Mike Feder: Hello everybody. This is Mike Feder and I’m here with Rabbi Simon Jacobson. Tonight we are going to talk about depression and mental illness.
First of all, let me mention before we plunge into the program, that last week we got some really great calls, and we want you to call in for tonight’s show. The number to call at WEVD is 212-244-1050.
Tonight’s topic is something I’ve wanted to talk about for a long time and it’s a topic that’s been all over the newspapers in the last week or two. There have been articles about it in the New York Times. Here’s one right in front of me from a week ago.
It says, in effect, that according to statistics, over 19,000,000 Americans (that’s a lot of people) over the age of 18 are affected by depression, and for many it is considered to be a medical condition.
I read another article the other day that the number of suicides is up, especially among young people. It’s like a plague. So the question is, where do you think this comes from and what’s it all about? What is the cause and what is the meaning of such a huge problem like this?
Simon Jacobson: Well first of all, as an overall perspective, dealing with a topic of this nature is quite difficult because I don’t believe in discussing this academically or cerebrally, but when you put yourself in the shoes of people and their families who suffer, it is quite demoralizing and the negative experiences are quite powerful. In many ways, mental illness, depression, however you want to categorize it, is much worse than almost any other illness. It is not necessary more life threatening, which it can be, but because it so erodes a person’s confidence…
Feder: You suffer from despair…
Jacobson: It erodes the confidence of an individual, and exhibits a lack of control in the ability to function, the inability to follow what your mind tells you because your emotions simply take over. By extension, it also demoralizes families, because there’s nothing more demoralizing than lack of control.
And when it comes to the mind, which is a very complex organism, anything that affects it, whether it be a chemical imbalance, or depression, or whatever form you want to call mental illness, has directly impact on human dignity.
Once human dignity is affected, you are confronted with a secondary problem, even more powerful than the original one, because there’s the shame, the resignation, the inability to make a move, the paralysis.
So I want to begin with a disclaimer that there needs to be sensitivity in addressing something of this nature, particularly when we’re talking to people who have either been affected by it or are families, relatives and friends of people who have been affected by it.
It’s also important to distinguish between clinical depression, where it becomes a medical condition to the extent that intervention is necessary outside of the human being, whether it’s pharmaceutical intervention, meaning you need drugs, or other types of intervention…
Feder: Shock treatment, hospitals…
Jacobson: To that extent, right. And even therapy to the point where you have a combination of all of the above, as opposed to a depression where people go “through the blues” or even severe forms of it, but it is more or less within the individual’s control.
But there is a thin line between the two, because one definitely leads into the next, and sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between them because it could be a combination of many things. It could be things that are out of your control, but it could be things that are in your control.
I think a very wise and sensitive approach is that you never undermine the human dignity, and you do allow a person to use everything in their resources to achieve some type of strength and confidence, supplementing that with whatever may be necessary to get out of that particular situation or create a balance, an alignment, so the person can move forward.
In a show like this it’s important to distinguish between the two because they’re not in the same category.
Now, your questions are very legitimate ones. I was thinking when you were asking them, what was going on 100 or 200 years ago? Did they not have statistics? Did they not have a sophisticated understanding of mental illness so instead people were just written off as crazy or…
Feder: Locked away and not treated…
Jacobson: Exactly. People unable to function were just put in one big pot where everyone was non-functional, whereas today there’s more of an understanding that there are different levels of that, there are bouts, there are ups and down, and so on.
So it’s very hard to make a comparison to previous generations because we don’t have statistics, things weren’t measured the same way then.
Feder: I’ll tell you, I think you’re right about not being able to make a comparison between 100 years ago and now, but you know, these statistics from 20 or 30 years ago, there’s an exponentially tremendous leap in the number of people who are depressed or even visibly depressed. Something is happening.
Jacobson: Oh yes, of course. I made that statement not in any way to diminish or to minimize the fact that there are statistics, high rates of suicide, etc. Obviously, without being oversimplistic, the thing you can point at, whenever you find an erosion of self-confidence, whenever you find a higher rate of suicide, especially by young people who at birth did not show any visible mental handicaps, and the statistics that you cited earlier, it’s very glaring how it’s so much connected to the general view of ourselves in society today.
And this is a theme we’ve been touching on consistently, which is, how significant and meaningful is your life? So even if it’s, you mention 19,000,000 people, and even if it’s just a small percentage of teenagers that actually will commit suicide, G-d forbid, or think about it, that doesn’t mean that those who don’t think about it do have that self-confidence. It just means that for some it hasn’t reached that extreme. Some people can be in denial of their own insignificance.
But we live in a society where there’s a very deep undermining (not intentional by any person or individual), it’s just a vicious cycle, of real self-worth. For example, take a look at the media. Billions and trillions of dollars go into mass media, where essentially the message that we project to people is that value lies in superficial externals. Whether it be television, radio, the internet, newspapers, they are all essentially trying to sell people a product. Advertising has become highly sophisticated in its psychological approach. A friend I know tells me he was once a therapist and decided to change careers and go into advertising. I asked him, “How is it going?” And he said he was doing the same thing except he’s being paid ten times as much. He said here he’s manipulating minds and emotions, and there he was trying to understand the mind and heart in order to help bring some healing.
Feder: You call that the same thing? I’m glad I never saw him as a shrink!
Jacobson: The same thing meaning he’s using his expertise in understanding the workings of the mind… And people do respond to subliminal messages, etc. But essentially it comes down to this: youth is worshipped, money is worshipped, status, looks, beauty, and from this what message do you get about your value? The message is that your value is based on how much you achieve or what rung of the ladder you’ve climbed in status or how much buying power you have, how young you look.
Feder: What shape you’re in.
Jacobson: You even see the obsession with cosmetic surgery and how much that has grown in leaps and bounds, how much has been invested. Now, per se, that may not be a problem, but when it’s imbalanced, and it’s only that, and there isn’t any cultivation of human spirit or that your value doesn’t go far beyond the externals, the transient, then it’s inevitable—in a culture that worships youth, when a person grows a little older and there’s a point where you cannot hide that age any longer—how could they not go into some type of depression?
Now, the fact that one needs to age to recognize this reality just means that it took a little while for that awareness to emerge. But even while the person has everything that it takes, and they have the looks and money and all of that, nevertheless the bottom line is that in their subconscious, the message is that your value is based on those externals. When the internal compass or internal voice that is most important to nurture and nourish—the spirit and soul—is completely ignored, there has to be a deep hunger and thirst that has to express itself in a form of undermining of one’s own confidence and self-esteem and dignity
Feder: But your personal worth is virtually non-existent.
Jacobson: Now, I want to qualify that statement as well. By no means am I trying to say that the cause of depression and the cause of clinical depression is a result of our culture or of the media or of this undermining.
What I am saying is that this type of environment doesn’t help. And I would say that in some cases it is the beginning of the roots of the problem. Sometimes the roots go back to the home. Remember, this isn’t just an issue of the media, it’s also what our parents tell us, because our parents are also influenced by the media, and they’re also influenced by the mass culture and mass mentality. So essentially a child is told that if you don’t do this, you’re not special. The type of message that a mother and father should be telling a child, that you are unconditionally indispensable and valuable no matter what you do—I don’t mean no matter what in a bad way—I mean even if your looks are not perfect, even if your money is not perfect, even if your status isn’t up there, all those are externals, and you are valuable because you have a spirit, because G-d put you here, because you have something to contribute. But that message is not given to us as children, so the fact that a child grows up intact, I would say, is just despite the odds.
Because the truth is, everything is stacked up against that child, so then it’s like any type of combustion. There are many causes that lead to a fire, but when you create a situation where there’s a lot of pressure from many different angles, then any spark can be the catalyst, and there comes a point where you can’t really distinguish what really led this person into a state of such depression and even mental illness.
Now I am distinguishing between someone who’s born with, or has developed, a chemical imbalance that really just happens (there are reasons for everything I’m sure) but you can’t really point your finger at a non-nurturing home, it could be a person who has a spiritual center and still has gone to such a state. That’s why I want to make sure that it’s not a black and white generalization. I’m just making a comment that I have no doubt that if people had that self-esteem and that celebration of spirit, there’s no doubt that it would help in many situations, and I would say even in a clinical one, it cannot hurt to have that type of message.
You know, when you hear the stories about an autistic child, where it’s clearly a medical condition and not a psychological one (it’s psychological to a certain extent, but I mean to say that it’s not a result of human error)—it’s a genetic issue, and you hear the story of how mothers dedicated their lives to love that child, to do everything possible, and you hear that miracles have happened in how a child can perform: the optimism, the dignity.
And then of course the other extreme is that parents are so ashamed that they hide the child in a basement or they lock them away, or they ignore the issue and say that it’s not my child. The message that is being told to the spirit of that child is quite powerful. And I don’t buy it when people just say that the child is unaware, because the spirit is always aware.
And we’ll discuss that, because I’d like to discuss the issue of what exactly, from a spiritual or cosmic dimension, is depression and mental illness.
Feder: Okay, so now you’ve been talking about definitions and causes. But before we move on, let’s take a call from Pinchas.
Caller: Rabbi Jacobson, this is one of your friends from Boro Park. I just wanted to ask you a question. I happen to deal with people who have this problem of depression, not clinical depression. I would like to ask you, what would you recommend as therapy for these people. When you see the person, what would you say to the person just to remove the first pain of the depression?
Jacobson: Thank you for the question. If you don’t mind, we will get to some answers a little later in the show, but since we’re doing this in order, it’s wiser to try to put it into perspective. So we’ll take the questions, some I’ll try to answer immediately, and others I’ll answer throughout the show. But I will say this, which is a springboard to our next thought, but as the Baal Shem Tov says, for every question there’s an answer, and for every answer there’s another question. So all questions will be answered, and all answers will have new questions!
Feder: Well, that could make you feel a little depressed!
Jacobson: Well, look at it as climbing a ladder. But the caller did just address something that is important to recognize that on the radio here it’s very hard to make any generalizations. When you’re dealing with a topic like this, it’s critical to look at it on a case by case basis. In every situation case by case is necessary, but here even more so because there are so many intricate elements and details and nuances and subtleties: family dynamics, the position of that person at work, do they have a spouse, what else is going on in their life. So it’s critical to know what is going on with all that before just suggesting what to do.
But I will make some suggestions in response to this caller, but before we do that, I’d like to address the actual issue in a—I don’t want to call it mystical —but let’s call it a more spiritual perspective.
In a sense, you can ask the question, why would G-d allow for such a dichotomy between mind and heart, between human emotions and intellect, to take place—an imbalance of this nature, where a person can lose control of his or her own life.
Of course, this touches on the issue of why G-d allows any good people to suffer, and in general, human suffering as a whole, because this is clearly in that same category. But I was thinking about an interesting thing: you know I didn’t even realize it when we determined to do this topic, that in the Jewish calendar now we’re in a period of time that you can say is the cosmic healing from a cosmic state of depression.
Now let me explain what I mean. In the Jewish calendar, we are now in the Seven Weeks of Consolation, which follow the Three Weeks of Lamentation or grief or the three weeks of pain and suffering, (concluding with Tisha B’Av, the three weeks) and the seven weeks that follow are in a sense a consolation which conclude with Rosh Hashanah.
Now just for the record, the Three Weeks are essentially the period of time in which the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem took place close to 2,000 years ago; both the First Temple and the Second Temple, the first one destroyed by the Babylonians, and the second one by the Romans, of which the only thing that remains is the outer wall, or Western Wall. It is commemorated on the calendar with the beginning of the Three Weeks being a fast day of mourning and grieving—that’s when they breached the wall—and concluding with Tisha B’Av, the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, which is the day when the actual building was burned down, both in the First and Second Temples, interestingly enough, 490 years apart.
Now, that’s the historical element. But on a mystical dimension, or you could say on a deeper level, why do Jews still grieve almost 2,000 years later? Because the Temple represented much more than just a building, it represented the Divine presence in this world. It represented a window between heaven and earth, between spirit and matter, between our purpose of existence and our existence. And in a sense, with the destruction of the Temple, a certain window was closed.
Feder: Cutting us off from G-d.
Jacobson: From G-d, and in a way, from our own quintessential selves, and our own purpose of existence. So in a way you can say all pain, all tragedy, all suffering, is a symptom and a result, because if a person is in touch with their higher calling, and what (I’ll use simple English) you do is connected with what you are, if you can solve it at that root level, most problems will be solved automatically.
It’s when you lose touch with yourself, in a sense you wander away from your own calling, you don’t know why you’re here. You don’t have any real driving force to wake up in the morning.
Feder: So maybe you might add that if you’re separated from a Divine order, or a sense of the Divine order…
Jacobson: Right. Being connected or anchored to something that’s absolute. Then you’re not just swept away by the vicissitudes and the ups and downs of material life, you know, today my boss was in a good mood so I’m in a good mood, tomorrow my client is obnoxious so that blows my day.
In other words you’re holding onto a tree that’s anchored with deep roots into absolutes of certain standards, of certain values, a certain center or core. Then, when life shakes you up, twigs and branches may break off the tree, but the tree remains stout and firm.
The Three Weeks is the name of this period of the year. Why “three”? Three refers to the three intellectual faculties that are cut off from the emotions. In Kabbalistic thought, the cosmic picture, or the human psyche is divided into two categories of three and seven. I don’t want to get too complicated, but it is a form of dichotomy, or a cut-off, a disalignment, out of sync between your mind and your heart.
And the Seven Weeks of Consolation, in a sense, is realigning the heart once again with the mind, where you do have a form of reconciliation where those three weeks which would be considered a form of depression, a form of not exactly mental illness, but it’s a cut-off…
Feder: A splitting off…
Jacobson: Between two parts is realigned and reconnected into one seamless whole.
Feder: Do these seven weeks end with the High Holidays, reuniting with the Divine presence?
Jacobson: That’s the objective, of course; that there’s a consolation and a healing that follows this split.
Now, by no means is this a justification, nor is it an explanation for human depression. But I did want to place it in a more subtle form, in microcosm,
Feder: As above so below…
Jacobson: Yes. Something like that. That it does exist. And remember, when a human being created in the Divine image suffers from any type of mental illness or depression, it’s not just an anomaly, but it does have roots in the dichotomy of existence itself.
As soon as G-d’s presence is hidden from us, as soon as we can be split between who you are and what you do, that immediately is, in a sense, a split that can lead to more severe forms of mental imbalance.
Feder: Taking the great circle root here, everything you’ve said is necessary to be said, but is there any possible answer to the listener’s call before?
Jacobson: Oh, this was not just an introduction to the caller’s question, I think I’d like to dedicate an answer to that further in the show: suggestions of what can be done…
Feder: More hands-on.
Okay let’s split off for a moment from the conversation. You are listening to Rabbi Simon Jacobson, and this is Toward a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson. My name is Mike Feder and we’re here every Sunday night from 6-7pm and you’re listening to WEVD, 1050AM in New York City.
This show is an outgrowth of the Meaningful Life Center in Brooklyn, and this show is also based very much on Rabbi Jacobson’s book called Toward a Meaningful Life, in which almost every subject that you hear discussed on the air here is discussed in the book.
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Now, I’ve got all kinds of questions, but is there anything you’d like to talk about first?
Jacobson: Yes. There’s a reason I connected the physical depression to the spiritual depression, not to console us, but in a way it is a form of consolation because we have to realize that certain realities of life are such, that we live in a world where there’s always a state of depression, because the only place where there would not be any type of depression or sadness is in a perfect world, in a paradise world, a utopia.
But as soon as a human being is created, there are two voices or two forces or two energies—the evil inclination and the good inclination—as soon as a human being has the ability to be hypocritical, to lie, to be deceitful, you immediately have a situation where the reality is split into two at least.
Now, by no means does this mean that this causes depression, but recognizing this split is recognizing the root or the environment in which we live in. And knowing that teaches us how precarious and how fragile life is. You don’t have to wait for depression to hit to realize that there’s a problem. The problem exists even before one actually suffers from depression.
Feder: So the ground is fertile.
Jacobson: Very fertile. And particularly, as I mentioned earlier, we can have a society that values certain things, which has nothing to do with your true value. You, Mike, or myself or our listeners can be valued for something that has really nothing to do with you. It could be completely circumstantial. You inherited a million dollars so suddenly you’re valued. Or you have something that somebody wants. And that, in a sense, is what’s called in Chassidic terminology living in a false world, a world that lies, a world that is able to lie.
Feder: So you could be just as depressed by being valued for the wrong thing as being not valued for the right thing.
Jacobson: Right. Knowing that this is a cosmic problem, not just an individual anomaly, we’re all affected by it. That’s why Tisha B’Av is not just for people who are depressed, it’s for all of us. It is a wake up call to all people, including those who don’t know that they perhaps should feel that there’s a dichotomy in our lives.
What it does is, it puts things in a certain perspective that allows a person to figure out what to do about it. Where do we go from here?
And again, we must distinguish between clinical (once it gets to a point where it’s medical) or for some other reason that clearly need intervention that’s beyond what I’m going to describe here.
Feder: We have a call from Carol. You’re on the air. Go ahead.
Caller: Hi. I’d like to ask how the principle of Tisha B’Av and the Three Weeks and the Seven Weeks that you mentioned applies to non-Jews who don’t observe those per se as Jews do?
Jacobson: The response to that is based on a Midrash. The Midrash says, interestingly, that the Holy Temple is not just for the Jews. It says that had the non-Jews known what the Holy Temple accomplishes for them, the blessings that it bestows upon them, the fact that it’s a channel for G-dliness—not just for the Jews but for the entire world—they would have surrounded it and protected it and not allowed it to be destroyed.
As a matter of fact, in one of the prophecies it says that the Holy Temple is a house for prayer, a place that is like a channel between the Divine and the entire world.
So though it’s clearly a Jewish Temple in that sense (but there’s an element in Judaism and in the Torah that is universal), the G-dly presence in this world clearly brings blessings to all of us, because everyone is created in the Divine image. And when there’s less of a dichotomy between heaven and earth, it’s a universal blessing, not just a Jewish issue.
But the Midrash is what I cite, particularly for this questioner.
Feder: But you know, there are relevant holidays like this in every religion where there is loss, suffering and mourning, and then there is redemption and healing.
Feder: It they can cause injury to themselves or others.
Jacobson: Right. So clearly then you can’t just sit down and say, “let’s talk,” but I always believe that unless there’s an immediate danger, with respect to human dignity you always want to give the person the option of doing something about it before something has to be done.
Feder: Can you explain that more clearly?
Jacobson: In other words, if you see someone who’s behaving in a destructive way, the first option you’d like to say is, “Take responsibility for your life and take your life in your hands.” The reason we like to do that is not because we want to avoid more serious intervention, we want to respect an individual’s dignity.
Feder: So this is before just laying a treatment on a person.
Jacobson: Right. I’m just stating, for example, let’s say you have a child, or a friend, G-d forbid, or someone who simply seems to be becoming more and more isolated, locking themselves up, and you notice it and it’s important to keep your eyes open, so the first thing you don’t want to do is panic and run to a psychiatrist in a hospital. The first thing is to have a conversation. Can you communicate and see what’s going on?
Often, when it comes to the point where a person can’t communicate or they are self-destructive, you can’t just wait and sit around. But I’m talking about a situation where you see signs and it may take years for something to really become debilitating to the point of being unable to communicate with him and try to reinforce his self-confidence to do something about it, because, as I said earlier, probably the single most secondary problem after the initial depression itself, is a lack of confidence. It starts eroding your own will. You start seeing yourself in a very shameful light, you want to lock yourself up, you don’t want anyone to see you in that way, so what happens is you lose your will power, and once you lose your will power…
Feder: It just builds on itself…
Jacobson: Exactly. So the immune system doesn’t want to fight, in a sense…
Feder: The psychic immune system.
Jacobson: And it is critical to encourage a person and give him that power. And how does one do that? So here, we always talk about G-d and soul and spirit, when it comes to this issue, frankly, including G-d in the solution is critical, because ultimately the only argument that you can tell someone when they really feel down and say “my life isn’t really worth it, I don’t want to go on, or, it’s just a mess,” and they give all rational reasons, and they’ll explain why…
Feder: A divorce, a separation, a death…
Jacobson: The only way to hold onto some type of, what’s called “bitochen,” or trust, faith, hope, is to rise above your own self, above the mortal, above the mundane, and reach to something that is more eternal.
Feder: But the eternal could be something that is right around you, it doesn’t have to be some abstract, prayerful dedication, it can be the world right around you, the joy of the world, or anything…
Jacobson: Well, I’d like to put it this way. It’s the recognition that you’re here in this world for a purpose, and you’re needed. You can’t just make a statement that you’re not needed anymore because I don’t feel good about myself. In a subtle way, that’s a form of arrogance, because you are needed. And life is fraught with challenges. A challenge does not mean that you should suddenly make a decision that it’s over with for me. Or I can’t handle it.
No, G-d gave you a vote of confidence that you can handle every challenge in your life. And again, I’m talking about the situation where you can still communicate with a person in this way. I would even argue that this should be said to someone who’s suffering from clinical depression. Not because you expect that these words alone will heal them; they may need medication, they may need other intervention, but these words will definitely complement that. That when they do finally create a chemical balance or whatever it is that they need, these words are very important, because this is what will maintain a person. It’s a message, it’s almost a mantra.
Feder: Let me bring it down to specifics here. Let’s say I call you and wake you up at 2 in the morning, and I’m so distraught I feel like I can’t live with myself, or live at all anymore. And you say, out of the goodness of your heart, okay, come over and I’ll talk to you.
So I come over to your house, and I sit in a room with you and I say, “I feel like I don’t want to exist anymore. I feel like I’m going to kill myself and remove myself from this earth, and the reason is that I feel so worthless and so loathsome, that I don’t even deserve to be alive.”
How can you just say to a person, you know, you really do deserve to be alive? In other words, simple words like that… the person wouldn’t be coming to you in the first place if they really already could accept that, do you know what I’m saying? Or maybe I’m asking the impossible.
Jacobson: No, you’re not asking the impossible. I think we discussed this when we talked about suicide on a previous show.
There’s something that a heart does for another heart that defies words. If in this case, let’s not say you, someone came over to me, to my home, at 2:00 in the morning and I would sit with them and allow my heart to be with them. And hearts tend to melt into each other and have that power that gives strength.
It’s not about words. It’s not about philosophy. At that point, philosophy doesn’t work.
Feder: Or intellect.
Jacobson: Right. It’s not about intellect. It’s about that there’s someone there who cares, who says, “You know, you may feel terrible about yourself, but I must tell you, you have value,” and even if they only hear 1% and 99% is clouded and completely impossible for them to hear, but if you try to get drops of water into a person whose mouth is clenched, most of it may pour on the floor, but if one drop gets in, that can save his life.
So it’s almost like giving that life-affirming message. And remember, if a person reaches out to you, it means they do trust you somewhat.
Feder: By the very fact that they reached out.
Jacobson: Right. So you have to call upon that, and again, this may not be sufficient. If a person is really in a difficult place and you’re their friend, I might say, come, let’s go to the hospital, or let’s go to a doctor, let’s go to a psychiatrist. But if it’s not at that point, there are words that if they come from the heart, they can be affirming, and especially if it’s a friend and you give him or her a kick in the pants as well. You know, you can say “Cut this out.”
It doesn’t mean that that’s going to work, but it sends some sort of psychological shock treatment where you shake someone up and you try to awaken some type of confidence in themselves.
Feder: Ah, now, a bit of the answer to the question in the beginning.
Jacobson: So I use G-d here, not in the context of some type of religious escape as some see it, but I see it really as the vital element that “you are here for a purpose, you’re indispensable. For you to make a statement that it’s not worth it, or that it’s too difficult, or it’s overwhelming—I have no purpose to my existence—you are essentially challenging G-d’s vote of confidence of putting you on this earth.”
And a human being has to have the humility to realize that he did not create himself. You have been put here. And you can choose what to do with your life, but you cannot make the choice whether you should be here or not.
Feder: So in a way there’s a certain grandiosity. You’re almost usurping, from what you’re saying, G-d’s…
Jacobson: It’s almost like inverted arrogance. Instead of saying…
Feder: You created yourself, so you can do whatever you want with yourself…
Jacobson: Including self-destruction. In other word, arrogance can take the shape of, I’m pompous, I have an ego, but arrogance can also be that I’m worthless. So the question is, who are you to say that you’re worthless?
Feder: What makes you so special to think you’re so worthless, right?
Jacobson: Exactly. Now I’m not saying this argument will touch a person who’s in that dark place, but that’s why we do a show like this, because this message should be taught to our children, not once their depressed, G-d forbid, but now, when things are going well. Every morning a child should be taught this message, that they’re important, because ultimately one day, should they ever need to reach into a deeper arsenal of resources, that message will resonate.
If you wait until the storm strikes, you can’t start suddenly building roots for a tree.
Feder: I think it’s like something you once said. It’s like clay: once it hardens or gets baked in the oven of the world, good luck, right?
Jacobson: That’s why I intentionally connected it to the cosmic picture, to understand the universe in this way. This particular show is not just for people who are actually suffering. The problem there is the hardest situation to do something about it, because you’re already in it.
Which leads me to another point I’d like to make. And that is, the issue of reaching out to others. What happens is this: the shame and the demoralization and the humiliation involved when a person is not in control of their own emotions, and they know that it doesn’t make sense, it’s just that they’re so anxious or depressed, causes the person to islotae himself. It is therefore critical to reach out.
Allow me to cite a passage in the Talmud. The Talmud says two opinions on a verse in the Bible, “If a person has worries, yasichena.” So the Talmud asks, what does this word yasichena mean? And it has two interpretations. One is that yasichena comes from the word “verbalize it, communicate it, go speak to someone.”
Feder: So if a person is worried, they should talk about it.
Jacobson: Right. I’m talking about real worry, anxiety that can lead to more serious states.
The second interpretation that the Talmud brings is yasiach from the words hesech hadaas, from the words “distract yourself.” Push it away from your mind and think about something else.
The question is asked: these two interpretations seemingly contradict each other— communicating and verbalizing is actually focusing in on the problem, while distracting yourself is pushing it away and not addressing it.
Feder: But they really are the same thing. I mean, while you’re talking, you’re not brooding about it at least.
Jacobson: Okay. Fine. It’s a rhetorical question, and I think the point is this. That when you communicate with someone, you release yourself of it. It’s no longer your own lonely problem. Because as they say, when it comes to real abuse, the silence is worse than the abuse. The loneliness of silence, the darkness, the shadows of sitting alone, when no one is there who understands or who is with you, in a way feeds into the depression because it just justifies your position, “You see, I have no value. No one is here for me.”
Feder: I asked the question and there’s no one to answer me.
Jacobson: Right. So the reaching out to someone and being able to communicate it, first of all, introduces fresh light, fresh energy, where, as the Talmud puts it elsewhere, a person in fetters can’t free him or herself.
If you’re in a pit and there’s no rope, you can’t pull yourself out of the pit.
Feder: Someone’s got to pull you.
Jacobson: Right. Now, that acknowledgment should not be humiliating, especially if you can find a trusting person, because it means that you are able to reach out. That’s a great strength to be able to reach out.
Feder: I mentioned once before that I was in a mental hospital once, a while ago. And so I know this from experience, the one thing that everyone has in common in those places, among other things, is that they are ashamed of themselves for being in there. They are humiliated. This is not the people who are so far gone that they don’t even know what world they’re living in anymore. Anyone who has a slightest sense of self-awareness, the memories of their behavior comes back to them. And everybody knows this, that as soon as you get better a little bit, for a couple of days or a week in a place like that, the thing that hits you is a wave of shame and humiliation. Can you address that? In other words, why should people feel so ashamed that they are lost and weak?
Jacobson: Because it’s a testimony to human dignity, and I would use the expression “the image of G-d.” The fact that we have a certain sense of dignity, of majesty, and when that’s been in some way damaged or scratched or compromised, that dignity itself is a root for the shame.
Feder: But the shame is always in reference to other people. You think, what will they think of me? What will my family think of me, what will the world think of me?
Jacobson: That’s the way we articulate it. But I would say that the shame is really with yourself. It’s not just for others. I believe that if we were alone on an island, we’d also have that shame, because a person can’t deal with the fact that I should be in control of myself, that I should be able to take hold of myself when my thoughts and feelings are so overwhelming. I know that it’s not that dark, so why does it seem so paranoic, or so bleak?
I think the shame is with ourselves, it’s not just an external thing. It also extends, of course, to those around us, because we also feel guilt. Look at what I’ve done to others and now they have to provide for me and take care of me when I should be taking care of myself.
Per se that shame is not necessarily an unhealthy thing. Because if one didn’t have that shame, that would be a statement that it’s just easy for us to compromise our dignity. The key is to recognize that shame results from awareness, from sensitivity. It’s almost like pain, that the reason you have pain is that you’re sensitive.
If you weren’t sensitive, as you put it, you’d be so far beyond that you would not feel any shame. As the verse states: more knowledge, more pain. You’re aware of your own situation, and that should be seen as a virtue: “Hey, I’m aware of that. Isn’t that a sign of life?”
It’s like a stroke victim who couldn’t feel pain in her nerves, and when she finally feels pain, shouldn’t complain, but should say, “Hey, you know, this is sign of life, maybe now I can work on it.”
And the shame should be a catalyst to bring more dignity in and more willpower to say, “I don’t want to be this way.” If the shame is converted into that, it becomes a very valuable tool. What makes shame terrible is when it becomes something you want to hide. You want to run away. And it again feeds into the self-destructiveness.
But if the shame is turned into, “Yes, I’m ashamed. I don’t want to be this way,” or “I need medical intervention,” then you may begin to act on it. Of course, you have many people who have grandiose thoughts that they may not need any intervention. That is why it is important to have the modesty and recognize that perhaps I need certain medication, or I need to see a psychiatrist or keep in touch with friends—not to suddenly ignore or go into denial over what happened.
Feder: So maybe weakness is a word that should never be used in this context, right? It’s almost like a pejorative, like cowardice, weakness, any word like that.
Jacobson: Right. It’s hard to tell a person what they should or shouldn’t feel. But when you arm yourself with the information beforehand, it’s like a cognitive life raft, that when the time comes, you can almost reach into your “cupboard,” into your resources, and you have that memory etched.
Feder: So you’re prescribing preventative medicine…
Jacobson: There’s no question about that. Whether it will always work there are no guarantees. There are things that are more powerful, and I don’t even want to venture into the area of why G-d allows a person to fall into a place like that. I mean, I refer to metaphors or parallels to the cosmic picture, but it still doesn’t justify why a person or their families have to experience anything like that. Nevertheless, I definitely think that every challenge can be dealt with, even if we don’t understand the reasons for it. And it’s critical that families, parents, siblings, and those around do not run away from it, because that adds to the shame, like if they don’t even want to see the person, or talk about it, like it never happened.
Feder: I think sometimes running away from the problem can also be taking somebody (and this is the popular trend these days) to a doctor who gives you this, that, and the other pill, talks to you for five minutes and says, “Take this for a while and you’re fixed.”
To me, that’s also running away from it. That may be controversial, but that’s the way I see it.
Jacobson: It has to be seen ultimately from a psychological perspective, that any type of depression, and I again qualify that I’m not talking about the clinical situation where you need intervention, but the psychological perspective where you can address it. Sadness and depression have to be seen not as an end in itself.
If a person feels inadequate, or they feel that they can achieve much more, or they feel a very deep anxiety and sadness, that has to be converted into a sensitivity for growth. For example, tears should be seeds for growth, not an end in themselves.
And it’s the same thing here. There’s an expression in the Bible that says that there’s profit in anxiety, or there’s profit in sadness. So in the Tanya, a classic book of Jewish thought, the author explains that that doesn’t mean that sadness has a virtue, it just means that sadness can lead to a virtue.
On its own, it doesn’t lead to any profit, so to speak, but it can lead to something, like leading you to the joy that follows, like coming out from the darkness into the light. And ultimately it’s all about the celebration of human dignity that you matter, that you’re inherently valuable. Holding onto that for dear life is the single most powerful message that parents can give children. As I mentioned earlier regarding the autistic children that we’ve heard stories about, or others, where a deep sense of dignity was transmitted continuously, and unconditionally, and not fabricated — this does something to the spirit. The spirit responds to it.
Feder: Okay. We have a caller. We have Baruch from New York.
Caller: The rabbi mentioned before that the Talmud says that if a person has a worry, he should talk about it with other people. What I have a problem with is that nowadays, instead of the clergy and people in general, people should be promoting this idea that it’s a mitzvah if a person has a problem to lend an ear to a friend, to listen. It shouldn’t be that it’s only when people feel they have difficulties and are under stress that they have to go to a so-called professional. There should be this encouragement that part of being a friend is to listen. A friend sometimes can do a better job than a so-called professional who sometimes has a conflict that because for money, they might want to encourage a patient to come back 20 times because they’re getting paid by the hour…
Jacobson: The point is very well taken. A true friend can in some ways be much greater than a professional. I don’t preclude a professional, because sometimes you need someone who has that training, but lending an ear or communicating … the Talmud does not call a therapist, it just says to communicate to someone. And that someone would optimally be a friend or someone that you can really trust.
Feder: Well, as always, it’s sad for me to come to the end of these programs because…
Jacobson: Don’t get depressed…
Feder: I’m not going to get depressed, I’m going to handle it, because I have you to talk to!
This program is brought to us by “you,” the listeners, and our underwriter tonight, the people who brought this program to you are Ted and Lynn Doll, in honor of Ted’s mother Loretta’s 80th birthday, and we thank you very much, Ted and Lynn.
Jacobson: And may she have health and many healthy years.
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We have a couple of minutes left. It’s a sad, serious thing that’s going on out there, and it’s something that affects almost everybody that’s listening, I’m sure.
Now let’s say you’re alone in the world and you don’t have someone to reach out to, is there some sort of advice or some sort of a blessing or something you can say to people who are trying to carry on on their own, in a hard way in a hard world.
Jacobson: Well, it’s critical not to feel alone. It’s critical to find that friend or someone. I don’t think it’s wise for anyone to say, “I’m alone and that’s it.” I don’t think that’s good preventive medicine at all.
But I do want to respond to what you’re saying, and to the caller early on, which is, what practically can be done.
I’ve discussed some preventive medicine in this show so far, but actually, when you are dealing with people in that situation (we’re not talking about clinical and that which requires medication, hospitalization or professional help, or other interventions), what can be done is to show true support and a true vote of confidence in the person. To be a true friend.
Even a therapist, even people who are professionals, that’s what they need to do. And that personal touch where you project to others that you matter, that you are valuable, that you have something to contribute.
If someone comes to you, I’m talking about Pinchas, the first caller who asked what happens if someone comes to you and it’s a situation where you still can do something about it, try to get them involved in something productive. Find out what they’re talented in, if it’s music, or writing, or creative, let them get involved in volunteer work, a hobby, but some type of commitment where there’s accountability where they know they have to rise to the occasion, because that forces them out of their own little shell, and forces them to rise and say, “See, I’ve accomplished something.”
Success breeds success. Failure breeds failure. And if a person locks himself up into a shell, the worse thing that can happen is that they continue to travel inward, deeper and deeper into their shell. It’s critical to pull them out. And not by force, but to encourage them with enthusiasm in some type of project. Anything that can help build self-esteem because they will need it to fight.
It, in itself, may not be enough, but it clearly helps deal with the issues.
Feder: Thank you very much for your advice and for your words. Stay tuned next week at 6:00 when we talk about hate crimes and anti-Semitism.