Living With Private Emotional Pain

Like many type-A people, I like to feel that I am in control. I’m constantly looking for ways to optimize my life, to be a better parent, spouse, friend, human. While these are admirable goals, part of the reason I’m so focused on them is because I feel safer and calmer minimizing the chaos and the unknowns. I like to think I can fix things, to eliminate stress and pain, just through better planning and organization.

However, life is full of unknowns and glitches and difficulties. When faced with a painful situation, my instinct has typically been to turn to Torah, to use the tools that are in there to, in my mind, make the situation go away. Or at least to alleviate the pain, the stress, the anguish and turmoil that come with challenging life situations.

It’s one of the things that I appreciate most about Jewish tradition – this acknowledgement of life’s difficulties and the many stories and strategies that exist to deal with pain, loss, suffering and the less pleasant realities of life.

The biggest lesson I learned this year was that there are some pains that are not fixable through any action I take, external or internal. There are some pains that will only go away when G-d decides to take them away.

I’m not talking about the permanent and socially visible pain like the loss of a loved one (lo aleinu), but the more insidious ones, the situations we are thrust into that are privately painful or confusing or uncomfortable. An unhealthy relationship, a toxic work environment, or any dysfunctional situation where you are bound by geography or marriage or work or blood or any combination thereof.

I’ve seen painful situations being compared to childbirth. Yes, it hurts when you’re going through it, but at the end there’s growth and new life and how wonderful!  

But the thing with these chronic private pains is that there is no baby at the end. There is just the pain, and it can be both unpredictable and constant.

It’s only when an external event, a physical move, a difficult co-worker finding a new job, the dissolution of a relationship, or, in some cases, death, only when one of those things happen, that’s when the pain goes away.

In the relief, in the aftermath of all that pain, that’s when the effects of the experience can be seen and analyzed.

I’ve had the dubious luck of going through two strikingly similar challenges, both the type that wouldn’t be obvious to anyone who wasn’t privy to the details, and not the type where I could ever really discuss the details publicly.

While I could have done without either experience, it does make for convenient comparisons. In one situation I became more devoted to observance, almost obsessed with doing the “right” thing, and in the other I reacted by becoming bitter and falling away from a feeling of closeness to G-d.

In the heat of the second experience, I looked back at my reactions to the first situation as naive, farfrumpt, repressive and unhealthy. But in the aftermath of the second experience, I saw how reacting in anger did not help me emotionally process the challenge any better than the buttoned-up tzedekes approach did.

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I feel like both my reactions to those challenges were immature. They were both reactions, and they were both relating to my relationship with G-d through the lens of the challenge. In the first situation, I drew closer because that’s what I thought I was supposed to do and also I hoped that it would make the pain stop (it didn’t).

In the second situation, I felt like “what is the point of trying to do the right thing here because it’s useless, it didn’t help before and it’s not going to help now.” I was viewing connection to G-d and mitzvos as a means to an end, and this did me no favors either.

But it did help me understand anger. It helped me understand why people would choose distance. It helped me understand how chronic emotional pain affects everything and colors every decision and choice and feeling in life. 

And it helped me understand that, ideally, I want my connection to G-d and Judaism to be a goal on its own, not some quid pro quo agreement.

So what now?

Though I loathe, really loathe, acknowledging that I cannot fix all the painful situations that come into my life (and, more acutely, into the lives of my children), there is an upside:

Those of us who are the reflective types, the self-flagellators, I fear we will always find a way to blame ourselves for the failed relationships, the toxic environments, the disrespectful or unhealthy situations which come up in life. We will tend to say, “if I only try harder, or do this instead of that, or work more on myself, then the situation will get better.”

Acknowledging our powerlessness absolves us from that. We still have to do our part, to make what effort we can. Like Rabbi Tarfon says (Pirkei Avos 2:21), “you are not required to complete the task, yet you are not free to withdraw from it.” The situation may be lousy and it may stay lousy and who knows when or if it will end, but it is not up to us to fix it. It is up to us to do our best to deal with what we’ve been handed.

I don’t know what future challenges I will face. Life is full of surprises, both painful and pleasant, but I want to take my lesson from this year and do my best not to let the varied experiences of life distract me from the work that I am here to do.


Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash