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Schizophrenia and the Narrow Bridge, thoughts for Parshas Shlach Lecha

Maybe you think this is the age of “let it all hang out,” when Google rules, your friends post their snacks on Facebook, and there are no secrets left in the world.

But believe me, there are still plenty of secrets. And this bold new world may have more in common with the world of the Torah than we’d like to believe, as this week’s parsha shows us.

That’s because what we share on Facebook and other social media is actually a redacted version of our true selves. We tend to forget this, and then we envy other people’s lives. If you’ve ever looked at a friend’s Facebook status and wished that was your life, you know what I’m talking about.

  • · They’re having babies (and at my age, their kids are having babies, too!)… and I’m not.
  • · Their kids – my kids’ age! – are getting married… and mine aren’t.
  • · They’re getting promoted at work… and I’m still sitting here doing the same old thing.
  • · Their children are smart, talented, celebrated… when mine kind of aren’t.
  • · They’re celebrating anniversaries… when my husband and I barely talk to each other.
  • · They’re sharing brilliant ideas about the world… when most days, I have all the insight of a potato.
  • · They’re reaching their fitness goals… while I sometimes can’t even get out of bed.
  • · They post inspiring quotes full of faith… when I sometimes doubt way too much.

I once heard a rav say that that whole thing about “lo sachmod” (not coveting) isn’t just about houses or wives or donkeys.  It’s about the package.

He said that if we could see someone’s whole package – the deal they’ve been handed in life; their upbringing, their family, their career; their health – we would probably not be so eager to trade, no matter what they post about themselves on Facebook.

By the way, I don’t mean we should post more negativity on Facebook! Please don’t!!!

You can see the real effect of negativity from this week’s parsha.  The negative reviews of ten meraglim outweighed the good intentions and happy stick-to-it-iveness of two of the holiest people who have ever lived, Yehoshua bin Nun and Kaleiv ben Yefuneh.

Yup, negativity drags us down. I wouldn’t want my whole newsfeed to fill up with yours, my, or anybody else’s kvetches.  But we have to remember that what people post tends to skew positive. Waaaaay positive:

  • · POSITIVE:  Lose weight? Yayayayay! Like, share, love!
  • · NEGATIVE:  Gain weight? Maybe you'll mention it next week, when it’s under control.
  • · POSITIVE:  Prepare a healthy organic meal from scratch?  Hurrah!  Share, share, share!
  • · NEGATIVE:  Pour them a bowl of cereal and tell them if they don’t like it you’ll dump it on their heads?  Yeah, not so much sharing going on.
  • · POSITIVE:  Travelling somewhere beautiful?  Here’s a picture you can drool over!
  • · NEGATIVE:  Sit around the living room sulking?  Well, maybe I’ll find a cartoon to share instead.

If they’d had Facebook in the time of the meraglim, the newsfeed of bnei Yisrael would have looked a little like this:

  • · Get a load of these FRUIT!!! (selfie!)

And things might have gone a little differently for all of us in the desert.

This tendency to keep our posts positive can also lead us into deep, deep covetousness when we forget that everybody else is carefully hiding the things they don’t want us to see.

What are you hiding?  What little secrets have you NOT posted on Facebook lately?

Here are a few of mine:

  • · A child I love is on a strange and uncertain path that seems to lead straight away from Torah.  He’s having the time of his life; but I’m scared he won’t be happy (or am I scared he’ll be too happy?).
  • · I have written so many books – poured my heart into them, really – why don’t more people buy them?  I’m scared I’ve wasted so much time for nothing.
  • · One of my helpful children found my first gray hair recently.  I’m not ready to be old, but my body feels that way already sometimes.

Reading through all of these, I can’t help noticing that they’re mainly all about “I’m scared.” What you’re hiding – and I am, too – is fear.

“I’m scared” is one of the things that this parsha is all about.  When the meraglim saw the giants in eretz Canaan, they didn’t say, “whoah, those are some big giants.”  They said, “נְּהִי בְעֵינֵינוּ כַּחֲגָבִים” (in our eyes, we seemed like grasshoppers).

Maybe they’d gotten a glimpse of the giants’ Facebook pages:  big fruit, big families, big success in this big land.  Fear of their own insufficiency made them feel tiny in comparison.

Yehoshua and Kaleiv knew this right away.  They said, “Oh, pshaw, giants?  Don’t be scared of them.”  They got pelted with stones for saying so.

But the other meraglim didn’t try to see the whole package.  According to a midrash, Hashem caused many giants to die before the meraglim’s visit to distract the giants with funerals so the meraglim would be safe. Not that the giants would ever post that on Facebook. 

I’m not telling you to be negative on social media.  I’m suggesting that you try to see the whole picture.  To know that everybody has their package.  That many of us are scared, too. 

To understand that the giants aren’t so big… and you’re no grasshopper yourself.

Last week, the tenth of Sivan, was the second yahrzeit of my brother, Elimelech ben Zelda Devora, who died of schizophrenia.

It often raises eyebrows when I say that, but I’ll admit: I enjoy saying it because it challenges people’s expectations.

Schizophrenia is as much a killer as cancer is. Yes, suicide kills about 13% of people with the disease, but schizophrenics also die much more, and much younger, of many other “natural causes.” Researchers are still trying to find out why, but the fact is, when a disease can kill you in all these different ways, it’s not just “all in your head.”

Judaism teaches four basic lessons about mental illness. If you’ve read my book, they’re in there in a longer form. (This formulation borrowed from this blog post.)

  1. 1. It has always been with us, and can affect anyone, even great people like Shaul and David HaMelech.
  2. 2. Mental illness is a serious issue that affects halacha and is discussed at length in the Gemara in terms of its repercussions on our role in Jewish life, including what to do when a person is temporarily mentally ill and rejoins society.
  3. 3. Mental illness… is an illness. Traditional tefillot for healing acknowledge this when they ask for “refuat hanefesh, v’refuat haguf”.
  4. 4. All human beings are created betzelem elokim and deserve to be treated with respect.

Because mental illnesses were then and often are still incurable, gedolim like the Rambam spent a lot of time explaining how to find a “middle path,” a workable path to stable mental health. In fact, that’s what a lot of Pirkei Avos is about – finding “the right path” or “the good path” that a person should walk on. It’s often interpreted as finding a balance of Torah and derech eretz, the tug-of-war between ruchnius and gashmius, living Hashem’s will while living in this world. But it’s also the tug-of-war between sanity and extremism of every kind. Even extremes of holiness are frowned on by people like the Rambam, who knew that it’s possible to have even too much of a good thing.

There is actually a psychological condition called scrupulosity – the intersection of religion and mental illness. It exists, or it can, in any religion. And it’s not caused by the religion, but rather by OCD which manifests itself in religious ways. As one expert wrote, “Religion does not cause scrupulosity any more than teaching someone French history causes him to believe he is Napoleon.” (Ciarrochi)

Since these types of conditions have always been recognized, Pirkei Avos and other types of wisdom and proverbs in our tradition attempt to guide us onto a safe, stable path – a middle path across the narrow bridge.

Like in this week’s reading, in Pirkei Avos 2:1, where Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nassi says, “Think about three things and you won’t fall into the grip of sin: Know what is above you: a seeing eye and a hearing ear, and that all your deeds are recorded in The Book.”

Know what that sounds like to me, as the sister of a person with a mental illness? It sounds like the rantings of a paranoid schizophrenic person. Eli sometimes believed that radios and corn were becoming scarce, so he needed to hoard them. He’d spend his last five bucks on cheap bracelets so he’d have something to hold onto when the economy tanked. And like many paranoid people, he always believed that he was being watched.

For the last few years of his life, it was far more relaxing when he was in the hospital. We knew he was safe, being fed and cared for. One time, my mother went away knowing he was in the hospital, and he escaped. Probably, he just walked out the door, slipping out of the locked unit when a visitor was leaving.

He phoned me, and I said I’d meet up with him – and then called the police. It was this whole complicated sting operation downtown, where the police would circle the block until Eli turned up and I’d nod to them in a special way to be sure it was him (so they didn’t pick up just anybody!).

Everything went down exactly as it was supposed to. When Eli showed up, we chatted for a while, the cop car came back, I nodded, and they pulled over, got out and came over to speak with him. He sighed and got into their car with good grace. “They found me,” he said with resignation. I remember the resignation, because I saw scenarios like this play out more than once, watching my little brother taken away by gentle and well-trained police officers who, baruch Hashem, had been trained to recognize the difference between a criminal and a sick person.

I felt guilty, then. Not because he blamed me, but because he didn’t. He didn’t blame me because in his world, in his mind, they were ALWAYS watching him; they always knew where he was and could find him and take him away at any time.

Rabbi Shimshon Rephael Hirsch says that what this Mishna in Pirkei Avos means is that we should never forget “that the consequences and repercussions of everything you do reach far beyond the fleeting time span in which your act occurred.” I’m sure Eli would have agreed, though his specific beliefs may have seemed ludicrous (or nonsensical) to most of us.

Autism, they say, is one end of a spectrum that we’re all walking on. And I think mental illness is as well. Know you’re being watched, says Judaism. Know you’re accountable. Know there is a Book and we’re all being written up in it at all times. In these things, Eli was not wrong. Indeed, he was probably more right about this than most other people I know.

There was an international study done of schizophrenics in the 1960s. I want to say that part again – it was the 1960s. There was no internet; there were barely phones. Yet a whole bunch of countries around the world decided it was worth collaborating on a massive research study on outcomes of schizophrenia. How? I have no idea. But what they came up with was extraordinary: schizophrenics did better in third-world countries than in first-world countries. They ended up leading happier, more productive lives in what were considered “backwards, primitive” places like Kenya and Sri Lanka.

Why? There was and has been since much speculation about why, but one answer is that in those cultures, mental illness is no big deal. The person is not boxed up, isolated neatly away from the community. They’re not hidden out of sight; they are acknowledged, recognized and supported. I don’t mean to idealize a lack of medical care; in some cases, they may suffer miserably when effective treatments might be available elsewhere. But by and large, the “treatment” our culture has offered mental illness does not always acknowledge these people’s humanity. In some cases, as this study showed, they’d be far better off without it.

Mental illness is one of our fears, as a culture. We don’t understand it, can’t cure it or even, in many cases, treat it properly. Patch Adams, who was a real person and not just Robin Williams in a clown costume, once said, “You treat a disease, you win, you lose. You treat a person, I guarantee you’ll win, no matter what the outcome.” This is what Judaism asks us to do. Acknowledge each person’s tzelem elokim; acknowledge that we’re all on this narrow bridge together and acknowledge that sometimes… sometimes, we fail. Sometimes, the fear is just too great, reaching up over the sides to swallow us into the abyss.

Tzaddik, rasha or beinoni; that watchful eye can be terrifying, and we don’t always know who fear, depression, and paranoia will take next. The meraglim, tzadikim one and all, were swallowed up by that fear and died in the desert. It took my brother. Heck, it took Robin Williams, despite all the joy and hope he gave to millions of people.

So if that’s the case, we’ve got to ask the darkest question of all: Why even bother getting up in the morning?

Manis Friedman tells us it’s because we have a job to do, though it’s not the job most of us think it is. He says that when you…

“come to [a] person who is basically motivated by self-preservation and you say to him, "you know something? God runs the world. Everything that happens, happens by divine plan."”

He says, "you've got to be kidding. You mean, I don't have to get up in the morning? You mean I don't have to fight anymore, I don't have to be so alert?"

Well, I didn't quite say you don't have to get up in the morning.

"But if God runs the world, then I don't have to."

Well, that would be true if all along you were getting up in the morning in order to run the world.

If you got up every morning because you thought you had to run the world, then guess what? You don't have to get up anymore. God is now running the world. You don't have to do it. You can roll over and go back to sleep.

But on the other hand, if all along you were getting up not because you had to survive; you were getting up because you wanted to serve, you didn't see the world as being your enemy, it wasn't you against the world, it wasn't you fighting to survive, you were getting up because there's a lot of good to be done, and here's an opportunity to do it, so you get out of bed and go to it.”

When Pirkei Avos says there’s a “seeing eye and a hearing ear” – that’s not a negative thing. Parents watch their children carefully in the pool because their children are precious and pools are dangerous. That’s what Hashem is doing. He is watching us carefully not to dish out punishments but because He wants us to cheer us on as we get out of bed and carry His will into the world.

This week’s Perek of Pirkei Avos ends with one of my favourite Mishnayos: “Lo alecha hamelacha ligmor.” It is not your job to do the entire task – but you can’t desist from it, either.

Keep walking that narrow bridge; don’t look down. Keep getting out of bed in the morning, not because the weight of the world is on your shoulders, but davka because it isn’t. The bridge is narrow; the road is dark and hopefully very long. Knowing you were put here to share kindness and positivity and love is the only way across and the only path across. May the pure neshama of Elimelech ben Zelda Devora, free from fear after so many years, now serve as a beacon, a guiding light that shines the way for the rest of us.

Good Shabbos, Shabbat Shalom.

[adapted and expanded from similar thoughts shared last year at this time…]

Tzivia / צִיבְיָה


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