Rosh Hashanah Reflections And The Need for Genuine Support


(OPINION) “Just take a deep breath” is not helpful advice for those who can’t breathe.

On social media, people in distress turn to others to seek connection and comfort amid their heartbreak and suffering. People are homeless and desperately searching for a safe place for their families to stay.

Physically ill people feel alone and share details of their suffering. Since resources for those enduring mental illness are scarce, people who are battling depression turn to strangers on the internet to try to work through their darkness.

On these posts, a stranger declares, “Don’t worry. You can do it, Mama.”

Another chimes, “It’s always OK in the end. If it’s not OK, then it’s not the end.”

Another advises, “Just breathe and put one foot in front of the other. You’ll be fine.”

But we should worry. The person can’t do it. It’s not OK. It is the end.

Events beyond our control

These platitudes are common. Distress and hopelessness are typically met not with plans of action or offers of assistance, but with a pat on the head and 15 different versions of ‘You can do it” or “You’ll survive.” But not everyone can do it, and people die.

There are horrors beyond our control. No amount of cute and sweet clichés will save the heartbroken and the hopeless. Such phrases may, however, make them feel isolated and even more vulnerable.

Sometimes the awful situations people post about lead to death. Someone feels lost with no way out. Someone is in danger. Someone is sick and dying. Illness, particularly amid a lack of wealth, can limit treatment and create incredible agony.

In Nicole Chung’s memoirA Living Remedy,” she recounts her parents’ preventable suffering and death. She explains they died as a result of “health problems exacerbated by financial insecurity, inaccessible medical care.” Without access to medical care, no number of promises that they’d be fine could save them.

Even among the survivors who can physically breathe, “Just breathe” is not helpful advice. The suffering extends from the ill and dying to their loved ones as well. Chung writes, “With our broken safety net, our strained systems of care and support, the deep and corrosive inequalities we have yet to address, it’s no wonder that so many of us find ourselves alone, struggling to get the help we need when we or our loved ones are suffering.”

We need each other. We need support and connection with each other. We don’t need our pain minimized with ridiculous platitudes.

How Rosh Hashanah reflections can help

During this time leading up to Rosh Hashanah, we Jews reflect on our behavior in the previous year. We think back on our pride and our shame. What can we do differently in the coming year? That introspection is available to everyone regardless of religious affiliation.

What do you want to do differently? Have you used these cliché phrases to try to diminish someone else’s pain? Have you left someone suffering when they needed support? Have you let your own unease with poverty and pain overrule all else? You can recognize that and opt to make different choices.

Grief, misery and illness can be overwhelming both to the person experiencing it and to those who love them. In his discussion on Micah 6:8 in Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Tarfon advises,

“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

We can all follow this lead. Rather than brushing someone off with a silly phrase, we can listen to them and support them. There’s no need for us to solve their problems, but we can acknowledge them and their true devastation and offer to support them in the ways they need.

This piece is republished from Spokane FaVS.

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