My first sabbatical from my work as a rabbi came eleven years after I arrived at my pulpit. I was exhausted, and I spent much of the first half of my six months trying to regain some equilibrium. I began to refer to it as “emotional rehab.”
In the course of reflecting on the process, I realized that the demands on my emotions had overwhelmed them. I was expected to take care of my congregants, to acknowledge their experiences and to support them in their passages through the reactions they felt. I was allowed to be sad at a death, but not to be dissolved by grief. I could rejoice at a birth, but not be carried away by it. I was expected to be supportive of the bar or bat mitzvah student, but only very carefully critical. As a result, I became adept at tamping down my emotional reactions; it soon became (to mix the metaphor) muscle memory. Eventually, I was fried. My emotions had been cauterized.
What kind of a life is one without feelings? I was starved to experience the range of emotions as I once had. They had to be intense to get past the scars and scabs that had formed. And what emotion has that power? Anger, of course. I became an anger junkie. I looked constantly for opportunities to feel outraged, insulted, unpleasantly shocked or infuriated. It was no way for a rabbi to be.
I recovered pretty well after six months, and I was able to recognize the signs of relapse. I’d like to think I also became more aware of the cauterization of emotions that others were experiencing. Not everyone reacted the same way to the need to resist being swept away and, therefore, suppressing feelings. But when enough people do so it can have a spill-over effect on society as a whole.
That’s why I believe we are living in an age of cauterization.
There is no doubt that we are experiencing change in almost every corner of our lives. The result has nothing to do with the desirability of that change, rather the fact of it. Nothing is reliably the same any more. Technology enhances and intrudes on our daily existence. Sexuality, sexual identity, sexual orientation and same-sex relationships have become variegated notions, a challenge for people who feel uncomfortable with the very word “sex.” Weapons are presumed to be everywhere – the theater, the airport, the school, the church, the neighborhood. Fewer and fewer people affirm what was assumed to be universal – God – and those who continue to believe dismiss beliefs at variance with their own. Even television, which a generation ago called families to the same room at the same time (quality aside), now has splintered those who stream their preferences on multiple screens and devices.
How does a person respond? It is simply not possible to cope with the constant anxieties and confusion that result from constant change. Merely maintaining an equilibrium takes emotional energy that cannot be spent elsewhere. Public figures have famously railed about “political correctness” (which is itself an expired idiom), but they offer no reassurance to those whose nerves are frayed and who fear that they will be without capacity to gain a footing in a shifting landscape.
We are afraid of love. We are afraid of what we hear. And we are afraid to laugh. It seems to many that there is someone waiting to level an accusation of inappropriate, even criminal behavior. Making ourselves vulnerable provides an opening for what we suspect will be a frontal attack. We rehearse new words, new phrases, even new pronouns and cauterize our genuine feelings that need time and space to adjust to the changes that inundate us.
What is left to feel? What emotion has the intensity to get past the scabs and the scars? Anger, of course. We have become anger junkies, gathering by the thousands to cheer insults against others, mouthing personal attacks against former friends and allies, belittling the people who disagree with us rather than engaging the disagreement. Every challenge is deemed bullying. Every cruelty is deemed justified. Every motive is deemed nefarious.
It is no way for a rabbi to be. And it is no way for anyone else to be. And it is especially no way for a nation to be.
Dr. King famously lifted up the beloved community. The phrase has specific meaning, but never mind what it is. Go with the very idea. Every member beloved. The chorus of voices and ideas both harmonious and dissonant. Every encounter, an opportunity to delight. That’s what we need.
There are practices we can all develop that are curative – not just palliative, but curative. If you are deliberate about pursuing three things, you will be happier and therefore less angry.
The first is love. And by love, I also mean sex. Physical intimacy is just as important as platonic friendship, though there is nothing wrong with that either. The touch of another person, tender and sincere, is probably the most effective way to recover a sense of openness to the world. Physical intimacy is not necessarily the same as intercourse or any of the variations of what is euphemistically called penetration. A kiss, a back rub, a caress or an embrace gives each person the reassurance that they are desired and desirable. It is a gift that may be unexpected but is always hoped for.
Of course, love must always be invited, never coerced. And by that, I also mean sex. How ironic that the very same acts that can bring comfort and satisfaction when desired can further fray the nerve endings when imposed.
The second is listening. And by listening, I especially mean listening to music. Yes, you should show an interest in what other people have to say. But if you are hoping to rehabilitate your capacity to feel, there is no more effective place to lose your dullness than in the tension and release that is the essence of musical expression. I have my own preferences, and I suspect you have yours. But you should be open to opportunities you might not initially elect. I am always lifted by “The Blue Danube Waltz.” Lennon and McCartney’s “I Will” is my own favorite Beatle’s tune, and my kids are still embarrassed by my air guitar to their “Birthday.” But nothing opened my heart and my tear ducts like the performance by Yo-Yo Ma’s Goat Rodeo ensemble of an old Irish folksong, “All Through the Night.”
Not every kind of listening works for me. And by listening, I also mean music. Taste is a peculiar thing, very personal. Music can reinforce your need for anger, not only calm it down. Lyrics and volume that give expression to frustration or belligerence can serve as a release of tension or as reinforcement. More irony – not every song soothes.
The third is laughing. And by laughing, I also mean doing so inappropriately (occasionally). We seem to be in a period of time that disparages humor. I can’t imagine a world without laughter; laughter requires funny; funny always comes at the expense of something or someone (even if it is yourself). Laughter is a release, figuratively and literally. Like music, it involves tension and release. Most attempts to explain humor are dreary (and definitely unfunny). My personal favorite is “the sudden realization of the unexpected.” (I know – too Freudian.) The biggest laugh I ever got was in a college class in which my study group presented on “What Makes People Laugh.” We were mildly well received as we presented examples of various theories. I was assigned the conclusion, during which my friend Bob stood silently next to me. As I spoke, I slowly filled a pie pan with shaving cream. The laughter built with anticipation, but when I ended with Bob still silent and my pie pan full, there was a momentary sense of disappointment. Until I smacked him in the face with the pie. He was “injured,” even as a willing participant. He was exploited. Everyone laughed.
Laughing is not always a good thing. And by laughing, I also mean doing so inappropriately. I can’t measure where laughter leaves off and offense begins – it is a moving target. Funny-hilarious to some is funny-cruel to others. If the purpose of funny is to cause harm, the laughter is not palliative, it is anesthetizing, which seems to me to work against the benefit. But I encourage everyone to understanding the difference between stereotyping – not a funny word – and exploiting foibles – a very funny phrase. Yet another irony: if derision makes you happy, you are not really happy.
Love, listen, laugh. They are cures for emotional dullness and for the craving for feelings that makes us seek out anger. As individuals, we need all three. As a beloved community, we need all three. The scars and scabs on our collective receptors for joy and grief, awe and compassion, kindness and resolve can be softened and healed. And so can we.
More than five years ago I decided it was time to retire from being a pulpit rabbi. I was very tired all the time. It was harder and harder for me to give the members of the synagogue the care they deserved. And I no longer had the patience to deal gently with leaders who felt they could define the responsibilities that I had fulfilled as a rabbi, mostly admirably, for more than thirty years.
I spent 35 years in the pulpit and learned a few things about the people and the profession