I was blessed to grow up in the Twin Cities: I was raised in Minneapolis and went to college in St. Paul (even better – I got to go to college with Mother Clare!!). And while I have now lived more than 27 years in Denver (the longest I have ever lived in one place), and I am stunned on a regular basis by the beautiful and, well, majestic mountains, I am most at home around water: lakes and the Mississippi River.
As a high schooler and a college student, I would do that activity which is central to life in Minnesota: I would walk, bike, and finally run around the lakes in Minneapolis and by the river in St. Paul. As a family we would take our vacation in the summer “up north,” that is, on a lakefront. We stayed on a small island resort of Lake Vermillion, where the air was clear and the sunsets gorgeous. Fishing, water-skiing, swimming, reading, and just going for boat rides: these are the precious memories I hold dear.
And in the winter, other activities would emerge, e.g., ice skating and ice fishing. I still ran, around those frozen lates with little huts on them: ice fisherman would saw deep into the ice to get to the water below, and find the fish. The huts were warming stations. It is very, very cold in the Twin Cities during the winter.
I have been thinking a lot about the intermediate seasons, about fall and spring. The past several months have been really hard for me, as my recalcitrant depression has returned. Slowly, slowly, treatment takes effect. But I am afraid to trust it. I imagine the ice fisherman in the late fall, early winter, testing the ice. It looks solid, but will it hold? I see the postings of my childhood resort, as they mark their transitions: from fall to winter, they wait for the ice to be solid enough to hold their snowmobiles and such, while the transition from winter to spring is marked by the breaking up the ice, finding clear spaces for boats to go from the island to the mainland. And I wonder: how do they know? What if they are mistaken? What if it all goes badly?
As I emerge from my internal winter, with its stormy darkness and frightening winds, I don’t know what to trust. I feel a bit better today but, my internal fear wonders, perhaps tomorrow will be worse and I will plunge into the cold, cold water below the ice. I’ll be trapped and unable to be found.
How to know when remission has truly arrived? How to trust that things can be better?
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1811) wrote in his Likutei Moharan:
מִצְוָה גְּדוֹלָה לִהְיוֹת בְּשִׂמְחָה תָּמִיד, וּלְהִתְגַּבֵּר לְהַרְחִיק הָעַצְבוּת וְהַמָּרָה שְׁחֹרָה בְּכָל כֹּחוֹ.
“It is a great mitzvah to always be happy, and to make every effort to determinedly keep depression and gloom at bay.”(Part II 24:1:1)
At first reading, this statement seems clueless about grief, about depression, about mental illnesses. It is hard to be happy all the time. But Rabbi Nachman knew this, personally. He had times of his own that look like depression. Sometimes he would go into the woods, just to be, to find peace, to reconnect with the Holy One.
This place of deep pain, which Rav Nachman thought of as a sort of void, was too big and amorphous for words. There are times when one is so in the midst of hurting that there is no way of talking about it.
Because of this, he created the niggun, a wordless melody (or melodies, for, today, we have many lovely niggunim). His hope was that singing could express that which his heart could not speak. Even today, when we are broken and hurting, joining with others in theses wordless prayers (or singing on our own) offers us a way of belonging, of connecting to one another and to the Holy One of Blessing. Words may come later, or not. But the melody goes on.
It is not that we will not have depression and gloom, he writes. It is just our goal to not give in them. Do what it takes to help lift your spirits, to find a comfortable way to be yourself. When the ice below will hold your weight, take out your skates and rejoice! As the ice melt below us, get in a canoe and use the oars to break up the ice and make progress towards shore. And, at all times, notice the beautiful. The blinding shimmer of the sun off the ice. The calm reflection of fluffy clouds reflected in the glass-like lake at sundown. To be in the moment. To find blessings beneath the struggle.
All of this is hard. Living a good life, a life of meaning, means taking risks. It means trying new things, and seeking to change older, problematic ways of being. Living is to venture onto the ice – and sometimes fall into the freezing cold water beneath. Growing is to smash the ice beneath our feet, to find the water in which we can move.
Sounds good in the abstract, no? But in reality, in my lived reality. . . well, that is a whole different matter.
Getting up, checking the ice, moving through yet another hard day is exhausting and difficult. I want to give up. My depression drowns out all the good in the world, and I end up feeling very small and frightened. It is a big world. How to manage?
Consider Rav Nachman’s most famous saying:
כל העולם כולו גשר צר מאד. והעיקר לא לפחד כלל.
The whole world is a very narrow bridge. But the main thing is not to be afraid.
This is not the exact Hebrew or translation, but many of us who grew up Jewish know how to belt out this song during song-sessions. “We are young,” ran the undertone, “and we can handle anything that comes our way!”
And, as we sang, we knew we could cross fearlessly, because we had one another to hold on to. Singing alone is good – but singing loudly, with guitar or whatever . . . belting out our fearlessness can feel transformative.
I suffered depression even as a child and youth, but I can remember the way that singing together – whether with words or just saying “lai lai lai lai” – gave me a sense of belonging. It gave me courage to try new things, to venture forming new friendships. As a part of the group, I felt more myself. And I felt that I mattered. My voice, with its harmonies and wrong notes, my joy and my discomfort: all of these could be seen and accepted, if I would only sing along.
But. . . we teens did not have it completely correctly (do teens ever?).
The slightly more accurate recording of Rav Nachman’s proverb is
וְדַע, שֶׁהָאָדָם צָרִיךְ לַעֲבֹר עַל גֶּשֶׁר צַר מְאֹד, וְהַכְּלָל וְהָעִקָּר – שֶׁלֹּא יִתְפַּחֵד כְּלָל:
“Know, too! A person must cross a very, very narrow bridge. The main rule is: Do not be frightened at all”! (Likutei Moharan Part II 48:2:7
Suddenly, we find ourselves alone on that bridge. Instead of clinging to one another and being brave about going out into the world – instead of the narrow bridge being shared by all of us – this version articulates the journey through darkness and challenges to be a singular one. We may each face such a narrow walkway over the cliffs of life, but the span we cross is unique to each person. Perhaps that is what makes it so frightening. My dark places are not your dark places. Is there a way we can still help one another, as we walk through that scary journey of life?
It is unclear. But the original Hebrew of Rav Nachman’s saying is slightly different again from the popular version. Rather than לא לפחד כלל, he wrote לא יתפחד כלל – not “do not be afraid, “ but rather “do not let yourself be afraid” – or, given that the verb he uses is a “reflexive” conjugation, perhaps “do not scare yourself.”
There will always be fear. But one can have fear and rise above it. To be brave is not never to experience fear, never to be scared. It is to have the fear – and then the courage to move through.
A friend of mine, when I was struggling, gave me a lovely plaque to encourage me to keep going. “Courage,” it says, “doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow.’”
May we all find the will to do so. To see the bridge – our own and our fellow’s – and be willing to cross it. To recognize the difficulties and yet, not make them bigger than they need be. To know we are all crossing our own bridges – but we can still raise our voices in song together. And may that connectedness among us help us move on our way.
And let us say,