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Shutters and Blinds

Shutters and Blinds

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In these days of Chanukah, light is on everyone’s mind. We’re hearing a lot about the tiny little flames that can cast away immense darkness. And as we light the Chanukah candles, we are filled with hope that our efforts will indeed cast away darkness and bring light into our lives.

But what is this darkness? Is it truly evil? This light? Is it really good? We are told that darkness has no existence, but if so, how can one dispel something that does not exist?

Recently I had an experience that—pardon the pun—cast some light on this dilemma.

I took a medication that had psychotropic side effects. The result felt as if someone pulled the curtains on my awareness. All light was blocked, and only darkness remained. My vision was filtered by a gray film obscuring all detail of color and texture.

During this intolerable period of time, everything I encountered was irritating, depressing, dissatisfying and miserable . . . including me. I was no fun to be around. If I thought about my life, it seemed hopeless. When I remembered my childhood, I saw only unhappiness. If I looked at my present situation, it seemed lacking and insufficient. My children turned from lovely and loving to noisy and irritating. My car was falling apart. My house, dingy and drab.

There was literally no aspect of my life that escaped this oppressive fog, as the medicine eclipsed and obscured all light. Fortunately, I was able to keep some grasp on reality. The pharmaceutical worked so fast that I was able to connect the darkness and depression to its psychotropic effects. But my grasp was weak, and ultimately I surrendered.

Even though I knew that the medicine was causing my shift in perspective, still, everything I was seeing through its black filter was true. The house was dingy and drab. The children were irritating. The car was falling apart. And certainly, my present situation did not match my life’s hopes and expectations. The medication had not created anything bad in my life. It had not put bad thoughts in my head. It had not harmed my character, turning me into the grump I now seemed during this unpleasant state of awareness.

Everything I was seeing existed. Only, it was only partly true. It was what remained when the light was blocked. It was what I could see in the monotone shadow that survived.

Life without light is like looking at a beautiful park at night. The flowers and colors and texture are all hidden. All that remains are the large, scary outlines of bushes and trees, boulders and rocks, hills and stairways. In the dark, these daytime objects of beauty and delight become imposing forms and weird shapes that play on our imagination and conjure frightening scenarios.

Has the darkness created these forms and shapes? Has it caused our flights into fear and anxiety? Has it created our spontaneously arising scenes of theft and mugging?

No. It’s done none of those things. The sun has simply gone to the other side of earth, its light blocked from our awareness. And in doing so, it has caused our world to plunge into darkness. Ignorance. Illusion. Confusion. And fear.

I could no longer hear the laughter in my children’s voices, nor see the sparkle in their eyes. I could no longer see the clutter in my house as charming and familiar. I could no longer remember the happy moments of my childhood, nor see the countless blessings that filled my life. Even my accomplishments paled in the face of what I could have done, or what others have done better.

The darkness and depression became so overwhelming that I finally surrendered and stopped taking the medication. Thankfully, within one day the light returned, and with it my equilibrium, my happiness, even a twinge of optimism.

What had changed for the better? The details. The color. The texture. The fullness. And the goodness. There was enough light to illuminate a greater totality of my life, to reveal more of the goodness embedded therein. Enough light to balance the shadows and fill in the outlines. Enough light to allow any remaining darkness to add contrast, complexity and subtleness, to add beauty and interest to my world, to enhance its wholeness. In short, there was enough light to suggest the fullness of G‑d’s creation, to allow for the interplay and reconciliation of opposites and contrasts.

Light reveals G‑dliness. Darkness is inconsequential. Adding light—opening the shutters and blinds of awareness—remains our only concern. Kindling the lights on Chanukah, the only mitzvah. Revealing G‑dliness, the only goal.

And so, we light the Chanukah candles. The flame tenuously flickers for a few seconds, and we hold our breath till it catches and shines. The children begin to sing. Suddenly we feel a bit brighter within. The glow begins to spread. And we have a sense of optimism, hope and impending victory.

And if we’re lucky, in the few moments we take to contemplate the flames in silence, our shutters open, flooding our awareness with light. The shadows become illuminated. The beauty of life and the blessings of G‑d shine brightly. We are transported to a place where light reveals formerly hidden aspects of G‑d’s existence and our souls shine in joy.

We will add more light each day, illuminating more of the fullness of our life and of creation. And then, not on the eighth, but on the ninth day after the first day of Chanukah, when we no longer kindle the flame at night, we will carry this awareness with us into the days ahead. And, should you or I ever be cast into darkness again throughout the year—by a medication, or by the folly that sometimes overtakes us—we will carry this memory and awareness and seek the light, dispelling our fear and confusion, recognizing them as the illusions that they are.

Jay Litvin was born in Chicago in 1944. He moved to Israel in 1993 to serve as medical liaison for Chabad’s Children of Chernobyl program, and took a leading role in airlifting children from the areas contaminated by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster; he also founded and directed Chabad’s Terror Victims program in Israel. Jay passed away in April of 2004 after a valiant four-year battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and is survived by his wife, Sharon, and their seven children. He was a frequent contributor to the Jewish website Chabad.org.
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Editor, Chabad.org December 18, 2012

Editor's Note Just to clarify (as I see that some readers have misunderstood the context of the article): Jay Litvin, of blessed memory, was being treated for Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma at the time he wrote this article. The medication he mentions was not psychiatric in nature, though it produced the psychotic side effects he describes. Reply

Anonymous kbh via chabadenmark.com December 10, 2012

But also remember, medication, not alone of course, can be an element towards a better life. Medication components have been created by haShem. It is up to us, how we use them, but there certainly is a reason why our minds are able to put these components together. I believe they are often abused (over-prescribed). There are, however, severely ill, who cannot open to the world and the word of Torah without them, at least in the beginning. It is very difficult to find the mid-line. Reply

Anonymous Wesley Hills, NY USA December 22, 2006

Truly Inspirational. May His Neshoma have an Aliyah. Reply

Gita December 21, 2006

Thank you for sharing with us again this amazing article - I am certain that I am among many whose lives and whose faith were greatly enriched through Jay's inspirational words, path, courage and humanity. This particular article is a perfect example of such.
May his memory be blessed. Reply

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