Please, I long for your trust. I’m a rabbi, and I understand if some of you suspect me of partiality and partisanism. There is some truth to it. I’m a Jew hunted by images of Israeli dismembered babies, annihilated families, and the horrified hostages’ faces dragged from their homes into darkness. My fortune as a Jew lies in our distant geographies, but our souls are bound. I’m also heartbroken by the loss of innocent lives on all sides by fundamentalism and terror enveloping us in pain and anguish. Yet, I’m coming to you as a “bipolar rabbi,” wearing my illness first. In the last week, uncertainty, chaos, and fear have crawled into my mind, threatening my balance. I’m scared.
Something Wonderful: Wisdom
And then, I realized something wonderful. Though I’m more fragile than others, I may be wiser. Like you, I’ve ridden the tides of brokenness, despair, anxiety, and panic toward the shore. Tenacious mental illness warriors, we can help guide our families, friends, and neighbors through the valley of despair. But first, we need to shift our minds from illness to wisdom. We must internalize that the world gravely needs the lessons of our life experiences. The corroding feeling of our mental illness must find purpose in giving strength to those less skillful at fear and despair.
I have read almost 30 autobiographies of people with mental illness in the last six months. That’s part of my project of systematizing the wisdom of our experience. I have collected hundreds of index cards on “darkness,” “acceptance,” “shame,” “empathy,” “medication,” and “silence.” I’m amazed by our collective wisdom. You may not have written a book, but share the same experiences. Your life is your work. I invite you to draw your unique empathy, understanding, perspective, support, and guidance from your life journey and give it as a gift to those in need.
Drawing from the symphony of experiences I have read in the autobiographies and my own life, I will write a weekly blog in the upcoming months. My goal is to inspire you to articulate your wisdom and share it. You may apply some of this wisdom to your journey during these difficult times.
Life’s Anchor: Ritual
I discovered that one of the central strategies to manage life’s chaos in these autobiographies is ritual.
Ritual is the original defense against chaos. In chapter one of Genesis, God controls chaos by segmenting it into days. God compartmentalizes chaos. The chapter reads like a mantra. It is repetitious and mechanistic. It is not about “the order of creation” but the “creation of order.” God overcomes chaos by creating the first ritual ever.
In her mega best-seller The Center Cannot Hold, Ellen Saks shares her struggle with schizophrenia. Faced with the difficult transition back home after college, she laments:
“The Vanderbilt libraries, the Campus Grill, the buildings and sidewalks and trees, the places I’d walked each day, the friends, the schedule that I prescribed almost every minute of the day, gave precise order and manageability to my life.” (50).
Principle One: With more ritual, more structure, and less chaos
Moreover, the chaos triggered by the lack of structures opened Ellen to an internal hole filled with scary thoughts:
“The fantasies had come to fill the void, and I could not shut them off” (51).
Principle two: With more ritual, less internal void for negative thoughts
Rituals can be simple. Sally Brampton, who suffered from depression, tells us in her Shoot the Dam Dog:
“I wake up early and sit in bed with a cup of tea and think. It is not about anything in particular, it is my way of untangling the chaos in my head and establishing a sense of order for the day ahead. I do this every day for half an hour and then meditate for twenty minutes. It is a routine” (4)
Rituals can even fit in a bathtub. In her Undercurrent: A Life Beneath the Currents, Martha Manning tells us about her fear of hospitalization,
“Having been told that there is a bathtub in the unit, I’m reassured that at least one nightly ritual can be continued.” (117)
Rituals, thus, are found and sanctify the ordinary. They are low-hanging fruit of existence.
Principle three: Rituals give meaning to the low-hanging fruit of ordinary life
Fragmentation is a painful condition of the postmodern Self. Mental illness exacerbates that feeling to the maximum. We feel our minds pulling in opposite directions. Our moods become cyclones. In her The Collected Schizophrenias, Esme Weijun Wang shares,
“In the past psychotic episodes, my response has been to desperately assemble ritual or structures that will somehow word off the anxiety of a psychotic fracture…to assemble the parts of my mind, which has to become apart into cohesion.” (147)
Principle four: Through structure and order, rituals integrate our fragmented minds.
Esme underlines another power of ritual:
“To say this prayer-burn this candle, perform this ritual-create this salt or honey jar- is to have something to do when it seems that nothing can be done.” (201)
Principle four: Ritual moves us from paralysis into action
Unfortunately, the word “ritual” is loaded with negativity. It sounds too religious. I like the alternative wording suggested by Virginia Hefferman in her essay Delicious Placebo, found in Nell Casy’s collection on depression, Unholy Ghost. She calls her private rituals “pillars.” They were
“What I would systematically commit myself to, my good clean activities; I hope that between now and the indefinite crisis I lately foresaw, they could keep me from sobbing in the park bench or shouting, caw, caw! Or worse.” (16).
David Karp shares similar sentiments about the grounding power of ritual in his essay “And Unwelcome Carrier” (Also in Casy’s collection):
I need rituals to prevent unnecessarily rocking my already shaky emotional boat.” (148)
Principle five: Rituals are grounding and prevent crisis
Wisdom for Uncertain Times
What have we learned, and what can we teach? What is our mental illness wisdom?
If you check social media every two seconds, you will “deritualize” your life, falling into a sequel of disruptions. Social media information accumulates; it never integrates. It is not just the harmful and impressionable content you may read—the constant voyeurism deforms your life. Yes, in this constantly accelerating and unpredictable world, we must seek information. Then, set two or three times daily to check the news; ritualize and thus control your curiosity. If something terrible happens, you will know. Find a balance between the need to be informed and the magnetic lure of negative disruption. We, who struggle with mental illness, advise you to keep your life structures to prevent anxiety. Go to the gym as usual. Do your cross puzzles. Cook that wonderful meal.
The more you disrupt your routine, the more space for negativity you allow. Bless the ordinary in your life. Paradoxically, besides increasing acts of goodness and compassion, extraordinary times require ordinary behaviors. I go to the gym daily at 6:00 PM and take my medication religiously at 8:30 PM. Those expectations and plans are the Genesis chapter one of my life. Sit at the end of the day and plan the next one. If you decide to become a social media activist, do it knowing the risks and costs.
This is our wisdom. Go and heal the world.