When You Can’t Summon Joy on Command: Celebrating in a Crisis
“Well, I woke up this morning.”
My beloved friend and colleague often offered this response to whatever version of “How are you?” anyone ever presented. Healthy perspective, a gratitude developed in part through his time as a US Army Captain, serving tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. He knows too many people who no longer wake up each morning. His reply was completely reasonable, even admirable, and yet it used to send me into a rage, one that I recognize now was rooted in self-judgment and social stigmas surrounding mental health challenges.
What about people who are depressed? What about people in mourning? What about victims of trauma, both acute and the ongoing kind that results from systemic racism, or sexism, or homophobia, or transphobia? What about healthcare workers, including cleaning staff and chaplains and security guards, who go to work every day knowing that far too many people in their communities refuse to take precautions against COVID? What if I wake up in the morning dreading making it through the rest of the day? Does that make me a bad person? A lesser person?
וְשָׂמַחְתָּ֖ בְּחַגֶּ֑ךָ וְהָיִ֖יתָ אַ֥ךְ שָׂמֵֽחַ
V’samachta b’chagecha v’hayita ach sameach. You shall rejoice in your holiday, and you shall have nothing but joy.
This song often accompanies celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, the week-long festival that concludes this weekend. And those aren’t just lyrics; they’re actually commandments. They’re imperatives from the Torah, our sacred text:
וְשָׂמַחְתָּ֖ בְּחַגֶּ֑ךָ אַתָּ֨ה וּבִנְךָ֤ וּבִתֶּ֙ךָ֙ וְעַבְדְּךָ֣ וַאֲמָתֶ֔ךָ וְהַלֵּוִ֗י וְהַגֵּ֛ר וְהַיָּת֥וֹם וְהָאַלְמָנָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר בִּשְׁעָרֶֽיךָ׃ שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֗ים תָּחֹג֙ לַיהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ בַּמָּק֖וֹם אֲשֶׁר־יִבְחַ֣ר יְהוָ֑ה כִּ֣י יְבָרֶכְךָ֞ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֗יךָ בְּכֹ֤ל תְּבוּאָֽתְךָ֙ וּבְכֹל֙ מַעֲשֵׂ֣ה יָדֶ֔יךָ וְהָיִ֖יתָ אַ֥ךְ שָׂמֵֽחַ׃
You shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and daughter, your male and female servant, the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your communities. You shall hold a festival for the Eternal your God seven days, in the place that the Eternal will choose; for the Eternal your God will bless all your crops and all your undertakings, and you shall have nothing but joy. (Devarim/Deuteronomy 16:14–15)
Commentators from the ancient to the contemporary have puzzled over these verses, worrying that they represent an impossible ask: a commandment to have a particular emotion at a particular time.
Of course, that’s not what the Torah nor the Talmud say.
Jewish tradition instructs us to build a temporary structure and make that vulnerable place our home for a week. Jewish tradition instructs us to welcome literal, physical guests from all walks of society into that fragile home. Jewish tradition instructs us to invite metaphorical, spiritual guests from across time and space there, too. And Jewish tradition instructs us to hear the words of Kohelet (translated as “Ecclesiastes” in Christian tradition) on these days, at this season.
“And you shall have nothing but joy.” Also, there is “a time for weeping and a time for dancing” (Kohelet 2:7).
So, there’s a time for weeping, and a time for dancing, and Sukkot is joyful so you better effing dance?!
I don’t think so.
Sukkot isn’t about a commandment to buck up, be happy, and be grateful that we woke up this morning. It’s about concepts I learned through the work of psychologist Marsha Linehan, though Kohelet anticipated her wisdom: emotional mindfulness and radical acceptance.
Many cultures, systems, and spiritual traditions encourage and practice emotional mindfulness. At its core, this type of mindfulness requires experiencing each and every emotion, in the moment. It is neither avoidant nor indulgent. It means recognizing, like Kohelet, that there is a time for weeping and a time for dancing. Only, those times aren’t printed on some external calendar we must follow; no, those times emerge from our own bodies, our own minds, our own hearts and souls.
Stop. Listen to your body. Feel. Is now a time for weeping? Do your limbs feel like dancing? Can you trace the sensations in your body? Can you name that emotion? Can you feel it, right now, in this moment, this et, this time?
“You shall rejoice in your holiday.” Yours, not God’s. Fully, with your human self. The Eternal designed Sukkot to be a time for human experience, for vulnerability and mortality, for impermanence. For the sensory pleasures of holding and gathering four species together: the sharply fragrant etrog (citrus fruit), the sturdy palm branch, the fragile willow, and the fragrant myrtle. For sharing food with friends, for laughing when it starts to rain, for missing the ones who are gone. There will be times for dancing and for weeping there, under the stars.
And radical acceptance — Sukkot could be the poster holiday for it. Linehan describes radical acceptance as a “complete and total” acceptance of your reality, in this moment, without bitterness, judgment, or tantrums.
I used to think radical acceptance meant being a doormat. I used to think it meant invalidating trauma, just as I thought my friend’s daily gratitude was a judgment against those who suffer with anxiety and depression. Now I know better, both from wisdom like Linehan’s and from Jewish tradition itself.
How are you? Well… I woke up this morning. I am alive, and the world is exactly as it is. It is imperfect. It is, in far too many ways, unjust. I feel sad about that. And that’s ok, because there is a time for weeping, and a time for dancing. So, later, maybe, I’ll remember, as I encourage you to, to go outside later, to observe sukkot in whatever way I am able, during the COVID pandemic, and rejoice, whatever that looks like.
Because, it’s still the time for rejoicing, and for dancing, and for celebrating. It’s the time for being grateful to be alive, and mindful of our emotions, and radically accepting of reality.
If you’re able to observe sukkot according to Jewish tradition and custom, you might, right at this moment, be dwelling in a temporary structure. Its walls might be sturdy but thin, or translucent and gauzy. Its roof certainly allows you to see the sky. The wind rattles the posts. Raindrops fall into your soup (If it’s pouring, it’s right to go inside!). Were it not for COVID, guests, invited and uninvited, would stroll in to share a meal or a song or a prayer. You’ve got those four plants in your hands, and you’re shaking them in six directions, and you don’t care if people say this looks pagan or weird because who cares, it resonates.
Rabbi Chizkiah once said, in the name of Rav, his teacher, “In the future, the human being will be judged for all that their eye saw and they did not eat” (Jerusalem Talmud Kiddushin 4:12). We might add: In the future, the human being will be judged for every tear that their eye wanted to cry but their self-judgment suppressed.
Upon hearing this teaching, Rabbi Lazer, rather than running out to the shuk (the outdoor market) and eating every single thing before him, took the wiser path: he “set aside money to eat from every kind once a year” (ibid.).
There is a time for weeping and a time for dancing. And I woke up this morning, and you woke up this morning. And one day, we won’t. So it is good and right and healthy to set aside the resources we need to have every kind of experience in this fragile, impermanent world, that we can.
How are you? Well, I woke up this morning.