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Blessings in the Darkness

by RABBI STEVE LEDER

The coronavirus metastasizing like cancer across the globe is more than a crisis. It is reported that 50% of us in California are expected to contract COVID-19. Currently, we are all shut ins, hoping like hell we and the people we love don’t get sick and die. Anxious and dazed, we work a little, walk a little, binge watch, eat crap things we shouldn’t, drink more than we should, Instagram, Facebook, Facetime, and then start all over again. It is a time of lost jobs, lost freedom and new fears. “The world, that understandable and lawful world, was slipping away,” wrote William Golding, in Lord of the Flies. It feels like that right now. But this moment is also a precious opportunity.  The sages reminds us that we see light through our pupil, the blackest part of the eye. There are many blessings, even in the darkness.

Human worry and fear are hardly new. Consider this prayer written 13 centuries ago by the rabbinic sages that begins by listing their many worries:

“Who will die before his time; who by water, who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by upheaval, who by plague, who by strangling and who by stoning?”

Life 13 centuries ago was rife with anxiety. Rape, murder, muggings, death by fire or flood or plague or starvation or war were daily occurrences. If they had it back then, everyone would have been on Xanax. And if you think quarantine sucks, consider Anne Frank and seven other people hiding in a 450 square foot attic for 761 days in near silence, then being discovered and turned into ash at Auschwitz.

Suffering is the oldest of human stories and the sages had a very powerful method for managing anxiety and fear. I try to use it every day, and it helps. “Repentance, prayer, and generosity,” says that wise prayer, “will temper the harshness of the decree”: a simple, three-part formula for surviving in their time and ours, too.

What is repentance really, other than trying to make things right with others? At some point, all of our ancestors lived in small villages where the key to survival was the quality of their relationships with a handful of people who really mattered. Are we any different today, right now? Do any of us have more than a small handful of people in our lives who really matter? So, when a wave of virus worry overwhelms me, I reach out for my wife and tell her. I hang out with my kids doing nothing much. I pour it out to a friend on Facetime. When I am anxious, the only thing that helps is opening my heart to someone I deeply trust and love.

That person sleeping by your side; he loves you, she loves you, he will shelter you when the rain falls, she will hold you when the darkness is too dark to see. If you sleep alone, it does not mean you are alone. Reach out to a friend, to family, to a trusted colleague. No one endures suffering better alone. Now is the time to double down on your relationships. Cherish them. Nurture them. They will lift you from your suffering.

Next, there is prayer. Often when every other option fails someone will say, “There is nothing left to do but pray.” It is the response of last resort. But religious people put it first, not last. It is the thing we are supposed to do more often each day than anything else because it rearranges our thoughts, and as the Buddha so rightly said, “With our thoughts, we make the world.”

Prayer—the frequent daily discipline of counting our blessings–challenges anxious thoughts.  Consider not just the burden of quarantine but also the blessing of time to hunker down amidst new ways to express our love for each other–the simple beauty of cooking together, a mid-day walk, a game of catch, dropping off a meal at the front door of the elderly neighbor whose name we never bothered to learn until now. Revel in the flourishing of poetry, prayer and laughter on social media, replacing the materialism and gossip that consumed so much of our time before.

The pause in the hurry and the scurry of our pre-coronavirus lives is not worth the suffering of illness or economic pain, but neither is it worthless. It is a wise person, a happier person, a calmer person, who tallies his or her many blessings, despite the very real pain we must sometimes endure.

The final antidote to fear prescribed in that powerful prayer of 13 centuries ago is generosity, the simple act of helping others, which simultaneously reinforces how fortunate we are. This Chinese proverb says it best:

If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap.
If you want happiness for a day, go fishing.
If you want happiness for a month, get married.
If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune.
If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody else.
In the midst of this crisis, find a way, anyway, to help someone else.

The Talmudic sages said, “We do not see things as they are, we see things as we are.” Now is the time to ask, “Who are we—really?” How will we find the calm and the hope that seem so elusive?  The answer was given to us long ago: Repentance—love more deeply; Prayer–whatever our losses, count our many blessings; and Generosity—reach out with what we have to those who have so much less. In these ways, come what may, we can all find greater peace in the COVID-19 world and long after.

This essay was featured in the March 22nd edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper inspires hearts and minds to rise above the noise. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.

 

RABBI STEVE LEDER

Steve Leder is the author of More Beautiful Than Before; How Suffering Transforms Us and the Senior Rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles.