“Stu-baby! Stu-baby!” That’s how she’s always greeted me, and she’s always done so with a sparkle in her eye & her trademark crooked smile. But not on this day. On this day, a chilly afternoon in mid-February, my Aunt P (a term of endearment, not really related) was slowly making her way towards the gravesite where her daughter would soon be buried when she looked up and saw me. She stopped, leaned on her walker, and wailed, “Stu-baby! Stu-baby! Why?!”
“I’m so sorry,” I responded – what else could I say? – “I’m just so sorry.”
* * *
The upcoming holiday of Passover is the well-known Jewish festival that celebrates freedom. More specifically, of course, it commemorates the Israelites’ redemption from Egyptian bondage over 3000 years ago. But leaving aside ancient Biblical stories, or even our own country’s morally-flawed history, incredibly, slavery still exists. Defined by human rights groups as people forced to work against their will, people owned or controlled by an exploiter or “employer,” people with limited freedom of movement, or people treated as a commodity who are bought and sold as property, experts say there are over 40 million slaves world-wide today. Forty million.
Defined more expansively — people enslaved emotionally – today there are the same number of Americans (meaning 40 million) who face a different sort of bondage; they struggle with anxiety and depression. These pervasive conditions aren’t always obvious, but they’re powerful – they envelop souls and restrict spiritual freedoms, sometimes in devastating ways. That was the case with Aunt P’s daughter.
Perhaps surprisingly, the age group with the highest incidence of depression are adolescents. College students are next. And both groups have experienced significant increases in recent years – this even before COVID, which has made the situation still worse. During a time in their lives that’s supposed to be filled with nearly carefree joy, and youthful exuberant exploration, too many of our kids are deeply sad. Sad about self-image and self-esteem, sad about social pressure, some sad to the point of suicide. To my painful dismay, I have now recited the mourner’s kaddish for multiple former students and childhood friends who took their own lives because they desperately sought escape from an invisible oppression – one that others may not have even known existed.
As I write, the world faces a contemporary Pharaoh, one named Putin. Thousands of Ukrainians have been senselessly killed and millions have had their lives upended due to the malevolent madness of one man and far too many complacent co-conspirators. Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer for that Passover problem. I watch the news, read the foreign policy commentaries, and desperately hope the violence comes to a merciful end soon. But the other turmoil, the one that’s internal, seems more manageable. It’s one that we can confront by asking, talking, sharing, treating, and loving. It’s one that must be destigmatized and viewed no differently than any other medical issue.
During the Passover Seder, we read about four different types of children, each entitled to an approach worthy of their human dignity. Of course, there are far more than just four types of children, there are countless variations of people, each with our own experience and perspective. This Passover, let’s be sure to make space at the table for those suffering in silence; let’s find the empathy and understanding to hear and support them so that they too can be free.