Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Be Compassionate to Us and Answer Us

I grew up at perhaps the perfect time for being able to appreciate the genius of Robin Williams.  I was about 7 1/2 years old when Mork and Mindy premiered and a national audience was exposed to his zaniness.  I recall seeing his theatrical debut, Popeye, at a birthday party a few years later.  And I remember watching him, Whoopi Goldberg, and Billy Crystal on the inaugural broadcasts of Comic Relief, though I am certain a large portion of their humor went completely over my head.  So, like many, I was shocked and saddened to learn of his death.

I think it would be a disservice to his memory to play "armchair psychologist" and claim to understand the demons that drove his addiction and depression.  So, I'll refrain from commenting on that, save for one brief thought: a number of people on social media have lamented that f only Mr. Williams had understood the wide reach he had, the tremendous impact that he had n others, perhaps he would not have taken his own life.  I don't think that depression, mental illness, and suicide work that way, unfortunately.  I think that Mr. Williams knew, rationally, that there were people who loved and admired him, but I think those accolades couldn't outweigh whatever pain and self-doubt he was experiencing.

Every time there's a high-profile incident such as this, voices rise up calling for a national conversation on mental illness.  It's certainly necessary, and maybe it will actually happen this time.  Maybe there will be increased awareness, and someone - or perhaps, hundreds of someones, will be able to get the help that he or she needs because someone recognizes their pain.  At any rate, if anyone reading this is hurting and in need of support, I hope that they will seek out help at 1-800-273-8255 (the National Suicide Prevention Hotline in the U.S., which runs 24/7).

We are about to enter the month of Elul, which invites us to prepare for the High Holidays by engaging in cheshbon nefesh, an examination of the self.  As part of our preparation, we might contemplate the prayers of selichot, including that familiar formula "Avinu Malkeinu."  "Avinu Malkeinu" appeals to God as the Parent of us all (i.e., God's compassionate side) and the Ruler over us all (i.e., that side of God that is focused on judgment).  We hope that these two aspects of God are balanced in such a way that we are found to be meritorious.

The "Avinu Malkeinu" formula actually has many verses.  One of the most well-known asks God to "be compassionate to us and answer us."  But as we engage in our soul-searching, our cheshbon hanefesh, we should ask ourselves whether this is a blessing that we have truly earned.  Is it fair to ask God to show us compassion, if we have not shown compassion to one another?

This past year, these past few weeks and months, have been difficult: the Israel-Gaza conflict, partisanship in U.S. politics, ISIS threatening Yazidis in Iraq, Boko Haram threatening girls in Nigeria, and numerous other disturbing events on both the domestic and the international stage.  How we respond to each of these incidents will be recorded as part of our legacy . Can we claim to be deserving of God's compassion and blessing if we have not shown compassion to others?

Let us open our hearts to all who are hurting.  Let us extend our hands in friendship to all who suffer. To paraphrase John Keating, Robin Williams' character from Dead Poet's Society, let us, in caring for others, make our lives extraordinary.

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