Updated: Feb 16, 2021
“This time of year is especially hard for me, but it’s actually always like this. I wake up in the morning, and I’m supposed to say ‘modeh ani’- thank you G-d, for giving me another day of life. And each day, when I open my eyes, that first short prayer is a struggle for me. I never asked to be born, and I don’t enjoy living. I try to do what I need to do, because I have responsibilities and people rely on me. I have some moments of happiness here and there, but overall, I would prefer not to be here. I find the business of living to be painful, scary, unpredictable, and distressing. I wouldn’t take my own life; that would be cruel to my family and I don’t want to go to hell. But ‘thank you’? Thank you G-d for another day, another year? For forcing me to endure this chronic suffering? How can I say that and mean it? This is how I start my day. And then I feel like a terrible, ungrateful person for not appreciating life. Ugh.”
Chaya is 26 years old, reserved and presentable, a devoted mother of two who works part-time in sales. Her marriage is stable but not blissful, which she attributes primarily to her struggles with depression. Her husband is a kind, hard-working man, but he doesn’t really understand her pain. He tries to be loving and supportive, encouraging her therapy and self care, but he realizes that he can’t fix this for her.
Chaya, like so many others who grapple with covert mental illness, is plagued by disheartening thoughts and beliefs that seem to make sense. Often the pathology takes on the eloquence of the brain itself, so it becomes very difficult to debate. There is a lot of pain, suffering, and uncertainty in the world. It often does feel like we are pummeled with one crisis after another- if not our own, then the hundreds of others’ whose names flood our Tehilim and tzedakah lists. It would be easier to not be created- even the Gemara says so. Why do we need to go through all this? And then say “thank you” for it?
It’s hard to argue with that kind of logic. [Pro tip: when real depression is at play, philosophical or theological attempts at chizuk will probably make it worse. Trust me on this one.]
And yet. There are people- many, extraordinary people, who have suffered, and know the suffering of others in a profound way, some who themselves have also wished to die at times, and sometimes still do, but who still find a way to live- not just subsist, but surmount, flourish, love, achieve, contribute, and hope. It’s not easy to do, and not everyone can do it every day. But the incredible resilience and perseverance of these warriors- many of them my clients, colleagues, and friends, inspires and strengthens me daily. For those who have not yet found that strength- we are here for you too.
There are no simple answers. But, at least in my mind, the “life” we pray for is not simply a life of labored respirating through the torture of existential angst. When I pray for life, I pray to merit a life authentically and voraciously lived- proactively, meaningfully, courageously, and pleasurably. That is the sort of life I want, for my loved ones and my people, and in fact the world over. We are taught that the righteous even when dead are called “alive” and the wicked, even while living, are called “dead.” In a similar light, maybe we could add, “a life, lacking the will to live, is not really a life, and feels like death, but a life with purpose and joy is what we mean when we ask for life.”
When we lack psychological wellness, it’s hard to access spiritual inspiration, or personal motivation. The morpheme “psyche” actually means soul or spirit. It’s a vicious cycle- depression creates hopelessness, which suppresses meaning, which further depresses. But the opposite is true too- a flicker of hope, joy, inspiration, or connection can sometimes spark a new trajectory and infuse fresh possibility into the darkness.
There are many Chayas walking among us- some at home, too fragile to go out, others well-groomed and accomplished, burying their pain beneath a veneer of poise, and still others inpatient- almost unknown or forgotten outside the walls of their treatment facilities. We might pray beside them in shul, eat lunch with them in the break room at work, walk past them in the supermarket, or have dinner with them at our family tables. They are more common than we realize. They need our love, patience, and kindness more than we know. And they also need us to stop making well-meaning assumptions and proclamations that “we’re so lucky to be alive” because it makes them feel even more on the outs.
During this season of those triggering words: “zachreinu l’chaim” (and the hundreds of other times we are obligated to request “life” in the liturgy, in the plural form) let’s offer up an extra prayer for a life that feels alive- for ourselves, and for those who are too pained to do so for themselves.
(And, yes, in case you were wondering, I named her “Chaya” on purpose.)