This season of secular holidays is, for many, a time of sadness, despair, anxiety and depression.
It’s also a time for seeking companionship, when many gather at parties and dinners. But all too often, loneliness in myriad forms haunts us like a ghost in the darkness of night. Mental illness presents special challenges for so many of our family members, friends and those in the greater community.
Mountains of research have provided important clues to the origins of mental illness. We now know that genetics are an integral component of mental health. So, too, our mood and state of balance are impacted by how each of us grew up, our environments and the challenges and obstacles we have confronted.
Judaism provides some insights into dealing with these challenges. Within our soul or neshama lies a spark of divine spirit, a priceless gift from Hashem. This sacred gift is awe-inspiring. Each of us is blessed with the potential to accept life on its own terms, to cope with authentic suffering and, perhaps most wonderful of all, an inner potential and power to heal ourselves. And, in another important sense, to heal others and the world.
Community: One of the most important values of Judaism is the sense of community. The need to gather together and share with others is critical to defeating loneliness and an inner sense of despair, which may plague us during the holidays. Meaningful conversation and listening to others, sprinkled with laughter, may provide a soothing balm to isolation and inner loneliness.
Chesed/loving-kindness: Another way to transcend sadness is by selflessly sharing ourselves with others through volunteer work or visiting the sick and elderly. These activities allow us to perceive the world from the vantage point of others. By helping ourselves and others by performing simple acts of human kindness, we may progress along life’s path a manner that is holy. Hashem is inherently holy.
Exercise: The great sage Maimonides (Rambam), who lived from 1138 to 1204, lives on through his timeless teachings. Maimonides not only was a brilliant scholar of Torah and Judaic thought, but also was a leading physician of his era. Maimonides taught the value of daily exercise for enhancing health. He stated that individuals “should engage one’s body and exert oneself in a sweat-producing task each morning.”
There is genuine wisdom in Maimonides’ teaching. Those who engage in regular physical exercise have likely experienced the sense of contentment and ease that follows. Regular physical activity, including walking, bicycling, swimming and all forms of exercise, is known to benefit mental health.
Support and professional treatment: Just as Hashem commands us to care for our bodies, so too must we care for our spirits. If such feelings persist, we must reach out to our physicians, friends and family members to assist us in obtaining meaningful care. In decades past, there was a horrific stigma associated with seeking counseling or treatment from a psychiatrist or psychologist. Fortunately, contemporary thinking and healthcare now accept that mental health treatment is an essential component of modern medicine.
Doctors now know that many psychological issues are rooted in biological causes. It is no understatement to say that modern medicine works miracles. When we act to care for our own psychological health, or assist family members or friends, we are fulfilling a mitzvah to help ourselves and others in need.
If you, a friend or family member experience despair or loneliness during the holiday season — or at any time — reach out to those among you. Companionship and the blessings of friendships are powerful tools in overcoming despair.
When we take positive actions to improve our own mental health and of others, we our fulfilling the value of chesed. Loving-kindness for ourselves and others is its own reward.
As we approach the secular new year of 2022, let us resolve to care for ourselves and others. Let us nurture those in our communities. May we count our blessings of life and hope and pray for inspired guidance on how to cope with and overcome emotional challenges and illness.
If you or a loved one need help, Jewish Family Service of Dallas (972-437-9950) and Jewish Family Services of Fort Worth and Tarrant County (817-569-0898) can help. Another Jewish resource is the Blue Dove Foundation (https://thebluedovefoundation.org/). Help is also available at the Suicide and Crisis Center of North Texas (214-828-1000).