Elchanan Poupko

Finding Strength When Others Are Not There

Illustrative: An Israel Dog Unit volunteer searching Mount Meron for missing persons. (Courtesy IDU)

Finding strength in times of crisis through connecting to others can be empowering and inspiring. Reaching out to others can be something we are successful at. For a million and one reasons, it can also be something we are not able to accomplish. Not every situation lends itself to the social support that we need. Regardless of whether we are successful at finding the person able to support us and inspire the strength we so need at times of difficulty, we all need to tap into our internal sources of strength. 

We all need to connect with what revitalizes us most, with what puts us in touch with our internal sources of power. We have the power to kindle the inspiration that rests within each and every one of us.

Viktor Frankl, the great physician, and father of logotherapy (now known as positive psychology), discovered in the darkness of the Nazi death camps the light of human inspiration. In the midst of Auschwitz, he recognized humans have incredible power within us. We just need to find it. If we tap into this unique and individuated power, can motivate us to overcome challenges that require superhuman strength and what seems like insurmountable difficulties. 

How so? Frankl looked at his fellow prisoners and noticed what set apart the minority who survived from the majority that didn’t. It was not physical strength or a particular background. What set survivors apart from the rest was the ability to find meaning they could cling to; something they needed to survive for. It was the ability to connect with what meant most to them that allowed prisoners to overcome difficulties that are humanly impossible to overcome. Frankl concluded that by connecting to what we find most meaningful to us, we bring out the most powerful and resilient powers within us. 

In times of difficulty, it is essential that we tap into those things we find most motivating and inspiring. Doing this infuses us with the strength and courage that we need now more than ever. 

We can set out to find what it is that motivates us most or what is most meaningful to us. This can be a religious and intellectual quest, a family-related realization, or anything else that touches the depths of our soul. Whatever it might be, it is something we must pursue and connect with.

If giving to others is what we find most meaningful, let us see if there is a way to volunteer and do more for others. If being creative is what keeps us ticking, let us take this time to be as creative and inventive as we possibly can. If we realize family and relationships are at the bedrock of our strength, let’s take this time to connect with family; let’s find new ways to spend time with them. If friends and new people mean a lot to us, see what we can do to meet new people and connect with old friends.     

One inspiring example of finding strength is the story of Sara (pseudonym). Sara shared her story with me, one that continues to inspire me to this day. She recalls:

“I would say high school was probably the best four years of my life. I went to an all-girls Catholic college prep school in Kansas City. Once senior year came around, I remember being so ready for the next chapter in my life. I decided I was going to the University of Kansas the following fall but what I didn’t know was that God’s plan for me was completely different.

“My story starts my second semester freshman year of college. I had recently just gotten back from a trip to Mexico and started to feel a lot of stomach discomfort. As the days went by, the pain and nausea progressed. I never knew I was going to have three surgeries and have to go through college, comminuting, and continuously dealing with my health. 

“The hardest thing I learned about dealing with my health was being patient. The waiting is one of the most painful parts. To see a good GI doctor, it can take months. Then there is waiting for test results and callbacks. At the time when I felt so much pain, all I wanted was to feel like a normal college student. I didn’t understand why God was doing this to me. I think the best thing you can do when faced with a hurdle in your life is to seek prayer and guidance. Growing up I was raised Catholic and attended private Catholic schools, but my faith and relationship with God completely changed when faced with my illness. God works in mysterious, miraculous ways. There is this thing called a journey God takes us on. It’s cool because you have no idea how your journey is going to take place or how it might go, but what you must have is faith.  My faith is what got me through all of my pain, physically and mentally. There were tough times through my illness when I sat and cried in the bathroom or side of the highway, mad at God on what was going on with me. I’m telling you though, faith gets you over those significant scary hurdles. 

“The most significant challenge to my faith was the fall of 2017. I was supposed to get a pacemaker put in my stomach for a disease called gastroparesis. I remember the day very distinctly. I was so anxious and excited to get this surgery done because all I wanted was to feel better and go back to college. I was headed home from an appointment when my mom called me and said that our insurance company had denied my surgery. I remember sobbing in my car, probably looking like a crazy woman driving home in rush-hour traffic. How could this be happening? Why, God, do you not want me to feel better? 

“A month goes by, and insurance was reviewing my doctor’s appeal letter to perform the surgery. I had decided if I was going to get this pacemaker, I wanted the Mayo Clinic to do it. Mayo Clinic is one of the best hospitals in the country and had the best doctors to get an appointment can take four to six months. I called on a Friday evening, asking the lady when the next appointment for GI would be. She says, “Oh it looks like we just had a cancellation. Can you be here in 10 days?” 

Wow, I’m thinking to myself, this was literally God’s miraculous doing. He needed me to go to Mayo for some reason. Ten days later, I headed to the Mayo Clinic with my mom, thinking I was going to talk about a pacemaker surgery for gastroparesis, but God had a different plan for me. The two outstanding doctors I saw told me I didn’t have gastroparesis. I never needed the pacemaker. I fully believed God stepped in and helped me out. Even though at the time I was so frustrated, I stayed strong with my faith in God; I believed everything was going to fall in place.

“To the people who are suffering, I understand the pain you might be going through, but there is always light to a dark tunnel. Never ever give up, and keep God close to you. God is the only one who knows your journey. Talk to him like He is your best friend! I found this the best way to help deal with my pain. Secondly, when you do have good days appreciate everything the world has to offer. Whether that is being outside on a beautiful day, interacting with random strangers, or getting quality time with family, appreciate what God has given you. Finally, Try always to think positively. I know at times when you are in so much pain, it is hard to look at the bright side of things, but what consumes your mind controls your life. Positive thinking changes your life entirely and makes you remember how blessed you are! I believe everything happens for a reason, and the steep path you might be on will get better.”

Sara’s inspiring resilience helped me understand the power of positive thinking, finding strength in whatever situation we might be in, and finding strength in our faith—and anywhere else we can. 

The Multipath to Finding Strength

After finishing four years of medical school, a four-year residency in psychiatry, and a two-year fellowship in eating disorders, Jeff O’Malley (name changed to protect identity) was finally ready to see his first patient. The Los Angeles psychiatrist was nervous yet excited for the first time he would see patients independently. 

The patient, Nicole, was a dangerously anorexic girl. The common practice of therapists at that time—in the early days and with limited scientific knowledge of anorexia—was to call in the patient with the rest of their family. It was believed the problem existed as part of a broader family dynamic. Sitting the family down in his clinic and making a polite introduction seemed to be the first and last thing the inexperienced doctor had done right. The moment the family sat down and settled in, family members started shunning the poor young girl. “What are you doing?” they asked accusingly, “do you know that Mom and Dad don’t sleep at night, fearing that you will starve to death?” The accusations continued to come faster and in an increasing tone and volume. 

Nicole curled deeper and deeper into her hooded coat as her parents and siblings continued to hurl accusations at her in high-pitched tones. Finally, she sprang up and burst out of the office. The doctor never saw her or her family again. 

For decades, Dr. O’Malley walked around with a horrible feeling about that first patient he saw. The memory of being so inexperienced, unable to get anything right, and allowing Nicole to be hurt that way would not leave him. 

Decades later, Dr. O’Malley was walking the streets of downtown Los Angeles, and he suddenly saw a well-dressed and elegant woman who looked frighteningly familiar. Without hesitation, he ran over to her. “Nicole!” he called out. “I don’t know if you remember me, but I am Doctor O’Malley! I saw you more than 20 years ago and just wanted to tell you how bad I feel about the poor way in which I handled your case!”

“Doctor,” she responded, “you saved my life!” 

She went on to explain.

“Shortly after we came into your office, I realized how inexperienced you were and felt bad for the rookie doctor who did not know what he was doing. I didn’t hold it against you. There was something you said, however, that changed my life. 

“When we were sitting there with my whole family going all out to criticize me,” she told Dr. O’Malley in a choking voice, you told my family, ‘I don’t know about you guys, but I am betting my money on that girl there,’ pointing at me—‘She is the one that is going to be the successful one.’ Your vote of confidence and your faith in me are what enabled me to succeed in life; your message has stayed with me for the rest of my life.”

This story is striking for two reasons: it highlights our ability to empower others and the responsibility accompanying that realization. It also highlights our ability to allow ourselves to be empowered. Yes, the newly licensed psychiatrist had said something inspiring and supportive to the young lady struggling with anorexia. Still, it was her decision to cling to what he said that helped her through her most difficult times.

When we encounter adversity and difficulty, we need immeasurable amounts of strength and inspiration. We also need others to support us. It is essential that once it comes to us, we do our best to make the most of it. While we don’t always have the emotional support we need, it is essential to find that support even where it is not abundant. A little encouragement can go a long way. Like Nicole, who was not getting the support she needed from her family yet clung to the words she heard from the inexperienced psychiatrist, we need to make the most of the support that we have.

This article is from Rabbi Elchanan Poupko’s upcoming series and book on why bad things happen to good people and coping with adversity.

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
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