There’s been much discussion about mental health, physical health and well-being as it relates to the pandemic. This can only be a good thing. It shines a light on something we should all think more about. For example, asking: “How are you doing? How are your family members and friends doing? Do they need support? Are they sad, isolated, lonely or not feeling well?” and actually hearing the responses.
Yet, once we start raising these questions about well-being, we have to acknowledge that we just don’t have the bandwidth or the social and medical infrastructure to deal with the outcomes. Many times, no one has cared, asked or listened when someone has spoken up and said things weren’t OK. It might be new for some to acknowledge that we’re not always “fine” and that there’s often not much professional help available either. (Just look at wait times to get mental health or addictions support.)
Our household had a great weekend recently. The weather was outstanding, warm and sunny, with highs of 20 to 23°C. We had outdoor experiences, with low-risk social experiences. We participated in a friendly neighbourhood cleanup and a big picnic with soccer and badminton. My kids gave me handmade art for Mother’s Day, with notes they wrote themselves. There was time for lots of good food, walks, playing and even some household cleaning. All four of us commented on Sunday night that we’d done so much, eaten well, and had so much fun.
I had so many feelings about this. I, too, loved the sunshine and the weekend’s events. I also felt physically well and energetic, capable of celebrating it all. That said, being absolutely prepared ahead of time, with lists of what we needed for each outing, a schedule, and carefully pre-organized and prepared meals was a lot of emotional labour. Like moms everywhere through the pandemic, I’ve shouldered much of this. When I woke up Monday morning, I was really tired.
The kids went to school. My partner settled down to his online meeting. I threw together food in two slow cookers for dinner and went to my desk – to work and to process my intense feelings. I knew I’d been starved for company. Seeing people outdoors, even strangers, with smiles and an intention to socialize and get to know us, was gratifying. Also, breaking out of our normal cold weather weekend pandemic routine was both fabulous and more work. Choosing to go out and chat with strangers – it was all good but also alien. That strange mix of feelings led me to think harder.
Working, I opened a fascinating listserv email about an informal comparison between Modern Hebrew, Yemenite Hebrew and Samaritan Hebrew. A Canadian engineer named Bahador Alast hosts YouTube interviews for a wide variety of languages in which he explores language, linguistics and culture. In this video, an Israeli speaker of Modern Hebrew, a Samaritan Israeli and a Yemenite Israeli all take apart informal sentences, a sentence of poetry, a sentence from the Torah (and liturgy) and another from the Mishnah (part of the Talmud). They easily code switch between their dialects of origin (Samaritan/Yemenite), Modern Hebrew, English and Arabic. They discuss the origins of their community’s pronunciations and conversational styles, their relationship to other Semitic languages and Modern Hebrew. With focus, they do all this in less than 20 minutes. It’s also done in such a friendly, open way that the moderator, Alast, who does this with many different cultures and languages, mostly sits and listens to the magic unfold.
This content stretched me intellectually, especially my auditory capacity, since I hadn’t heard these differences explained and formalized before. I loved this rare learning moment and the very specific linguistic context and comparison.
My personal realization about the weekend’s events and warmth and my Monday morning exhaustion was that context matters. The reason why it was all so fun was that we came into the weekend prepared. Also, all felt well rested and ready for lots of activity. Since the pandemic started, there has been acknowledgement of women’s household burdens with the cancellation of “regular” activities, but context matters. I had mostly the same burdens pre-pandemic and the normal run of activities made life overwhelmingly busy. The break in obligations allowed me to see the emotional labour in getting everything ready. I now sometimes can get my spouse to take on some of the load. Sometimes, we restructure things or do less.
The pandemic forced us to hit pause in many ways. Hopefully, it’s also opened up moments to make positive changes. People have always asked each other how we were, but did everyone listen to the responses? No. Many of us didn’t even have the time to listen to ourselves. Our own health and well-being can sometimes be hard to figure out. We need that quiet space to contextualize our experience. “Does this hip hurt more than it used to?” a physio might ask. However, if we don’t stop to think about what hurts or to discuss our feelings, experiences and needs, we cannot possibly contextualize them, either.
Judaism teaches us that we’re obligated to one another, in families, communities and society. Yet, if we aren’t listening to one another, we can’t help one another. Whether it’s speaking a common language with dialects or providing one another with mental health and other supports, we cannot lift one another up if we’re not listening or trying. We need to be self-aware to listen to our own bodies, minds and feelings. Then we can listen to and help others, too.
We may have a lot of health issues ahead, from long-COVID, health concerns left undiagnosed and mental health struggles. We have an obligation to recognize that we don’t have the social and medical infrastructure we need to manage it all. It’s up to us to start bridging the gaps. Listening to one another, offering context and support, is a first step. It’s an important opportunity to make things better.
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.