"Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also with the overcoming of it." -- Helen Keller, Optimism
We all face numerous types of aches and pains in life. Physical suffering, emotional turmoil, financial troubles, relationships gone sour, and a plethora of other problems are a constant in our lives. It is certainly normal for someone to become upset and even temporarily depressed when facing any one of life's challenges.
The Torah encourages the expression of grief:
"To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. . . A time to weep. . . a time to mourn" (Kohelet 3:4).
No one should ever hide or suppress their emotions for too long; it is unhealthy for the heart and mind. Sadness and sorrow need to be faced, expressed, and managed appropriately.
"When there is worry in a man's heart, he should stifle it. But how does one stifle it? By sharing it with others" (Talmud Yoma 75a, based on Proverbs 12:25).
"How useful it would be to put a daily limit on self-pity. Just a few tearful minutes, then on with the day."
If we acknowledge and accept the pain without attempting to avoid or suppress it, we will have an easier time dealing with it. Emotional pain is magnified when we feel terrible that we feel terrible.
We must honestly confront the pain we feel. But after doing so, the key is to find a method with which to overcome the predicament and to move on.
Morrie Schwartz had a unique approach in dealing with the tragedy of his terminal illness (ALS):
"I [Mitch] asked Morrie if he felt sorry for himself.
'Sometimes in the mornings,' he said. 'That's when I mourn. I feel around my body, I move my fingers and my hands - whatever I can still move - and I mourn what I've lost. I mourn the slow, insidious way in which I'm dying. Then I stop mourning… I give myself a good cry if I need it. But then I concentrate on all the good things still in my life. On the people who are coming to see me. On the stories I'm going to hear… Mitch, I don't allow myself any more self-pity than that. A little each morning, a few tears, and that's all.'
I thought about all the people I knew who spent many of their waking hours feeling sorry for themselves. How useful it would be to put a daily limit on self-pity. Just a few tearful minutes, then on with the day. And if Morrie could do it with such a horrible disease. . .
'It's only horrible if you see it that way,' Morrie said. 'It's horrible to watch my body wilt away to nothing. But it's also wonderful because of all the time I get to say good-bye.' He smiled. 'Not everyone is so lucky.'
I studied him in his chair, unable to stand, to wash, to pull on his pants. Lucky? Did he really say lucky?" (from Tuesdays with Morrie)
Morrie's method is one we should utilize as well. After facing severe disappointments and depressions in life, we must force ourselves to focus on all of the blessings and good in our lives, on the future pleasures that we can have if we allow ourselves to experience them, on what we can still accomplish and attain despite our setbacks and travails.
We are used to thinking that happiness must be triggered, that it is based on external events beyond our control, that we cannot bring happiness to ourselves. If I have a child, I am happy. If I win the lottery, I am joyful. But the truth is quite the opposite. Joy is not based on what we are given in our lot in life. Joy is built upon what we already have. We can increase our own joy.
How do we bring joy into our lives? We all know that everything depends on attitude.
Take the following example:
Two patients are in an old age home. One says, "Thank God, my family cares so much about me. Not a week goes by without a visit and when they come they always bring something! It could be an apple or a candy."
The other patient says, "What a horrible family I have. Once a week is all the time they have for me, after all I have done for them as a mother?! All I'm worth is a candy or an apple!"
They're describing the same thing, yet they're describing opposite experiences. As King Solomon wrote: "He that possesses a merry heart has a continual feast" (Proverbs 15:15). No matter what the person faces in life, if he takes it with a merry heart, he is always at a celebration.
The essential ingredient of our joy is not what we have but what we are and how we think. We can control our thoughts and attitudes.
This is the deeper understanding of the famous statement of the Sages, "Who is rich? One who takes pleasure and joy in his lot" (Ethics of the Fathers 4:1).
Rabbi Shimon Schwab, the late esteemed rabbi of the Washington Heights German-Jewish community, remarkably exemplified these concepts. When, at the age of 76, he became confined to a wheelchair, a grandson who would often wheel him around was amazed at Rabbi Schwab's ability to adapt. Never did Rabbi Schwab complain about his predicament. He always wore a smile and was in a pleasant mood.
"Zaidy," asked the grandson, "How could it be that you function now in a wheelchair the same way you functioned when you were able to walk? Don't you ever get upset and down about having to be in a wheelchair for the rest of your life?"
"Tell me," said Rabbi Schwab, "If someone gave you a million dollars and after a while asked you to give him back one hundred dollars, would you have any qualms about returning that amount? The Master of the World has given me a fully functioning and healthy body for 76 years, a million dollars. Now He has decided to take away my ability to walk, for valid reasons known only to Him. Should I now complain because He has chosen to take back a hundred dollars?"
May we merit to endure all of life's challenges in this way.