Here’s a scenario. Imagine I were to approach you in casual conversation and ask the simple question “how are you?” Now grab a pencil and write down the first word that comes to mind in response to this age-old conversation starter.
I would bet that a majority of you wrote down one of two phrases: “good” or “fine, thanks!”
But are you really?
For many of us, High Holidays are a time when we cross paths with friendly acquaintances as we gather for the common aim of spiritual seeking or social bonding or simply marking time across the Jewish calendar. This year, as I strolled through the lobby of my synagogue, rubbing shoulders with other congregants on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, I decided to rewrite the script. When asked how I was, I responded differently than I usually do. “Better today,” I said on Kol Nidre evening. “I started taking an SSRI [selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor] this morning.” Placebo-effect or not, my new course of anti-anxiety medication seemed to be working and I was curious to see people’s reactions to my having shared what was, indeed, foremost on my mind.
The truth is, in-between filing pieces for The Fifth Question on Haaretz.com and observing Jewish affairs and Middle East politics with my usual mixture of interest, obsession and trepidation, I was gazing inwardly more than wanted to over the summer. A newly-discovered food allergy last spring had led to related panic attacks in July and August, and I was struggling to keep this new and debilitating anxiety at bay.
Most of the time, I kept a strong exterior – isn’t that what’s expected in today’s self-actualizing, get-ahead society? But, at the peak of my anxiety crisis, one of my coworkers suffered through my panicky departure from a data-analysis meeting. The nurses at my doctor’s office fielded more calls from me in a week than I’d typically place in a year and my neighborhood pharmacists were treated to sudden streams of tears as they patiently filled my prescriptions. Come the High Holy Days, what should have been emotionally nurturing holiday meals with friends ended up being triggers for acute, allergy-related fear. In between the matza ball soup and the brisket, I, who rarely takes even a Tylenol, was popping tranquilizers.
My more honest answers to "how are you?" at shul, in the schoolyard waiting to pick up kids or at social gatherings, took some people aback. Clearly, the social expectation in that situation is that the response will be as neutral as possible. But catching up with friends at a café or via Facebook soon revealed stories of others who, unbeknownst to me, had been struggling with similar afflictions.
Organized Jewish life has splendid rites surrounding death and mourning. Clergy are notified when a congregant is hospitalized. The elderly in our Jewish old age homes benefit from visits from community members. Rabbis invite us to share our prayers with those who are ill on Shabbat morning.
Many synagogues have shifted to calling themselves “kehillot kedosha,” or sacred communities. From “big tent” metaphors to these new labels invoking the sacred nature of the task, there is an awareness that we are here to help each other. But I sense that our norms have not yet caught up with our communal aspirations. Are we doing as much as we can to really care for each other?
Our “monkey minds,” in the Buddhist-inspired words of those who teach mindfulness and mental serenity, are still swinging from branch to branch, trying to maintain an outward appearance of competence, fortitude, and self-reliance. The irony is that we are motivated to appear so emotionally unblemished precisely in order to maintain a social foothold within the communities which are supposed to be there in large part to act as comfort and succor.
How am I? I am a little better today, thanks for asking. But I hope I will be even better tomorrow, and even better next month, when I complement my course of medication with a new cycle of talk therapy, which I hope will rid me of panicky thought cycles and help trace the deeper personal meaning surrounding my fears.
And, I ask, how are you?