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Musing for Meaning

Surviving Hurricane Sandy Together

October 29, 2012

Don’t get me wrong . . . I wish this wasn’t happening. But Hurricane Sandy is coming to my neighborhood, and there is nothing I can do to stop her.

As I sit here and type, I am trying to come to terms with the fact that I may very soon be without power for up to 10 days. And I type because it forces me to try to find some meaning, some lesson, in what we are experiencing.

The Baal Shem Tov teaches us that a leaf does not fall to the ground without reason, and that one leaf’s movement has a ripple effect on all of humanity. So, being that I am watching thousands of leaves blow by my window (which I am debating if I should tape or not), there must be a lot of meaning flying around.

Hurricane Sandy is coming to my neighborhood, and there is nothing I can do to stop herI woke up this morning to a call from a friend in the area, telling me the updates and some tips for preparing. Then a text came through from my neighbor suggesting we fill bags of water to freeze, so we can keep our food cold if we lose power. By the time I logged into Facebook, it was filled with ideas, comments, news reports and offers of help from friends both near and far.

Later I ran next door to bring another neighbor a big jug for water. She is a nursing mother, and didn’t buy enough ahead of time. There is something about being in the same boat that helps put everything in perspective, and forces you to prioritize.

The radio shows went from making fun of callers, or playing practical jokes, to asking people to check in on those near them who might need help. When a hurricane approaches, it doesn’t matter how much money you have or how big your house is; it matters how many batteries and flashlights you have and how much non-perishable food is in your closets. A hurricane is a great equalizer.

For the past half-hour, my kids have been filling water bottles. When they said we had enough, I was able to teach them that even if we do, it could be someone else will need them. It's one thing when they put a coin in the tzedakah box; but when they fill a bottle in case someone else needs it, they really learn the meaning of helping another.

A hurricane is a great equalizerThis week’s Torah portion talks about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The cities were filled with hatred, theft, corruption and violence. But the sages explain that their cardinal sin was selfishness. The cities were destroyed because of how terribly they treated strangers. The commentaries even tell us that in the cities' guest houses, if someone was too tall for the bed, his feet would be cut off, and if someone was too short, he would be stretched. They had no concept of working with the strengths and weaknesses of others, or of working as a team.The Sodomites cared for no one but themselves.

As Hurricane Sandy approaches, it is true that there is nothing we can do to stop her. But we pray that her path be one that avoids homes, and harms no one in her way. Of course, we can prepare our homes and our families as much as possible.

But most importantly, we can use this time to think about those around us. We can take the opportunity to spend quality time with our families. Really, how often do we have a day or two stuck in the house with nothing to do? And once again, while I wish this wasn’t happening—being that it is, I hope at the very least that it will create a sense of unity and community, and a reminder of what really counts in life.

May Hurricane Sandy leave as fast as she came, and may we return to our “normal” lives that much more aware and that much more united.

Sara Esther Crispe, a writer, inspirational speaker and mother of four, is the co-director of Interinclusion, a nonprofit multi-layered educational initiative celebrating the convergence between contemporary arts and sciences and timeless Jewish wisdom. Prior to that she was the editor of TheJewishWoman.org, and wrote the popular weekly blog Musing for Meaning. To book Sara Esther for a speaking engagement, please click here.

Killing the Stigma of Mental Illness

October 28, 2012

In the recent past, I learned of two devastating tragedies. One was the suicide of a beautiful young woman: Ivy League graduate, winner of endless awards, prestigious job, and “everything” going for her. The other was the suicide of a close family member of a good friend. The father of three grown children. Both shattering the lives of endless loved ones, friends and acquaintances.

I did not know either of these people, but their loss profoundly hurt me. It hurt me, because every time I hear of a suicide I am instantly reminded of my two close friends who took their lives. Both of whom I had spoken with or seen in the time immediately preceding. Both where I saw nothing, sensed nothing, picked up on nothing and therefore did nothing.

Following a suicide, everyone is looking for a reasonFollowing a suicide, everyone is looking for a reason, an excuse. Everyone wants to find something or someone to blame. Because when we have a label, it makes it so much easier to separate it from our lives or our responsibility. My one friend suffered from bipolar disorder. Therefore, it somehow made sense to people. He was sick. He either didn’t take his meds, or he took the wrong meds, or the doctors messed up.

With my other friend, no one saw it coming. Sure, after the fact you could recognize that he looked down and was stressed, overwhelmed, and whatever else could be blamed. But only after the fact.

Today I was reading comments about this young woman’s recent suicide. The one with the “perfect” life. And it was unbelievable. People actually wrote that they were convinced that there was no way she would have taken her life. After all, she had a great job, she was beautiful, she was moving up in the corporate ladder, she came from a loving and stable home, she had so many friends. You name it, she had it going for her. Not only did people not want to believe she killed herself, they refused to believe she did it. But it seems that being perfect isn’t so easy. And certainly, staying perfect is pretty impossible.

Here is the thing: healthy people do not kill themselves. Just like healthy people don’t die of illness. But looking healthy and being healthy are two very different things. And just like we have an annual physical to make sure that nothing dangerous is lurking behind our fit and “healthy” bodies . . . so too, it is about time we did the same for our mental health.

We keep saying that the stigma surrounding mental illness must be broken. But we have a very long way to go. Like it or not, the reality is that the world is not ready to hear if we are suffering from a psychiatric ailment. We are not posting it to our Facebook status, we are not telling our coworkers, and we are often not even letting our close friends and loved ones know.

And as long as it is a secret, it will keep killing.

We keep saying that the stigma surrounding mental illness must be broken. But we have a very long way to goWhen we were grieving the loss of one of my friends, trying to understand the incomprehensible was the hardest part. In the end, the conclusion was that this mental illness, though undiagnosed and unknown, was similar to finding out that he had a brain tumor. And I truly feel that this is what he had . . . it just was an emotional mass eating away at his mind, not a physical one. And one day, that tumor took over, left no room for anything else . . . and it killed him.

Jewish law forbids the taking of one’s own life. It is considered a grave sin. And yet, in most cases of suicide, the law assumes a suicide victim to have been severely ill, to the point that he or she cannot be held accountable. The understanding is that if these people were healthy, if they were cognizant of the gravity of what taking their lives would mean, they would never have willingly chosen to carry out the horrific act. In cases of impaired mental health, a suicide victim is exactly that. A victim. A victim of a terrible, horrible, devastating illness that needs to be addressed head-on, without embarrassment or reprisals or stigma.

That is the only way we can kill this killer.

If you don’t think you know anyone suffering from a mental illness, think again. You do. We all do. There are people in our lives who are scared, anxious, depressed, and may even be suicidal. They might talk about it, or be too scared to talk about it. But we need to make sure we are offering support not only when it is needed, but even before it is needed. We need to make sure those we love know we are here, without judgment, and that it is okay to have issues, it is okay to feel overwhelmed. The only thing not okay is when one refuses to do something about it.

I look forward to the day when one can post as a Facebook status, “Feeling really depressed and overwhelmed . . . does anyone know a good psychologist or psychiatrist I could see?” the same way we don’t hesitate to write, “Have a terrible sinus infection. Anyone know a good ENT?”

If you don’t think you know anyone suffering from a mental illness, think againMental illness is no one’s fault. It is an illness like cancer, or diabetes, or anything else that we don’t cause and we can’t prevent. But the difference is that we can treat it—yet only if we are able to be open and honest enough to get that diagnosis, and seek the support and help necessary.

It is time we take a stand against mental illness. We can speak about it, educate ourselves and educate others. Please, if you are suffering, reach out. Get help. Make an appointment. If you know someone who is suffering, please let them know you care, offer an ear and hand, and help them get the professional help they need. And if you don’t think this applies to you—trust me, it does.

Not a day goes by that I don’t think about my friends. With one, I have his picture from our wedding next to my Shabbat candles. And every week, when I light, I think of his loss, and how his flame that brought so much love and light was unnecessarily and prematurely extinguished.

Breaking the stigma won’t take away mental illness. But it will take away the fear associated with getting help and addressing the issues. Nothing I can do will bring back my friends. But the loss of my friends will ensure that I do everything in my power to never lose someone else I know in this way. Please, help your loved ones and do the same.

Sara Esther Crispe, a writer, inspirational speaker and mother of four, is the co-director of Interinclusion, a nonprofit multi-layered educational initiative celebrating the convergence between contemporary arts and sciences and timeless Jewish wisdom. Prior to that she was the editor of TheJewishWoman.org, and wrote the popular weekly blog Musing for Meaning. To book Sara Esther for a speaking engagement, please click here.

Changing Today

October 21, 2012

The first thing people said when they heard that my passport expired and I needed to travel to Montreal was, “Well, at least you’ll get a good blog post out of it!”

I haven’t written that post, yet</>, but I will. Meanwhile, it got me thinking about how this blog has really become the lens through which I view my life. It is hard to believe that more than a year has passed since I began this Musing for Meaning blog. And if you would have asked me a year ago if I thought I had material for the 55 or so articles I have written, I would have laughed.

Fortunately, no one asked.

This blog has become the lens through which I view my lifeAnd the truth is that I really didn’t have the material for the pieces I wrote. However, because I committed to writing the blog, I started to view everything in my life as an opportunity for a lesson, and that lesson became the content of these blog posts.

So often we have options that are available to us, but we don’t take them, we don’t move forward, because we just can’t envision how it will pan out. We might really want to get in shape, but we don’t want to buy a gym membership because in the back of our mind we wonder if we will really ever use it. And yet, by buying that membership, the chances of actually going become that much greater. Because only once we make an investment do we care enough to want to carry through.

This is why we are taught hamaaseh hu ha’ikar, it is the action that matters. We can have great thoughts, we can have the best of intentions, but if we don’t actualize them, they don’t count for much. We all have our regrets. All the things we meant to do, that we were going to do, that we had hoped to do . . . but didn’t.

I had always wanted to go and visit my grandfather when we lived in Israel. But I had two babies, and I was pregnant, and the bus ride was so long and miserable. And all the excuses in the world don’t change the fact that I never saw him that one last time to say goodbye. At his funeral, his caretaker met me and was so happy to see me. He said that my grandfather would always hold a picture of me and ask when I was coming, and that he spoke of me often. But I never made it.

We shouldn’t have to wait for tragic things to happen to remind us of the importance of the presentWe shouldn’t have to wait for tragic things to happen to remind us of the importance of the present. And whatever we commit to beginning today, as small as it may seem, will quickly begin to add up and make a huge difference. It is so easy to push off what we need to do until tomorrow. After all, what is one more day? But a year from now, we will be so happy we made that change today. A year from today we will look at what we accomplished, the pieces we wrote, the weight we lost, the friends we spent time with, and we will see how it all started with one day.

So, 55 articles later, I wonder how I will keep writing another 55. But I have learned that I don’t need to worry about that. I need to worry only about writing one, the one I am currently writing. I have no idea what will unfold in the coming day or week that will be the content of my next piece. But something will happen that I will feel the need to write about. And the best part is that by looking for the meaning in every situation, I have really started finding it. Nothing happens that doesn’t allow us the chance for development and the chance for change.

It hasn’t been the easiest of years. But if I had to think back to what happened, I would most likely remember the most difficult parts. What didn’t go right. But so much more happened that I could so easily forget. Beautiful moments. Meaningful encounters. Transforming situations. They weren’t often the big things. All the more so, the small things can make the biggest impact. And thanks to these weekly pieces, I can always remember them and remind myself that a lot happened this past year. I am not who I was a year ago when I began this, and by next year I will no longer be who I am today. But as long as we keep putting those thoughts into actions, commit to growing, and just “do,” then every passing day will only get us closer to our goals.

So, what do you hope to accomplish in this coming year, and how you can start that process today?

Sara Esther Crispe, a writer, inspirational speaker and mother of four, is the co-director of Interinclusion, a nonprofit multi-layered educational initiative celebrating the convergence between contemporary arts and sciences and timeless Jewish wisdom. Prior to that she was the editor of TheJewishWoman.org, and wrote the popular weekly blog Musing for Meaning. To book Sara Esther for a speaking engagement, please click here.

My Daughter Has Celiac Disease

October 14, 2012

When the doctor suggested my daughter do blood work, I smiled and agreed, knowing I was not going to rush to make an appointment. And I didn’t. It actually took me about half a year to finally getting around to doing it. You see, I had no reason to worry.

The doctor’s concern was that my daughter, “naturally” very thin, was not growing properly. While her height was more average, her weight did not even make the charts. But she had always been this way. From birth. And my other children are also skinny binnies. They scored with some good genes, and that was all there was too it!

It wasn’t until another child of mine needed to go in for some blood tests that I took them in together. You can imagine my shock when a few days later I received not one, but three calls from the pediatrician. Being that I had never received a call before, I knew the results could not have been good. I immediately called back, to be told that my daughter tested positive for celiac disease. She was allergic to gluten, and even though she was always a good eater, her food was simply not being absorbed properly by her body.

I smiled and agreed, knowing I was not going to rush to make an appointmentNow I know people with celiac. They suffered terrible stomachaches and a variety of other symptoms until they were properly diagnosed. My daughter, however, was practically addicted to gluten, and had never, not once, had a typical symptom or any pain whatsoever. (Ironically, another child of mine has had repeated stomach issues, but she is not the one who was diagnosed.)

This got me thinking how often we can do something wrong or unhealthy, and as long as there is no consequence, it is easy to justify the actions. Growing up, I never ate healthy, because like my daughter, I was able to eat whatever I wanted and not gain weight. Because there was no negative result to my downing a gallon of ice cream at my whim, I did as I pleased. Since having children, however, all that has changed. Drastically. Now whatever I eat likes to hang around . . . seemingly forever. So now I eat well, because if I don’t, I will see the consequences on the scale.

In Judaism we have different types of laws. Some make perfect sense to us, and we would keep them whether or not we were told to. “Do not murder.” Yeah, I get that. Don’t think I would be tempted to take someone’s life if suddenly it was allowed. “Do not steal” makes sense. Being faithful to one’s spouse is pretty much an understood necessity to a healthy relationship.

But then we have certain laws that are harder to understand. Sure, we may have some beautiful reasons or explanations, but ultimately, we keep these laws because we were told to. Plain and simple. And we won’t see the consequences of not doing them in a direct way necessarily, but that doesn’t change that we are commanded not to.

We all know if one cheats and gets caught, that marriage will suffer. If one steals, one can be arrested and jailed. But what if a Jew has a bacon cheeseburger? Will he or she end up with a violent stomachache and throw up? Probably not. What if one goes for a drive on Shabbat . . . will the car break down? Nope. Often, when I explain to someone that I can’t eat something or do something seemingly small, like flip a light switch on Shabbat, the response is, “Oh, do you think you would be struck by lightning if you do?” Uh no. I don’t.

Whether or not I can see the dangers, I know they are thereBut just because I may not have an anaphylactic reaction doesn’t mean that I am not allergic to certain things. My daughter’s celiac finally helped me recognize that something can be extremely dangerous (even deadly) to us, and there may not be any obvious symptoms to show for it. And just like she will need to keep a gluten-free diet, I keep kosher because I am spiritually allergic to non-kosher food.

It has yet to hit home what this new diet of hers will require. And it definitely won’t be easy, adding to the already long list of restrictions she has for keeping kosher, that now gluten is also not allowed. But hey, that is what we do. If it is not healthy for her, she can’t have it . . . period. Because whether or not I can see the dangers, I know they are there. And that is really all I need to know to keep her safe. Well, I guess after doing my best to ensure that each year for Passover we go away to avoid the cooking and cleaning, she (and possibly we) will be eating a Passover menu . . . all year long!

Sara Esther Crispe, a writer, inspirational speaker and mother of four, is the co-director of Interinclusion, a nonprofit multi-layered educational initiative celebrating the convergence between contemporary arts and sciences and timeless Jewish wisdom. Prior to that she was the editor of TheJewishWoman.org, and wrote the popular weekly blog Musing for Meaning. To book Sara Esther for a speaking engagement, please click here.

Winning the Gold

October 4, 2012

So it’s been a few months since the Games in London ended. And while I loved watching many of the competitions, now that it’s over, I couldn’t tell you much about the specifics, with the exception of a few names and events. Granted, if I competed in any of the sports, I would know all the stats; but since I do not, the scores, names, and even descriptions of the competitors do not remain with me.

But their actions do.

And I don’t mean their skills or how they competed, but how they acted.

The most moving of which took place during track and field, ironic being that I really have little if any interest in running. But it happened to be on, and so I watched. In this particular race there was a competitor from South Africa, Oscar Pistorius. This man had amputated legs, from the knee down, which were replaced with carbon-fiber legs.

I know their names only because I searched them online. But I will remember that lesson for a lifetimeI listened as the commentators explained how he had advocated and pleaded and done everything in his power to be allowed to compete with the “able-bodied” runners, as they were called. And so he did.

And he came in last.

But with the biggest smile on his face.

He had accomplished what he set out to do, and albeit a few seconds later than the others, he ran an incredible race.

And then the winner of this race, Kirani James from Grenada, approached him, shook his hand, hugged him and then removed his name tag, exchanging it with the South African runner. The winner then held up this other runner’s name for recognition and applause, to which many responded with a standing ovation.

I know their names only because I searched them online. But I will remember that lesson for a lifetime.

As we begin this new year, it is so easy to wonder if during the coming year we will be good enough, successful enough, rich enough, happy enough, etc. Hopefully, we will be all of these things. Hopefully, we will win the gold in the events of our lives. But life is so much more than that. It is not that one race, but rather who we are and what we do. Ha-maaseh hu ha-ikar, it is the action that counts, we are taught in the Ethics of Our Fathers.

Often when I teach writing workshops, I have the group write about their favorite childhood memory. Time and time again, one’s most precious memory is not of a big trip or fancy gift, but a seemingly small action that represented love and care. Looking back, I recall being about five years old and opening my lunch one day in camp to find a bologna-and-ketchup sandwich, along with my favorite dessert. It was so exciting since it wasn’t something I had had before, but something I so badly wanted. I just remember the feeling of everything going my way, and feeling so cared for, when I opened my brown bag that sunny summer day.

We often make the biggest impact when we aren’t trying. Sometimes we don’t even notice or ever know that we did. But our greatest moments are when we let our inner goodness shine through, and allow our love for another to lead the way. It may be that time we stopped what we were doing to hold the arm of a blind person crossing the street, or picked up the packages someone dropped. These random acts of kindness are exactly what the world stands on, and what is needed to transform our reality.

Our lives are defined not by a moment, but by the compilation of moments filled with goodness and kindnessBut perhaps the greatest thing about a good deed, which is often referred to as a mitzvah, is that by definition an act of kindness involves connecting to another. Also, this is one reason why according to chassidic philosophy the term “mitzvah” is related to tzavsa ve-chibur, the idea of cleaving and attaching together. When helping someone we know—or someone we may not know—takes priority over that moment of fame or reward, that is when we make a permanent mark on humanity.

Our lives are defined not by a moment, but by the compilation of moments filled with goodness and kindness. And for me, when I reflect back on the Summer Games of 2012, I will always remember Kirani, who won that race and continued on to win the gold the next night, the first medal his small country ever won. There is no doubt that the first-place runner is one of the, if not the, fastest runner in the world. But even when his record is broken and he is no longer competing, he will remain an inspiration. For more important than his speed is his empathy, his compassion and his humility. Qualities that do not earn medals, but that show the world that his gold is not only around his neck, but in his heart as well.

Sara Esther Crispe, a writer, inspirational speaker and mother of four, is the co-director of Interinclusion, a nonprofit multi-layered educational initiative celebrating the convergence between contemporary arts and sciences and timeless Jewish wisdom. Prior to that she was the editor of TheJewishWoman.org, and wrote the popular weekly blog Musing for Meaning. To book Sara Esther for a speaking engagement, please click here.
Every situation we find ourselves in is a lesson waiting to be learned. That is what this blog is about. From the people I meet, the places I go and the experiences I have, stories emerge, each teaching me something that I hope you will find useful for your life as well.
Sara Esther CrispeSara Esther Crispe, a writer, inspirational speaker and mother of four, is the co-director of Interinclusion, a nonprofit multi-layered educational initiative celebrating the convergence between contemporary arts and sciences and timeless Jewish wisdom. Prior to that she was the editor of TheJewishWoman.org, and wrote the popular weekly blog Musing for Meaning. To book Sara Esther for a speaking engagement, please click here.
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