By: Norman Blumenthal, Ph.D.
Printed in Inyan Magazine, January 29, 2014
I hear it all the time. Whether it is to those struck by illness, in the throes of grief or any other hardship, the compliments and approval abound for those who are ‚Äústrong.‚ÄĚ
He‚Äôs so strong, he never complains‚Ä¶ she was strong, she hardly cried‚Ä¶he has such great emunah and strength - he took the tragic news without any sign of distress or unhappiness.‚ÄĚ
Is this really what measures strength? Is the absence of emotional outpouring and expression the true mettle of a pious Jew? Even more disconcerting, should those who succumb to tears, fright and comparable expressions of pain and horror, feel lacking in their emotional prowess and religious conviction?
I daresay the opposite is true. The genuine strength that is the hallmark of the observant Jew is to allow full entry and expression to the most heart wrenching experiences and simultaneously face them with the indomitable strength of G-d‚Äôs faithful servant. If stoicism and callous disregard are the standard for a response to tragedy, then the courage and faith of the sufferer is diminished if he or she dares to indulge in an outcry of emotion.¬† After all, if the victim or bereaved is not significantly fazed by the misfortune, what is so impressive about their silence or unemotional responses? Indeed, it is that person who lets pain, setback and shock fully penetrate their essence and being, who is truly challenged and ultimately triumphant.
A woman who had suffered a terrible and sudden tragedy, calls me two weeks afterwards. She tells me how beset by tears and near constant crying she is and therefore concludes that she is so ‚Äúweak.‚ÄĚ
I tell her ‚Äė‚ÄĚNo, that is because you are so strong.‚ÄĚ Since she is confused by my response, I try to clarify with the following metaphor.
‚ÄúImagine an Olympic weight lifter purported to be the strongest man in the world. With his voluminous and muscular physique, he is about to break the world record and lift more than anyone has before. When the time comes, he is sweating profusely, every vein in his body is protruding, he is frenetically panting and out of breath, and with his last ounce of strength raises the barbells over his head, drops them on the floor and collapses from sheer and utter exhaustion.‚ÄĚ I then ask her ‚ÄúIs he strong or is he weak?‚ÄĚ
I go on to tell her that she too is heroically facing and internalizing her nearly unbearable misfortune with no pretense or denial‚Ä¶and there is nothing ‚Äústronger‚ÄĚ than that.
We were never meant to be robots or automatons but were created with a full capacity to cry, scream and both feel and express emotion. These emotional outpouring, though painful and destabilizing, contribute to the true strength and heroism of those who are suffering.
One has to look no further than our Torah to see the legitimacy and propriety of overt emotional expression. Our patriarchs and matriarchs together with other eminent Torah figures are recurrently described as giving full and unabated expression to horror and distress. These individuals, whose strength and faith we can only hope to remotely simulate, unhesitatingly cried and gave free rein to emotional outpouring. Avraham openly mourned his deceased wife, Yitzchok recoiled from shock when he discovered whom he had blessed, and Yaakov was unrelenting in his grief until reunited with his beloved Yosef. These unsuppressed expressions of pain and shock in no way diminish their exalted status as the standard bearers for Jewish belief and conduct. Should we be any less?
Emotional expression is not just an indulgence or outlet. A full cognizance and wellspring of emotion is essential to the ultimate reconstitution and growth that invariably follows tragedy particularly among the religious and observant.¬† The shock and pain prompts us to grow and redefine our existence and that is ultimately what allows those horrified to become calm and those wrenched from their loved ones to find comfort and solace.
Dr. William H. Frey II, a biochemist at the St. Paul-Ramsey Medical Center in Minnesota and his team, analyzed two types of tears: the emotional ones (crying when emotionally upset and stressed) and the ones arising from irritants (such as crying from onions). Though appearing identical, the two tears are inherently very different. The emotional tears contained more of the protein-based prolactin, adrenocorticotropic hormone, and leucine enkephalin (natural painkiller), all of which are produced by our body when under stress. The tears from onions contained no such substances. It seems as if the body is getting rid of chemicals that otherwise cause stress through our tears. That explains why we usually feel better after a good cry.
Besides reducing stress, the unabated expression of horror and sadness are often the indispensable first step in the psychological adjustment to trauma and loss. Using broad strokes, one can divide problems people face into two categories. There are those that we can solve and those that remain insoluble.
Many of those challenges that cause us grief and shock are final and irreversible (short of messianic times). The ability to endure such loss and hardship requires a renewed and altered perspective of life and our circumstances. What we can‚Äôt change externally is managed by changing ourselves internally. We can‚Äôt undo death, but we can change our perspective on life incorporating the absence of the loved one. We can‚Äôt change life altering events, but we can rewrite our life narratives within the context of this new situation.
The horror and shock fully expressed and evoked are the first steps in this process of growth and change. They often represent an unraveling of the world as it was known, for a new one with the dreaded event integrated and incorporated into it. Similarly, the pain of grief is an essential ingredient to the adaptation of a life without the corporeal presence of the loved one. Without those emotional expressions, these adaptive forms of growth and adjustment can be delayed or obstructed.
It is therefore our mandate as the providers of support and care to allow the shocked or bereaved person the opportunity to cathartically emit his horror and torrent of tears. It matters little if the calamitous event is a sudden one such as a death or injury or more of the prolonged or ongoing misfortune such as marital discord/divorce, financial hardship, disabilities and the like. People in such states, rarely want advice or proposed solutions. A sympathetic ear, warm hug and validation of the legitimacy of their emotions are usually far more comforting and helpful. Do not admire or encourage stoic or rational responses unless you are certain that these are legitimate and not strained attempts to achieve the aforementioned and ill conceived ideals of restraint and ‚Äústrength.‚ÄĚ
In most instances, such emotional upheaval will subside and periodically reemerge. Post trauma reactions and bereavement are like roller coasters‚Ä¶they come and go and escalate and deescalate. This emergence and diminution can persist even for years depending on the degree of distress. The reason for this is that some climactic events are too enormous to fully internalize and integrate at one time. We therefore incorporated different aspects of the calamity with more composed intervals to replenish our strength for the next onslaught.¬† This emergence and defusing gradually subside as the person undergoes the necessary metamorphosis and change to manage the setback or loss.
It is often helpful to acknowledge or even anticipate these ups and downs in order that these changes don‚Äôt catch the oppressed by surprise or demoralize them when they thought they were on the mend.
In rare instances, a person may become mired in unrelenting grief and fright. Most of the time, this is indicative of a pre-existing depression or anxiety disorder reignited by the tragedy or mishap. Other times, such stagnant and prolonged persistence of pain may be rooted in a piggybacking of past horrific events or losses that have not yet been adequately expressed or resolved. It is those types of reactions that are indicative of a need for professional help though it must be reiterated that such occurrences are the exception not the rule.
In Parshas Vayeitzei, our forefather Yaakov is at a critical and frightening juncture of his life. With his vulnerable wives and young children at his side, Yaakov is surreptitiously fleeing his conniving uncle Lavan, where he has lived for the prior twenty years.¬† He is facing an uncertain future and precarious encounter with his brother Eisav.
During his final confrontation with Lavan, Yaakov declares (Bereishis 31:42) ‚Äúhad not the G-d of my father Avraham and the fear of Yitzchok‚Ä¶‚ÄĚ similarly, at the conclusion of this tet-a-tet, Yaakov swears ‚Äúby the fear of his father Yitzchok (ibid: 53).‚ÄĚ What are these references to the ‚Äúfear‚ÄĚ of Yitzchok? Why not invoke the very same G-d of Yitzchok? Wouldn‚Äôt that be more poignant than Yitzchok‚Äôs fear? Not only that, but the very ‚Äúfear‚ÄĚ itself is not enumerated? What fear is this referring to?
Several commentators (Ibn Ezra, Abarbanel, Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch) suggest that Yaakov summoned the actual dread and fear that Yitzchok felt at the moment that Avraham lifted the knife to offer his son as a sacrifice. Had Yitzchok not been afraid ‚Äď had he been anesthetized or asleep ‚Äď the akeidah would not have been a nisayon - a test. It is the very fact that Yitzchok fully felt the dread of his near death and, though consumed by such fear, cooperated nonetheless is the basis of his gevruah ‚Äď of his prototypical strength.
Similarly, Yaakov‚Äôs circumstances at that point were so fraught with uncertainty and danger that he allowed it to fully penetrate his conscious mind and heart. At that critical moment of trepidation and uncertainty, he summons his father‚Äôs comparable state at the akeidah. He then derives courage and strength from his father‚Äôs willingness to proceed undeterred in fulfilling the command and desire of his Creator.
When confronted with family or friends who have suffered, G-d forbid, a terrible loss or calamity, it as much our mandate to facilitate and admire their full emotional outpouring as it is to proclaim their ‚Äústrength.‚ÄĚ There is no strength to admire if not accompanied by the full expression of emotional dread and pain. Like our forefather Yitzchok, it is our license to let the horror and anguish penetrate our every pore and still forge forward by fulfilling the will of our creator. That is the true measure of strength and courage.
My father, z‚ÄĚl,¬† a decorated World War II veteran who donned his tefillin every day for the four and a half years he served, often told me as a child the following line he would hear from soldiers about to go to battle. ‚ÄúI am the first to be afraid and the last to run.‚ÄĚ
We too are the first to feel every dread, convulse with shock and fear, and shed abundant tears while remaining the last to run from our faith and steadfast adherence to Torah principles and beliefs.