Taking Care of Ourselves as Shluchim
By Bronya Shafer
As a Shliach or Shlucha, you’ve dedicated your life to the spiritual health of your fellow Jew. It’s important therefore, to recognize that spiritual well-being must also be firmly grounded in wholesomeness, in emotional and mental harmony.
This is not to say, of course, that only those with no emotional or mental distress can be Torah observant. It is meant to underscore that we must stay aware of not mistaking emotional distress for religiosity.
As Shluchim, this awareness is essential as your mekurovim get involved in mitzvah observance. However, it is perhaps even more important for yourself.
Far too many Shluchim tell me that they are suffering mentally or emotionally. Compounding the distress is the feeling of isolation. Often the Shliach thinks that no one else feels this way, or suffers this way. They think that every other Shliach or Shlucha is even-keeled, fully functional, and has it all together. How difficult is the burden to bear when we feel the need to bear it alone!
“Everyone around me is functioning and managing” says one Shlucha. “I’m the only one who can’t seem to get it together. I feel like the world is crashing down around me as I try to pay the bills. Am I the only one who bursts into tears over the burnt cholent? Many mornings, I just want to stay in bed. What kind of Shlucha am I?”
The human condition is such that we seek reprieve from our pain. I’ve heard the anguish as a Shliach/Shlucha tells me, “I find myself saying L’chaim too often,” or, “I think I’m addicted to my phone,” and the self-loathing in the voice of some while talking about other addictions.
There are also food addictions, exercise addictions, and even learning addictions, all in search of relief. Anything that interferes with real life, no matter how benign, is by definition an addiction. It’s not always the ‘big bad stuff.’ Eventually it all builds up and does real damage.
We all need to reinforce the message to ourselves that these experiences are a part of the human condition. It’s really no different than saying, “my back hurts.” Instead of physical pain it’s emotional or mental pain. It’s very important to recognize these conditions as an illness, and not as a character flaw. Consequently, working on ourselves is not good enough – that’s what we do for a character trait. When we suffer from an illness, we seek out medical practitioners. Mental illness is no different. Saying or thinking “I’m the only one suffering like this” is simply not true. These experiences are all a part of the human condition.
What we can do to help our loved ones or ourselves?
It starts with recognition. We need to make sure to educate and create awareness so we recognize when something or someone is not ok. And when something is extreme. For example, parents will say, “It’s not just that my daughter is determined to be an excellent student. She also gets a little too upset when she doesn’t get a good grade.”
Or “It’s not just that my son is a top Chassidishe bachur. He’s learning twenty hours a day, he’s going overboard.”
Years of suffering could be alleviated if we are prepared to have the recognition as parents, mechanchim and mashpiim that this fixation isn’t healthy and may need to be addressed professionally. This comes with awareness, education and discussion.
- Get Help
Share with your loved ones. Create a support system. We need to look at these conditions like we would a toothache. What’s the cause and what can we do to alleviate the pain?
There are professionals who are expertly trained in the area you are struggling with. Let those you trust into your life – let them help you find the help you need. It’s too much to carry by yourself.
- “Aseh Lecha Rav” Choose a Mashpia – a Mentor
There are many junctures in our lives when we need objectivity and clarity in order to see our strengths and weaknesses for what they are. Dating, child rearing and relationship struggles are just a few of the stages in our lives when an unbiased view can serve as a potential lifesaver, and where we can be our own worst enemy. That is why our sages have advised and the Rebbe instructed each of us to “Appoint a mentor for yourself!” Find yourself someone who can be your guide, your objective compass.
Rabbi Soloveitchik also writes that “just speaking of something troubling, already alleviates it.” I once heard a true story about a psychologist who was called to help the medical personnel on a pediatric oncology ward. There was one little girl who suffered terribly and cried and cried. The staff couldn’t take the crying and they decided to hook the child up to a biofeedback monitor where they found that while she was crying, it was soothing to her. Even though it ripped out the hearts of the staff, it was comforting to the child.
When you are expressing pain or anguish, you are in a better place than when you hold it in.