I hope our readers who are in similar situations to the letter writer find some measure of comfort and chizuk from these lines. Unfortunately, I have been getting far too many calls and emails of this nature.
Best wishes for a Chag Kosher V'samayach,
(P.S. This article is available in pdf format for your convenience. Request the pdf version by sending an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org )
Tough Times Don’t Last
Tough People Do
Dear Rabbi Horowitz:
In my wildest dreams, I never thought I would be writing a letter like this – or that I would be in such a challenging position.
Over the past twenty-seven years, I built a business from scratch and was b’eh very successful financially. Now, I am watching the fruits of my labor disintegrate. Sometimes I feel like I am watching a film of my professional life in reverse – with everything I’ve created unraveling before my eyes. I am finding it difficult to eat and sleep. In fact, I recently started taking sleeping pills to unwind at night. Baruch Hashem, I am blessed with a wonderful wife who is supportive and understanding, but there are so many questions: Should I add to her burden by unloading all my problems on her? Should we tell our children? How about our married children, who we are supporting – what do we tell them? And now with Pesach coming, how can I enjoy Yom Tov with all that is going on in my life? How do I overcome the malaise that is my constant companion? My family is looking to me for guidance; how can I offer them chizuk when I myself am reeling?
Name withheld by request
The wisest of all men, Shlomo Hamelech, extolled the importance of friendship when he penned the classic pesukim, "Tovim ha’shnayim min ha’echad, … sheim yipolu, ha’echad yokim es chavero - [The shared power of] two is better than one … for if they should fall, one can lift the other." (Koheles 4:9-10). It is interesting to note that Shlomo Hamelech uses the plural yipolu when denoting falling rather than the singular yipol. I suggest that he is teaching us a profound lesson – that when we hit rough patches in our lives, the value of companionship and solidarity exists even if both have fallen, and is not only limited to situations when the one friend who is standing assists the other who has slipped.
All too often, we tend to withdraw – even from our closest friends and loved ones – when things get difficult. But doing so denies us the comfort that Shlomo Hamelech was referring to when we need it the most. With that in mind, you will be well served to keep the lines of communication open with your wife and resist the temptation to shield her from the difficulty you are facing. You may wish to share all the details of your financial crisis with her or simply discuss things in broad strokes. However, locking her out of your life will, in all likelihood deprive you of the chizuk she can offer you, deny her the ability to support you emotionally, and perhaps even erode the quality of your marriage.
You and your wife ought to, in an age appropriate manner, explain to your children that the family’s finances have had a significant reversal. It is probably unwise to share all the details with them, but you must be completely honest, for any evasive answers you give will make them even more anxious. I suggest that you be more direct with your married children and explain to them that while your commitment to them was made with the best of intentions, you are simply unable to meet them now.
Your use of sleeping pills worries me. I am not suggesting that you never take them, rather that you do so sparingly and only under the care of your physician, as they are addictive. And if you find yourself sinking into the black hole of despondency; please, please seek out the assistance of your Rav and/or mental health professional (in all honesty, treating clinical depression is far beyond the skill set of a well-intentioned rabbi, such as this writer. If you are feeling genuine depression, you should certainly continue to consult with you Rav, but you must seek professional help as well), for denying yourself their aid is analogous to having a root canal done without Novocain.
In my work with at-risk teens, I often find myself called upon to comfort and guide terrified and broken-hearted parents of kids who are spiraling downward. Naturally, they feel like their lives have been shattered beyond repair. (As the wise mother of a troubled teen once told me, “Rabbi, good parents are never happier than their unhappiest child.”) In the course of our discussions, I often ask the parents if they are exercising regularly and spending recreational time together. I am usually treated to a “you-gotta-be-kidding” look, as they cannot imagine relaxing during this tumultuous period of their lives. I inform them, however, that it is more critical than ever that they nurture their bodies and souls – in order to be better positioned to help their teenager and his/her siblings. So please take care of yourself; for your own sake and for those you love. In addition to all its health benefits, exercise releases the endorphins that are so helpful in maintaining your emotional health.
Always try to keep your eyes and ears open for things that bolster your spirits – a pasuk in Tehilim, a vort you remember from your rebbi, a beautiful sunset, an uplifting song; anything that will give you chizuk. Twenty-one years ago, my contract was not renewed (that’s polite-speak for getting fired) as Head Counselor of the summer camp where I worked for seven years. Distraught, I drove up to the Catskills to clear my head and clean out my desk. At the bottom of a stack of papers, I found a poster with the words, “Tough Times Don’t Last; Tough People Do.” I took the sign home and framed it.
You mentioned that you find it hard to be a pillar of strength for your family to lean on as your knees are wobbly in the face of your challenges. But as difficult as it may be, try to remember that your kids are watching your reaction to this situation very carefully, and that this is probably the best chance that you will have in your lifetime to afford them a dmus diyuknoi shel aviv (lit. [their] father’s image, see Rashi Bereshis 39:11) of resiliency in the face of adversity. I am very fortunate to have a mother who is an extraordinary role model; perhaps the most resilient person I have ever met. She was childless for the first ten years of marriage, widowed a few short years later, and left with three children under the age of five. Her personal example of poise and courage in her darkest days inspire me whenever I hit a rough patch.
Finally, and perhaps most important of all, this financial crisis affords you the opportunity to articulate our bedrock Torah values to your family in a way that may not have been possible in heady times. Speak from your heart about your fears and concerns – but also about our faith in Hashem, about the importance of family and community in our lives, about how the value of our lives is measured not by what we have, but rather by whatwhat we have given to others. Hopefully, it is these lessons that your family members will remember – far more than the difficult times that caused them to be taught.
© 2009 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved
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