Where Can I Put My Feelings?

On Sunday I came home to find Aliza sitting on the couch feeding our baby. She was crying. Concerned, I asked what was wrong? What happened? She told me that a teen had fallen to his death at an amusement park in Orlando. It's a picture that's difficult to unsee.

Undoubtably, the horror of this tragedy strikes close to our hearts, and the sadness and shock made its way into our home.

On Monday, I walked into class and found my students embroiled in a heated debate about whether it was appropriate to slap another person in public for insulting ones spouse. Some of my students were raising their voices. Tensions were high, and apparently, the anger on display at the Oscars made its way into our classroom.

Last week, watching the levaya of Rav Chaim Kanievsky, and hearing some of the hespedim filled me with sadness and tenderness, grief and gratitude. I hope that I have shared some of those feelings with my family, community, friends and students.

It's not a secret: Emotions are contagious. An event that happens to another person in another place that we don't even know can trigger a powerful wave of feelings, that, in turn can affect the people around us. But there is a peculiarity to these effects, because the strength of our emotional response is sometimes bizarrely disproportionate.

Two weeks ago, we watched in horror as Russia invaded Ukraine. We probably all agree that on an intellectual level, the travesty of Russia's egregious and unprovoked war should make us far angrier than a slap at the Oscars. But our personal powerlessness to change the situation on the ground forces us into emotional numbness.

Watching helplessly from afar, the destruction of Jewish homes, communities and lives should make it impossible for us to continue with our day. And yet, somehow we manage to shelve the weight of these events in order to get our kids to school, get to work, and make it home for dinner, homework and bedtime. When we finally get around to reading the headlines, or scroll through a feed, we are now overwhelmed by the pain of what we read and see, and overcome with guilt that we allowed ourselves to be distracted.

Sometimes, however, the enormity of a tragedy makes it impossible to continue with daily life. This week, terrorists are once again murdering our brothers and sisters in Israel. Beersheva, Hadera, Ramat Gan, Bnei Brak. We see their homes, their faces on our news feeds and WhatsApp chats. We read their stories. It's overwhelming. Israelis are nervous. Parents are telling their children to stay home. I am personally feeling broken, sad, angry and numb all at once.

Where do these feelings go? I honestly don't know. Where should we put all of this on the relative scales of moral injustices? How should we calculate the requisite emotional response?

It is impossible to know.

Where exactly is that illusive boundary between insensitivity to pain and paralysis from it? How do we avoid being completely burn-out? Where does each event lie on the spectrum of human emotion? What am I supposed to feel? How strongly should I feel it? How often?

Perhaps the most important question bothering me is how to balance my own need to feel these emotions with the desire to protect those around me from absorbing them? Essentially, I am wondering if there is a way to live with both Simcha and sensitivity in a painful world?

Of course, we know, there is no 'supposed to's' here. Mental health professionals strongly caution against ascribing moral values to feelings, and of course, this is correct. There are no rights or wrongs when we speak about emotional responses. We feel what we feel, and then we work to channel, direct and manage those emotions. But that doesn't prevent the confusion, guilt and emotional contagiousness.

So, while I am not trying trying to pass judgement on my feelings or yours, I humbly submit that I think we need a better strategy, or perhaps any strategy at all, and I'd like to make three suggestions.

1. How Much are We Consuming?

Let's take stock of the current state of affairs. Presently, we are all passive consumers of other people's emotions. (Emotions that we now understand are being actively manipulated by mainstream and social media, in their never-ending quest to monetize our attention.)

In our most tired and lethargic moments, we open our devices to a steady stream of heavy emotions, interspersed with meaningless nonsense and targeted ads. Minutes turn to hours, and we are left physically exhausted and emotionally drained. We scroll through image after image, video after video flip-flopping between amusement, despair and distraction.

But our desire for emotion is not abnormal and we cannot starve ourselves of feelings. We can, however, find healthier ways to emote, as The Piasesna Rebbe (צו וזירוז ט׳) writes:

The human soul loves to feel... not only to feel happiness, but also to feel sadness and tears. People are drawn to see terrifying visions, and to hear terrible stories that rouse them to tears, simply so that they might feel. This is a need, and like any other need, it must be fulfilled. To that end a Jew should fill their need to feel with an emotional connection to Torah, mitzvos and Klal Yisrael.

The first step to a healthier emotional diet is to make intentional choices. What are we consuming? Where is it coming from? Can we get our fill from healthier sources?

2. Making Time for Sadness

Even if we are careful about when and how we consume emotive material, the truth remains that we will experience overwhelming and painful emotions, resulting in the confusion and guilt described above.

The Ba'al HaTanya (ליקוטי אמרים כו) gives us a brilliantly empathetic strategy: Make time for the sadness. Set aside a quiet time every day to allow yourself the feelings of failure, frustration, anger, sadness and brokenness. Once that time is over, move on with your day, serve Hashem with Simcha.

When we allow ourselves the time to collect and reflect on our experiences and exposures, we are a little less desperate, less broken.

3. Our Job is to Fix It

Once we have allowed ourselves to feel, and found time to do so in a healthier way, Rav Kook (Shemonah Kevatzim 2:99:1) famously charges us with the obligation of fixing:

“The purely righteous do not complain of the dark, but increase the light; they do not complain of evil, but increase justice; they do not complain of heresy, but increase faith; they do not complain of ignorance, but increase wisdom.”

The greatest response to pain and negativity is to become epicenters of positivity.

Perhaps this is the message at the core of Parshas HaChodesh. No one can deny that the night sky is dark, but from here the light of the moon gets brighter.

Hashem should help us to feel it in our lives, our hearts and minds במהרה בימנו.