I told someone else – I’m sorry.
My husband Matt offered this apology as I sighed and shook my head.
What do you want from me? She asked how you are.
That’s not really a question, Matt. It’s a greeting. She was just saying hello.
So what should I say? Everything’s great?
But it’s not. We’re scared, and sad.
Yeah, I know.
But no one else actually wants to hear that.
My husband and I often have conversations like this. And while I stand by the idea that my perspective is correct, I can’t help but think our world might be better if HIS was.
How many of us walk through life putting our best face forward to the world, while inside dealing with sickness, anger or pain? When someone asks how you are, how many answer fully and honestly?
A few days before Rosh Hashanah, I was told by a new young doctor that I have a mass in my brain. Last week, as I prayed, preached and led our community, this knowledge was constantly weighing on me.
I share this with you now, having learned from experts that everything is okay and I will be completely fine. Still, I’m left wondering what it would have been like for me to share this information last week while it was making my heart heavy.
That’s not really what we do, though.
For whatever reason, we are trained and programmed to act like everything is okay, even if on the inside, things are not. Every day we come into contact with dozens of people, either virtually or in person, yet most of them have no idea what’s happening in our lives. Even worse—they assume, based on the happy Facebook posts, that everything is wonderful. Meanwhile, many of us are left feeling very alone with our worry or pain.
In an article from Psychology Central, Kelsey Sunstrum writes,
One factor for the high rates of depression seen in social media-friendly people is the inconsistency they observe between their ideal cyber self and their true self-image. The desire to be seen positively has taught us to silence our troubles and we now have no idea how to express inner turmoil without feeling like we’re accepting social defeat. For obvious reasons, people do not advertise their negative traits on their social profiles, nor do they post unflattering pictures. Because of this strict control of the way we are viewed, we are often fooled into believing other people’s lives are much better than our own.
While social media offers a glimpse into other people’s reality, it’s not their whole reality. It’s the carefully cultivated exhibit of their lives they are willing to put on display. They are choosing to highlight the moments that most align with their best, idealized, version of self.
There is nothing wrong with knowing and sharing what your ideal self may be, especially if you take steps to align your real self with the ideal you put forth. However, the lack of complete realism, coupled with the fact that people are constantly comparing themselves with others, leads to a reality in which many people are left believing they are somehow less happy, less successful or less popular than their peers. This is the reason one study found that,
The longer college students spent on Facebook, the worse they felt about their own lives.
Living an authentic life can be difficult. Brene Brown teaches that authenticity is a daily practice that requires “cultivating the courage to be emotionally honest.”
Purposefully or not, most of us are not offering 100% authenticity, especially not online. Therefore, when we compare our own lives to other people’s, we are holding side-by-side the totality of our daily life and the top 5% of someone else’s. Of course, this seems unbalanced! It is. Someone recently shared a quote with me, saying,
Don’t compare your behind the scenes to someone else’s highlight reel.
But that is exactly what most of us are doing!
We need to remember: every day of every life is filled with ups and downs, with good and bad. Even if you don’t see it, we are all experiencing it.
Sadly, a large number of us are simply suffering silently. This is why “smiling depression” seems to be spreading. The term “smiling depression” might seem like an oxymoron, but it’s a real struggle for many who use smiles and humor as an attempt to cover up internal struggles. To some extent, the idea of pulling ourselves together and putting on a happy face for the world is admirable. It’s a trait I’ve admired in many strong leaders. Still, there needs to be a limit, because what I admire more is a genuineness and vulnerability that may allow for greater happiness down the road.
An article in Psychology Today explains this trend of the emotional façade by writing,
Another way to think about smiling depression is to see it as wearing a mask. People suffering from smiling depression may offer no hint of their problem to the outside world…. With their mask on, everything looks great, even at times perfect. However, underneath the mask they are suffering from sadness, panic attacks, low self-esteem, insomnia and in some cases, suicidal thoughts.
Given the recent wave of deaths by suicide in our Houston Jewish community, this realization becomes very dangerous.
Sadness, struggles, and depression do not necessarily lead to suicidal thoughts, but a vast number of people who die by suicide do struggle with mental health ailments first. If people felt more comfortable sharing their feelings and struggles, we might have fewer people feeling isolated and turning to suicide. This is the reason we held a community-wide program at Emanu El, entitled Talk Saves Lives. The program served to kick off a yearlong initiative by Jewish Family Services, during which our community is embarking on the task of normalizing mental and emotional struggles. We hope to help people speak openly about what they feel so that they may get the support they need. We feel passionate about this work because we know, in some cases, the ability to speak openly to other people about our feelings can lead to proper help and possibly save a life.
What stops most people now from speaking openly is the negative stigma with struggling. This shouldn’t be the case, though. Judaism has always acknowledged and prayed for healing and wholeness in both body AND mind.
Additionally, Jewish tradition has many examples of beloved Jewish leaders who struggled with mental illness. Whether discussing biblical characters such as King Saul or Naomi, prophets like Jonah or Talmudic figures such as Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Laqish, our traditional accounts bring to life the very real struggles of mental and emotional anguish.
In Tormented Master, a biography of Nachman of Bratzlav, a famous and adored Chasidic rabbi, we read his principle disciple, Rabbi Nathan, discussing Rabbi Nachman and his daily struggle with bipolar disorder. He shared:
No act in the service of God came easily to him; everything came only as a result of great and oft-repeated struggle. He rose and fell thousands and thousands of times.
This emotionally tormented rabbi approached the world authentically and left all of us with a number of beautiful thoughts and teachings on how to seek happiness.
Jewish texts, history and thought openly depict individuals suffering with life’s struggles—so why do we all feel the need to hide them? Our movement teaches,
It is not shameful to see a therapist or a psychiatrist. It is not shameful to take medication for mental illness. One is not ‘weak-minded,’ in fact, just the opposite; it is quite courageous to get help and seek treatment. Seeing signs in yourself or in someone you love and then asking for help—and encouraging others to seek help—may be the most difficult hurdle…. So we pray for the day when we all feel free to speak openly about whatever ails our souls.
And just in case hearing about King Saul and Rabbi Nachman doesn’t suddenly make you feel comfortable opening up about your inner struggles, I also want to point out that a great deal of modern-day stars and public figures have also openly discussed their own struggles with mental health. This list includes Brandon Marshall, Demi Lovato, Kristen Bell, Brooke Shields, Carrie Fisher, Pete Wentz, Jared Padalecki, Kanye West, Anderson Cooper, Darrel Hammond, Prince Harry, Lady Gaga and many more. Also, as a quick aside, it’s okay if you don’t know all those names. They come from different generations and fields. My hope is that everyone in this room now knows at least one star they are familiar with, or possibly even respect, who would stand here beside me and advocate for open dialogue about mental illness.
Whatever your age, whatever your environment—life can be hard. At some point, all of us experience pain, anger, frustration and loss. There are moments that hit us when we feel in our core that life is difficult. There are also those whose pain is biological, and not circumstantial. They may struggle even when surrounded by blessings.
I want you to know—every single one of you—whatever is going on inside; you do not have to hide your inner struggles. Go to your friends, your spouse, your parents, your teachers, your children and tell them what’s going on inside your head and heart. If you still don’t feel like you can share it with anyone else, come to me, please. I’m here for you. There is an old story about a man who
goes up to heaven at the end of his life. He stands before the throne of God… and says, ‘You know, I’m very angry at You! Can’t You see that the world You created is filled with suffering and sadness and pain? Why don’t You do something?’ God looks down at the man, and in a gentle voice says, ‘I did do something. I sent you.’
We are in this world together, and we are meant to be here for one another.
To those who may know someone that is struggling, please approach them and help them find their way to the help they need.
For those who are struggling, please find someone with whom you can take your mask off. Show them what’s truly going on, and let them support you and guide you towards a better tomorrow.