What if we begin to look at the future through the lens of where we are today, rather than where we have been? What have we learned about human beings, and how do we support the people around us? How do we relate to our own fears and the sorrows of others? We must relearn community, creating rules that allow for personal choices and space.
Another summer is in the books and another school year begins. Camps report another year of disordered eating, self-injury and panic attacks among kids and staff. Our children are not OK. They struggle with depression, anxiety, increased aggression and issues of independence.
We speak of learning loss, of regression, of developmental stunting. Teachers worry about educational norms, about “catching up.” I hear clergy worry that there will be many empty seats in the sanctuary, that people will zoom rather than be present in community. We are focused on the deviation from historical norms.
I increasingly think this approach is deeply flawed. We know that communal trauma changes the trajectory of history, and individual trauma changes the trajectory of individual lives. We have had both. When we compare 5783 to 5780, we naively assume that our lives should be unchanged, and that the trajectory of our future should follow a historical path.
We have lived through a series of historical events: COVID-19, the murder of George Floyd, Colleyville, Charlottesville and Tree of Life, January 6, Dobbs, the war in Ukraine. We are living proof of the traditional curse, “May you live in interesting times.”
We have all lost, whether losses of people we love or of freedoms we assumed or of trust in the social network. We are all mourning. We are all changed.
I believe that we need to approach the future without simply focusing on deviation from historical norms. Yes, our children are not at historical grade level. Yes, our teens are not transitioning to college smoothly. Yes, our sanctuaries will be missing some members, emptier than we hope. Yes, our clergy is utterly burnt out. But these are the impacts of the last 30 months.
What if we begin to look at the future through the lens of where we are today, rather than where we have been? What have we learned about human beings, and how do we support the people around us? How do we relate to our own fears and the sorrows of others? We must relearn community, creating rules that allow for personal choices and space. We were productive working from home, and we deepened our relationships with our families. Isn’t this a value employers could stand behind? We can create online communities that either act as transitions back to live community, or can function as communities that bring value going forward. In my work with clergy, I support groups of geographically disparate rabbis and cantors. They need each other, even if we’re not in person. I don’t think these online communities are lesser because they’re online and different from the ways we used to relate to one another. I think they are essential.
Our children are teaching us the importance of community as well. It is our job to find ways to bring them together, to address the anxieties they face. And this is not the job of schools, even though they bring these issues to school. Educators are trained to teach learners. They are not therapists. Our children are not damaged, they (and we) are changed. They are who they are right now, and we need societal supports for them. The Foundation for Jewish Camp has supported camps through their Yedid Nefesh initiative, funding and teaching expanded emotional camper care. We need these kinds of support on a national level, in our institutions, in our workplaces.
Recently a rabbi told me she just wanted to feel grounded again. We all want to feel grounded. And we need to realize that this image includes change. A plant changes the soil and is changed by the soil. Roots break up earth and dirt feeds plants. We are in a continuous and mutual circle of change. We can embrace it, or we can stomp the soil until it’s too hard to support fragile roots.
We are not defective portrayals of who we would have been without COVID-19. We are people whose lives look forward to new challenges. Let’s stop looking at ourselves through the lens of deviation and loss. I am proud of how I have survived and the ways in which I’ve thrived. This is the scaffolding that will take me into the future. How can we all build on the scaffolding we have created?
Betsy Stone is a retired psychologist who consults with camps, synagogues, clergy and Jewish institutions. She is the author of Refuah Shlema, a compilation of her previous eJP articles, recently published by Amazon.