I once heard a rabbi lecture on the topic of why bad things happen to good people. He said that it’s like God has each of us on a treadmill, and that when God thinks we can handle more, and consequently will benefit more in the long run, God makes the treadmill go faster.
It may seem to us that the quickened pace is bad, but it’s really God challenging us a little for our greater benefit—so that the “exercise” will make us healthier. It’s all a matter of perspective, he explained, about how we use our minds to view the situation.
At the end of the lecture, I approached the rabbi as he was heading out and asked the following question:
“Why would God push you to work harder, but then ruin the exact mechanism that allows you to work harder?”
I was speaking from the point of view of someone with a mood disorder, I explained. The question wasn’t only philosophical in nature. I was in my early twenties, and this was shortly after I had emerged, for the most part, from a particularly difficult depressive episode. The emotions from that episode were still raw.
“If, supposedly, it’s one big challenge for my eventual benefit,” I continued, “and it’s all a matter of working harder and seeing that as a positive thing, I guess I don’t really get it. How am I supposed to work harder and see the positive side of that hard work when the very mechanism that enables me to do both those things has in itself been injured? You know, I’m talking about my brain. You want me to use my brain to put the pain into perspective, but my brain is the very thing that’s in pain.”
The rabbi seemed like he was in a rush to head out, and I wasn’t sure whether he fully understood my question. So, in the words of his analogy, I quickly blurted out:
“Why would God quicken the treadmill and then injure my legs?”
The rabbi stood there looking at me thoughtfully, seeming to have put his quest to leave momentarily on hold, and then slowly responded with words that from that day forward echoed inside the darkest caverns of my soul. He said:
“God wants you to crawl.”
Why do bad things happen to good people? It’s God’s plan. It may seem bad to us, but everything happens for a reason. Even if it’s paralyzing, it’s for a reason. Even if you have to crawl on your knees to survive. This was his message. And I had no idea what to make of it.
And I wondered: Am I wrong to question God’s ways? Am I weak not to have more faith in Him? Is it blasphemous to hate what He’s done to me?
“God wants you to crawl.” That was the message I was given.
A few years later, I found a different message in Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Frankl, who was a Holocaust survivor, wrote: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Essentially, Frankl was saying that when all is stripped away from a person, the one thing they have left that can’t be taken away is how they react to a situation. At first it might seem that this lesson was the same as the message of that earlier lecture. That is, I must use my mind to react to the negative situation at hand. Even if it is incredibly difficult to do so, I have a choice in how I react.
But I saw a fundamental difference between the two. Unlike the lecture I had heard, with the message that everything happens for a reason, Frankl wasn’t focused on why bad things happen. He wasn’t focused on a reason. Bad things happen. Whether it’s for a reason or not is irrelevant. Bad things happen, and when they do, we can choose to respond to them with our own meaning.
Frankl did not make me feel weak or wrong for questioning God’s ways, of asking why He would challenge me with a mood disorder. Rather, Frankl’s words made me feel validated. Acknowledged. Yes, bad things have happened. Your pain is real. Now let’s figure out what to do with it.
In light of our present reality, I think back to both that conversation with the rabbi and the words of Viktor Frankl, and I take from it the same lesson I chose to internalize all those years ago. We are in the midst of a global tragedy, and no, we don’t know why it’s happening. Is it for our greater benefit? As painful as it is? I don’t think the answer to that question even matters. Our pain is real. We don’t have to believe that pain is for a reason, nor do we have to seek out what that reason is. But what we can do is take the opportunity to make meaning from the pain.
What will our reaction be? What does that meaning look like to me?
An almost overwhelming number of mental health-related Zoom calls and webinars have taken place in these past weeks. One such program was recently hosted by Refa’enu and Communities Confronting Substance Abuse, on the date that we had planned our second annual mental health and addiction symposium. (The symposium has been moved, hopefully, to October.) Mental health—fittingly during Mental Health Awareness Month—has been put front and center as more and more people have been dealing with stress, anxiety, and depression. People who never before had struggled with their mental health now are in that same boat. And if you are a person who is struggling with your mental health these days, I’m pretty sure the last thing you want to hear right now is that God wants you to crawl.
Why do I bring this up?
I bring this up because I want you to feel validated. Your pain is real. You don’t have to seek answers about why this is happening, or why you are feeling stressed, anxious, depressed, isolated, angry, or at your wit’s end. Nor do you need to question the validity of your emotions. Or whether you’re just not trying hard enough to cope.
You are struggling, and that pain is real.
As someone with a pre-existing mental illness, who has spoken with others who are prone to depression and anxiety, I know that this validation is crucial. It’s the thing that encourages a person to seek help. It’s the thing that empowers a person and that gives that person strength to face adversity head on. What I would have given were I to hear Viktor Frankl’s words years before those that shamed my questioning of God’s master plan.
I was talking with a friend about this idea of people now being able to walk in each other’s shoes. I had asked, half joking but half serious, “Is it bad to want to shout out to people ‘Welcome to my world!’”?
Her response: “Is reverse gloating a thing?”
But I don’t mean it as such. I do, however, think that the mental health crisis that’s now accompanying our physical health crisis has put people in a position to feel empathy—not only sympathy but also empathy—for people who experience depression and anxiety on a daily basis. And that is the meaning that I choose to take from these challenging times. Do I believe that’s why we’re experiencing this pandemic? No. Do I believe there’s any specific reason that we’re experiencing this global catastrophe? No. But now that the pain exists, this is what I take from it, and this is what will help carry me forward. That maybe now we can share in a little more empathy.
Maybe the more we practice social distancing, the more we come together as emotional equals. So that when this is all over, and we look back at it in hindsight, we will have moved past the time when I and others with depression and anxiety felt shame and isolation as we struggled alone. It won’t be “Welcome to my world” anymore.
It will be welcome to “our” world.