you, and you have no life at your root, if so, then even if you give birth to a hundred, they will not have any more life than you. For with the blessed God, the channel through which He sends life must itself be of life. Then, if it is as you think, that you will only have temporary life, then it will be so also with your descendants. Therefore, when he arrived at the clarification of the matter, he fathered Shela, his name Shela meaning misled, the mistake he made in this matter. This is why his first two sons died, and Shela remained alive.
This is a profound teaching. Only those with some hope, even if only a spark, can truly nourish a hopeful future. To create a family there must be a sense of life at one’s core.
In my own work, I have had the pleasure and honor of being the rabbi at many weddings. Some have ended in divorce. This happens. But what is truly sad is couples I knew who decided to have children after they had already determined the marriage was over, deluding themselves that a child would restore the love of the couple. It does not work this way and the divorces happened anyway and for the better of the couples and their children.
Hanukah begins Saturday night. Some commentaries emphasize that the true miracle of Hanukah was not that the menorah stayed lit for eight days, but rather that the people took the initiative to light it even though they had only enough oil for one day. Hope created the miracle, or perhaps was the miracle itself.