I’ve been under stress lately. It’s the usual: money, household, family and work concerns. Some of it is my own doing: in our enthusiasm for extracurricular activities, I somehow managed to sign our twins up for three different weekly ones during January and February. Yet, even though rushed dinners and drives through snowstorms and -30°C windchills aren’t my favourite activities, I found a silver lining. As my kids learned to use sewing machines at the studio, I got to knit and read quietly in the renovated waiting area overlooking river skating trails and watching the sunset. During chess club at the local Chabad, I saw friends briefly, then I hid, reading alone.
Thinking about the two sides of these activity nights made me reflect further. Having the time and energy and, yes, money to manage these extra enrichments is a gift, even if schlepping kids around can be hard and tiring for parents. The few moments of relative quiet, while the kids are happy, occupied and learning, usually enable me to regain my composure.
Once I have had those moments, I find room to be more patient, kind and compassionate. I’m not big on spas or manicures or tropical vacations. For me, something as simple as a few moments alone in a warm, quiet place with a good book or a good view can give me that reprieve.
I thought of this while speaking with my mom recently. She mentioned that, while on neighbourhood forums, sometimes she feels that all people do is complain. Worse, she feels that, in a Jewish forum, there is always someone who reads everything that happens to her as antisemitic. There was a pause in the conversation as I sensed her frustration. I was able to reach back into one of those warm, calm moments and suggest, in response, that perhaps in an era of rising antisemitism, the person concerned about antisemitism had actually experienced trauma. That, maybe, her fearful responses and anxiety were a response to a real incident.
Similarly, I wondered about those who were “always complaining” online. Perhaps those people also had bad experiences, but had no one offline to comfort or hear them. No one “saw” them. As a result, they were seeking that attention and reassurance online instead.
There is no shortage of distressing stuff happening, particularly if you’re reading about the ongoing earthquakes and displacements in Turkey and Syria, the deaths and violence between Israelis and Palestinians, or the increased crime or fatal drug overdoses at home in Canada. There is plenty of “awful” to go around.
The big challenge is in finding that space in which to compose ourselves and respond to others with compassion and patience. It can be as simple as a cheerful conversation or joke, and as difficult as listening to someone’s painful cries for help, on repeat.
As someone who grew up in the United States, I dreaded what I would hear after the Shabbat recently described as a “Day of Hate” proposed by neo-Nazis. All day, I remained tense, worried. What happened? Thank goodness, nothing much. My brother’s family attended a lovely bat mitzvah at our family’s long-time congregation … like many in the States, they went to synagogue and nothing happened. Yet, the overall increased antisemitic activity afoot made it hard for me to just relax and hope for the best. Even if nothing happened on that day, the amount of hate going around has increased. Almost worse though is the response that Jews who are anxious about this are simply “crybabies” or “crying wolf” or worried about nothing. The bad feeling comes from fear. Some of it, due to intergenerational trauma, is internalized.
My husband’s father was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany after the Second World War. Although my husband’s grandparents lived, they lost most of their families. They managed to survive the war, with harrowing stories. My husband’s bubbe, may she rest in peace, talked about her experiences over and over. I often sat next to her, holding space for her stories, as she repeated her trauma in different ways. She’d effortlessly shift languages, speaking whatever language – among them, Hebrew, Yiddish and English – to whomever also had that room to hear her, see her and listen.
By contrast, my husband’s zayde, z”l, spoke less about the war, but, in his final years, when he lived in a nursing home, he replayed a scary story over and over. At every door of the care home, the healthcare workers posted photos of him, because he’d try to escape. Mimicking what must have happened during the war, he’d trick someone or sneak past or do something that allowed him to leave the home. They were the enemy, trapping him, and he needed to get out. Zayde often succeeded, showing up on the doorstep or sitting in his car in the driveway. He scared the heck out of Bubbe when she found him. He, too, was replaying his traumatic past.
We’re lucky to have new kinds of therapies and medications that help some people cope with trauma, but many of us still are working through issues. Even with access to basics like housing, food, medication and, hopefully, love, we all struggle to be seen and heard, to find enough compassion and love to make it through. We need to each find that quiet, well-lit space to regain our composure, so we can then reach out and help others.
As Hillel says in Pirkei Avot: “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.” It could also mean: “In a place where no one is acting like a good person, strive to be one.” Nowadays, some of our places for listening are online. Our social encounters are different than before, and finding that patience or inner strength can require more effort.
Love, and its close cousin, compassion, are not limited commodities. A heart full of kindness can find more space to help. As my crazy wintertime parenting and worry load lightens, I realize that I wish everyone could have that gift of an hour of solitude, watching the sun set over a river, seeing a rabbit’s tracks or a biker commuting home. We can’t singlehandedly fix or stop the world’s trauma, but we can gift each other our time and patience to help others feel seen and to heal from it.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.