I was recently out with a friend and during our conversation she said, “I imagine as a rabbi, you’ve been hearing from so many people dealing with challenging situations. I bet they just want you to tell them that everything is going to be okay.”
I took a long pause before responding.
“Yes, that’s true, I have been speaking to a lot of people going through extraordinarily tough times and I would not feel comfortable telling them that everything is going to be okay. That is not something I can promise, nor something that I can know.”
My friend looked at me quizzically as I continued, “I don’t know what is going to happen five minutes from now, how could I possibly know that everything is going to be okay? What I do offer instead, is that I will be here to support, witness, and love them, so that even if their current circumstances are not okay, they themselves will be okay.
Grateful for this exchange, I continued to reflect upon it on my drive home. I believe that how we express what we mean matters. In my mind there is a difference between “everything will be okay” and “I will be okay.” One purports an external locus of control, the other, an internal locus of control.
And by the way…what does it even mean to be okay? Does it mean that our world is safe? Navigable? Easy? Does it mean that we, as individuals, are strong? Resilient? Healthy? Functioning? Or does it mean that we are okay on multiple levels: physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually? I think that the definition of “okay” can change depending on each individual’s definition and understanding of “okay.”
I think back to my own family when we were in the middle of an immense crisis, I remember looking at my husband and children squarely in their eyes and saying, “I’m not sure HOW we will get through this and I know THAT we will.” I did not know the how and I certainly wasn’t sure about how okay we would be, I just knew that together, we would figure out a way to emerge from our tragedy. Perhaps, a way that I had not yet imagined.
I feel like that is the message that I’d like to share with all of us living through this pandemic. We thought we were in the clear after the Delta variant started to diminish; now Omicron is running rampant. Before Omicron’s arrival, kids were back at school, workplaces were opening back up, social events and parties gearing up for fun; life was getting back to “normal.” Yet here we are again, countries around the world returning to strict social isolation measures, with some even returning to curfews and lockdown.
How could I possibly look someone in the eye and tell them everything’s going to be okay? On the one hand, I understand, people need hope that this pandemic will one day be over (which it will be) and yet, it feels dismissive and arrogant for me to assume that I know the future.
By nature, I am an optimist; I look for the silver linings, I make lemonade out of lemons and practice an attitude of gratitude but in this moment, I’m not sure that starting from these places will be helpful, especially for those in deep pain. Yes, I believe it’s important to practice gratitude and optimism, AND in this moment, I feel that I can best serve by being honest and truthful, even if it might not be the answer a congregant or friend wants to hear. Now is the time to validate how people are feeling‑-Yes, life is hard! Yes, this pandemic sucks! Yes, kids are suffering! Yes, adults are suffering! Yes, I’m angry and sad right along with you! As a fellow clergy member recently shared, “In order to heal, you have to feel.”
If we are going to heal from the pandemic and all of the havoc it has wrecked on our lives (recognizing that it has been much more painful and difficult for some, than for others), I believe that we must be willing to feel all the feels— the uncomfortable, the frustrating, the sad, the brutal, the beauty, the love, the uncertainty—all of the complicated feelings that many of us probably feel on a daily basis!
So, while I won’t be telling anyone that everything’s going to be okay, I promise to listen deeply, to validate. Then, I can offer my strong belief in the resilience of the human spirit and my faith in humanity. As a student of history, I know that we, as humans, have lived through some horrific times over the millennia and we have come through to the other side. In my own life, I have seen kindness and compassion expressed in the most unlikely of circumstances. Ultimately, I trust that goodness will prevail and that we will find ways to work together and take care of each other.
While it’s true that none of us knows how things will turn out, I continue to trust and have faith that maybe, just maybe, if we learn to feel into healing, if we learn to witness, support, and love one another unconditionally, ultimately, we will birth a new day in which we’ll all be more than just okay.