2016 Second Day of Rosh Hashanah
We have a tradition at Agudas Achim that congregants offer words of wisdom on the second day of Rosh Hashanah in place of a the rabbi's sermon. For 2016, the theme was "fear." Here are teachings from three of our congregants.
Shanah Tovah! My name is Elaine Bodemer. I am fifteen-years-old. I have had generalized anxiety disorder and I have struggled with it my entire life. My parents realized this and worked to get me help. I worked with a counselor and learned techniques for managing my anxiety. My parents also put me into a gymnastics program. I loved it and I got very good. It became my entire life. I was at the gym 16-18 hours a week and competed as a USA level 6 gymnast. On my 13th birthday I suffered a bilateral fracture to my L4/L5 vertebrae and just like that, my days as a gymnast ended. I felt like my identity had been taken away from me, and I did not know what to do with myself.
After a few months, I realized my anxiety was becoming hard to handle and depression was creeping over me. I was very lost. Without gymnastics, I didn’t know who I was any more. I went on shut down and did not want to talk about it. It gradually got worse and worse. My anxiety made me feel like I was walking around with a plastic bag over my head and it was suffocating me; the depression sucked all the motivation I once had and hurt many of the relationships I had with people.
There came a point last winter when I recognized that I could not handle what was happening. I was not being good to myself either mentally or physically. I was scared of myself. I needed help, but I had kept it in for so long that I did not know how to get it. I did not reach out to seek help because I wanted to feel like I was in control, and I did not want to appear like I was weak. I was scared of what would happen if I told someone; I did not want my parents to worry or be disappointed. I was afraid of the dangers I could potentially face if I did not ask for help. I feared the future either way. The decision weighed down on me. On the one hand, I wanted to feel like I could deal with my problems on my own; on the other hand, I knew deep down that I couldn’t.
Eventually everything came out. I sought help and was honest about the problems I was facing. I received help from my doctor and a counselor. I joined an anxiety support group with other kids my age, and I always knew that my family and community were there to help. It took everything I had to overcome the fear of people thinking I was strange or weak so that I could finally ask for help.
I learned that asking for help does not show weakness, but instead it shows that you want to stay strong. It means that you are wise. It means you’re human.
As I stand up here and tell you about my experience, part of me is afraid of what you will think of me. I fear you will think I am weird, or you will view me differently in general. However what I – and all of us – must keep in mind is that our fears are rarely the reality. Sometimes we have to step outside our comfort zone and to be able to overcome our uncertainties and do what is in our best interest.
I almost declined when I was asked to speak today, but I knew that what I had to say was important, even if sharing was scary. I hope that for those of you struggling with depression and anxiety, or anything you feel like you cannot handle on your own, are not afraid to ask for help because those who care about you will be happy to support you.
The early 20th century Rhode Island author, H.P. Lovecraft said, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”
A few weeks ago Rav Leora asked me to talk today about fear. I immediately started to think about my most recent relationship with fear. Preparing for my surgery in May, where I needed to brace myself for what could be the worst possible outcome from my abdominal pain; that of cancer. Many people said they would pray for me. They said they would pray that my ovarian cyst was benign. When I came out of surgery I feared the worst possible outcome. I feared that I had cancer. I feared that I would have to poison my body with chemotherapy drugs and that I would become sick and frail and incapable of caring for my family. My future felt lonely and scary. I feared the unknown of what was to come.
I did receive a diagnosis of Stage 2 Ovarian Cancer. I started to fear what I did not know. I started to fear that I would become a “lump of clay” on my living room couch and that my young children and husband would be eating hot dogs and hamburgers every night if I were unable to cook a healthy meal for them. This was the lowest of my low.
Over my next few weeks of recovery from my surgery and the start of chemotherapy I started to realize that I had more energy than I expected. Friends, family and members of the temple congregation came to visit and brought healthy food for my family. My fears of becoming helpless and unhealthy diminished. In fact, I have been able to finally focus more on my family and getting my home in order than I ever have before. This fear of the unknown that lay ahead of me has turned into a positive experience that has given me opportunities that I could not have imagined prior to my cancer diagnosis.
Back in high school my father introduced me to the concept of rather than embracing the known and fearing the unknown, let’s embrace the unknown and fear the known. Over the last 20 years I have taken this to mean that the possibilities of the unknown should be embraced and welcomed because they can bring unexpected surprises. For me, fear is a defense mechanism. It arises when I am unsure of the outcome of a situation and I anticipate that it could be negative or somehow detrimental to my future. Whereas, what is known to me should be clear for what the outcome will be and thereby comforting and safe.
However, this idea has challenged me to do things that lie outside of my comfort zone. This is where the possibilities are located, this is where potential is created and explored. People can say that positive results come from a positive attitude. I believe that is true, but I also believe positive results can arise from taking risks and embracing the unknown.
Fear is inherent in the unknown, but I believe that it is truly located in what we think we know and what we take for granted to be a given in our lives. When we think we know something, we become comfortable and complacent. This is a place in which we remain calm, however, when we venture out into the places we fear, into the unknown, that is where growth and possibilities can take place.
Just the other day my daughter, Sarah, opened a fortune cookie. It said: “Courage is the mastery of fear—not the absence of fear. This is yet another way to engage with the world. When we are able to master our fear, we display courage that strengthens and deepens our ability to tackle life’s difficulties and challenges. When fear is absent we remain in a safe space that may seem easy, but that does not support the growth and possibilities of what could happen. As the African author, Idowu Koyenikan has said,
“Many times, the thought of fear itself is greater than what it is we fear.”
What is FEAR? The dictionary defines fear as a distressive emotion aroused by an impending pain, danger.
The pain or danger may be perceived but not necessarily real.
I could say that I have a fear of public speaking.