“So, what do you do?”
“I’m a doctor. I’m a lawyer. I’m a writer.”
We are all familiar with such exchanges as they have become commonplace in our daily interactions. It has come to the point that most of us don’t even pause to question the peculiarity of the responses; After all, the question was directed at what you do, not at what you are. Why then, do so many of us begin our answers with “I am …”? Is it so much easier to say “I’m a lawyer” than to say “I practice law”? Or have we come to actually associate what we do with who we are?
Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski MD, noted psychiatrist with over sixty years of experience, strongly advises against such self identification. In a number of his books, the good doctor makes the point that if people identify who they are with what they do, they run the risk of eventually experiencing an identity crisis. He therefore cautions against identifying with anything that could theoretically be taken away.
For example, after retirement, does one intrinsically become a different person? If the government decides to update the certification requirements for a particular profession thus making many people unable to practice in the field to which they have grown accustomed, have they, in effect, tampered with who those people are as people?
Those who work in hospice care and in palliative psychiatry are keenly aware of the unique depression experienced by those who spend all of their waking hours yearning for the past. Although I am passionate about history and love to hear from elders about the previous generations, there is something sad about people who speak almost exclusively about times gone by. For some, it can appear as if they are wholly unaware of the present in which they live.
By contrast, identifying with our intrinsic qualities is a much safer bet. A person’s ability to be a caring and compassionate individual is something that they will, in all probability, be able to continue to identify with until the day that they die. As religious people, we can identify as believers of God and affirm that belief under any circumstance.
The story is told of Rabbi Yechezkel Abramsky, who was imprisoned in a Siberian gulag on trumped up charges. Away from his students, without any holy books or even his phylacteries, Rabbi Abramsky was ever cognizant of his depressing surroundings. One morning upon awaking, he began to recite the Modeh Ani prayer, where we thank God for returning our souls to us each day. As he began the prayer, he started to think “Modeh ani..? Am I really thankful for my soul being returned to me this morning? Perhaps it would have been better for God to have kept my soul with Him instead of subjecting it to exist further in this terrible place?” Whereupon he finished the prayer which ends with the words rabbah emunasecha (abundant is Your faithfulness). Interpreting these words homiletically, Rabbi Abramsky realized that irregardless of his circumstances, the Mitzvah of Emunah– the positive commandment to believe in God, was still well within his grasp. “Rabbah emunasecha!”, he exclaimed, “how great is your Emunah (faith) that I can carry it wherever I go!”
In fact, from a religious perspective, our accomplishments in the physical world are not considered our own at all. Although we are enjoined to engage in a certain amount of personal effort towards material accomplishments (hishtadlus), the success of our efforts is divinely determined. The story is told about a student of Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (known colloquially by the name of his magnum opus the Beis HaLevi) who came to visit his teacher after a number of years. After sitting down together, the Beis HaLevi inquired of his student “vos machts du (the Yiddish equivalent of “how are you?” literally translated as “what are you doing?”)? The student replied that thank god, his wife and children were well and his business was turning a profit. After the conversation had progressed somewhat, the Beis HaLevi turned to his student and again inquired “vos machts du?” Assuming that his teacher hadn’t heard his first response, the student repeated that thank God, his wife and children were well and his business was turning a profit. When a few minutes later the Beis HaLevi again posed the same inquiry, the student realized that his teacher was trying to tell him something. Noticing as much, the Beis HaLevi explained; the Gemara in tractate Brachos states, “Hakol b’yidei shomayim chutz m’yiraas shomayim (all is in the hands of heaven except for fear of heaven).” The health and happiness of your family and the profitability of your business are ultimately out of your control. The one area where you have, so to speak, full reign, is your choice to engage in spiritual matters. If I asked you vos machts DU, I obviously meant to inquire how you are faring spiritually.
In these trying times, many have had their lives turned upside down. Some have lost their livelihoods, others their health, and almost everyone has lost their ability to contribute to society in the way that they are used to. Confined to our homes and restricted in numerous ways, we are at risk for developing a crisis of meaning and identity. It is of utmost importance for us to remember that although the pandemic may have altered many of the things that we do, it need not affect who we are.
Dr. Viktor Frankl, the Viennese psychiatrist who developed meaning-centered therapy (otherwise known as Logotheray) used to say, that it is incumbent upon every individual to ask themselves what it is that life is asking of them at any given time. While we stuck in our homes and unable to go about business as usual, choosing to respond to one’s spouse or child calmly and with compassion instead of lashing out in frustration is quite possible the calling of the day. Likewise, remembering that when and how this virus will be eradicated is ultimately up to God is a fulfillment of a positive commandment; something that can never be taken away from us.