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Convivium was a project of Cardus 2011‑2022, and is preserved here for archival purposes.
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Praying for One's LifePraying for One's Life

Praying for One's Life

Diane Weber Bederman discovers God's power to soothe the troubled mind.

Diane Weber Bederman
9 minute read

In the 1990s, I had my first appointment with a psychiatrist. I had severe anxiety that was so bad I felt frozen in place. My insides were always jumping, all revved up with nowhere to go. It felt like an internal earthquake jostling with knots of steel. I was trapped in a net of panic. It is in that place that choosing a path is difficult—wanting to go in one direction but paralyzed by fear and held back by feet of clay.

We live in a culture that teaches us that we have the right to choose, to make our own decisions. Sometimes, the ability to choose is just not there.

Mental illness clouds judgment. My psychiatrist did his best to hold on to me, to give the talk therapy enough time to work, but I was so anxious that I knew I would not be back, and he knew, too. As I was leaving for what would be the last time, he said to me, "You are taking a flight from freedom. Now is not the time to leave.†He was telling me that I was on the edge of a revelation that would free me from my anxiety, but I couldn't face it. I ran back to the familiar. I had no idea at the time, but I was replaying the behaviour of the Israelites from thousands of years ago.

The story of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, out of slavery, can be read as a metaphor for the struggles and fears many of us face in our lives. The Israelites had crossed the Sea of Reeds and were safe in the desert. But it wasn't long before the complaints began. They were frightened. Where would they get food, water or basic shelter? So they began to wax poetic about the past through discoloured glasses. It had not been so bad. At least there they had food and shelter and a bed in which to sleep. Nostalgia through the lens of fear can lead to a flight from the freedom that is waiting for you—a new life, with more choices. Instead, we turn back to the comfort of the enslavement of the known and familiar, be it a reclusive life, an abusive relationship or a stifling job.

I was living with the same fear as the Israelites, who could not face the future because of their fear of freedom. God soon realized that the Israelites, enslaved for so long, were afraid to move forward to freedom. God stood by His people: "By day in a pillar of cloud to show them the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light.…The pillar of cloud never left its place ahead of the people during the day, nor the pillar of fire during the night" (Exodus 13:21-22). God was a constant companion, leading them, carrying them, providing all the necessities of life, and guiding them until they could stand on their own. Some journeys are too difficult to take alone.

When God later revealed His teachings to the people at Mount Sinai, the people were terrified, "Seeing the thunder pealing, the trumpet blasting and the mountain smoking" (Exodus 20:18-19). At the moment of the most important revelation, a revelation that would free them from the past and reveal to them a new way of living, they backed away. They were afraid. It was overwhelming. They couldn't face it and they couldn't deal with the entire revelation at one time. They turned to Moses to help them—to talk to them, to take away their fear, to take them by the hand one step, sometimes baby steps, at a time.

In the year 2000, I went into hospital for minor surgery and 10 days later came out 20 pounds lighter, attached to a colostomy bag. Just as I was recovering from my emergency surgery, I was rushed back in for more. I had developed sepsis. I was being poisoned by my own body. At that point I was physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually bankrupt. I have never thought of myself as someone who gives up so easily. I don't know if I had lost hope or was just exhausted from the marathon of the unexpected. I told my surgeon—surgeon No. 3—that this surgery was it. No more. I have a very high pain threshold, but I had long passed the high end of the scale. She told me, unequivocally, that I would go through as many surgeries as necessary to get me back to health. She proudly told me of a patient who had required 13 operations. I wasn't impressed. If two surgeries were overwhelming, 13 were inconceivable. Not one of my finer moments. But I began to understand the true depths of depression, the kind that leads to thoughts of suicide. "My strength was trickling away, my bones were all disjointed, my heart was turning to wax, melting inside me" (Psalm 22:14). I was left with a sensation of emptiness, hopelessness, of being a burden, and not just physically. I wanted out. Caring for someone with extreme depression is exhausting; and who wants to exhaust the ones you love? It was my sense of helplessness that I found more devastating than any other emotion. No way out. No end to the pain. There is physical pain: the kind that starts at the toes and screams up the legs and throughout the whole body from inside out and steals your free will, your ability to think clearly and choose life; pain that brings thoughts of death and quickly erases the memories that make life worth living; pain, the devil, the serpent in the Garden, tempting you to eat of the fruit of death. And there is mental pain: the total lack of control over life because some other force has taken over. Suicide is the ultimate act of control, the ultimate expression of the desire for order. In the mind of the one who wants to die, it is a well thought out, justified act of selflessness. My loved ones will be fine. I won't be a burden to them. Suicide comes to symbolize peace. It all seems so normal. Except the one considering suicide is suffering from an illness so overwhelming that her decision making is not functioning. I was at that moment mentally ill.

My first psychiatrist told me a metaphor that compared life to a tree. I was asked, What do you think about trees? I said I loved them. I especially love trees in autumn. I was then asked whether the tree had to do anything for me to admire it. No. "So, if you can love a tree for being a tree, why can't you love you for just being you?" Good question. I suggested, though, that as much as I loved trees, if I were a tree, I would want to be home to a nest of birds or squirrels. I would want a purpose. I was not at a point where my intrinsic value as a human being, as a child of God—connected to Him by the divine spark within—was going to be enough for me to keep going.

It was my religion that sustained me while I continued to receive help from the psychosocial sciences. One might ask why the love of and for my family, my widowed mother, my three children, was not enough to keep me here. I have no answer. I am grateful, though, that I had one more therapy to turn to for help. I reached out to my rabbi.

I remember driving to the synagogue, exhausted. Everything at that time was exhausting. I went to see him in his book-lined office. We sat across from each other at a large desk strewn with books.

I think he is younger than I am, but his experiences in pastoral care and as a teacher give him wisdom beyond his years. When I think back, I picture a dark room, but I think it was more that I was in a dark place. I had been attending services and classes regularly for some time, so he knew of my love of study, of parsing Biblical stories and searching out meaning. I remember being taught we don't make meaning, rather we find it because God has provided all the meaning already.

My rabbi held on to me by tapping into a part of me that is deeply connected to God. He reminded me that as a child of God, I do not have the right to take my own life. I am obligated to "choose life for you and your children." He said that the most important thing I could do was study God's teachings. He gave me the reason to live while taking away any thought of taking my own life. Just read a few sentences a day, perhaps a prayer. I had a purpose: Study. Stay alive.

These are the things in which a person enjoys the fruits in this world, while the principle remains in the hereafter, namely: honouring father and mother, practising kindness, showing hospitality to strangers, visiting the sick, dowering the bride, attending the dead to the grave… but the study of Torah exceeds them all.

There was comfort and relief in my rabbi's message. His words, his compassion, his reference to the Biblical commandment to choose life, and his noting that study—something dear to me—was the greatest of all commandments lifted the burden from my shoulders. I was no longer in a state of anxiety, choosing between life and death. My deep depression did not lift right away. But at that moment, talking to my rabbi gave me hope. It was as if I had been holding my breath and now I could breathe again. Healing of my soul could begin because I was no longer in fear of losing it. It was for me, I think, the same feeling of relief that my Christian patients expressed to me when I encouraged them to visualize laying their burdens down at the foot of the Cross. I turned to my God to help me, to take away my fear. I read. I studied. I prayed to the God of my ancestors.

My God, the soul You have placed within me is pure, You created it, fashioned it and breathed it into me. You constantly safeguard it for me, and eventually You will take it from me to be restored only in the hereafter. Yet as long as it is within me, I will gratefully give thanks to You, O Lord, in whose hands are the souls of all the living. [Psalm 137]

My rabbi continued to provide spiritual care. Six months later, when it was time for me to return to the hospital for surgery to, hopefully, reverse the colostomy, he came to the hospital and prayed with me. This time, I feared dying. I had come full circle.

I am blessed with wonderful friends who care for me when I am in distress. But, something profoundly different takes place when the prayers of ancestors are recited by a learned, empathic rabbi or pastor. My rabbi brought me the feeling of the presence of God.

So many, today, turn to self-help books and gurus who say they have the answers to our deepest, most profound fears and feelings. They are merely attempting to fill the vacuum left by the presumed absence of religion. Religion has words, rituals and traditions that help us deal with frightening thoughts and feelings. Religion gives us repentance, forgiveness, revelation, atonement, redemption, resurrection and rituals such as the Eucharist, prayer and study as steadfast pillars of support while we fight our demons.

The sage, Rabbi Yochanan, said to his friend Rabbi Elazar, who was seriously ill, "Give me your hand." We cannot always heal ourselves. We all need a hand up, a pillar of light, at some time in our lives. Today some ask, Will it be science or religion? For me, I have two hands to reach out for support: one to hold on to my analysts (science); the other, my God (religion).

My mental illness still comes by to visit. Sometimes it is just a one-night stand; other times it lingers a little longer. But I am not afraid. I know it will pass. While I wait, I study.

Mental illness is only a detour in our journey toward becoming human, not a dead end.

It is ethical monotheism that questions the unbounded, "natural" authentic self and finds it wanting. It is ethical monotheism that teaches us that more is expected of us than pursuing individual rights and happiness. True authenticity comes from binding ourselves, like Abraham binding his son Isaac, to something beyond ourselves: to God and His teachings. As His children, created in His image, we have responsibilities, obligations and duties to others, and we must think beyond our own wants and needs and act with empathy and compassion.

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