Is it Really the Time to Say No? Powering Through the Pandemic Moment

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By Shira Hecht-Koller

On a cold and brisk morning in March, over a decade ago, I ran my first half marathon. I had always been athletic, but never a runner, and so I took the opportunity – at a hectic and full moment in my life – to challenge myself to meet new goals and trained for the Fitness Magazine Women’s Marathon in Central Park. When I woke up to a day of sleet, driving rain, and emotional fatigue, I was tempted to get back under my cozy down blanket and call it a day. But my kids had spent the night before making colorful signs, my partner was suited up in rain gear ready to stand on the sidelines to cheer me on (one of very few spectators that day), and most importantly, I knew that thousands of other women were waiting for me at the start line. After the first mile, it became clear that the energy of the group is what would carry me through the icy, wet run, propelling me as my sneakers sloshed through every puddle and as my raw and cold fingers wiped the combination of sleet, sweat, and tears from my brow.

We find ourselves now in a marathon that has drawn out for over eight months. The races are radically different. In a traditional marathon, the race is the goal, while in the Covid-era slog, the race is merely the path which we must traverse to emerge stronger on the side. Nevertheless, there are lessons of resilience and strength that can be gleaned from endurance athletes to power us through this moment. When fatigue sends you to your limits, push to a gear beyond your normal pain threshold; test the outer bounds of your exhaustion; you can adapt in ways you did not know possible; pace yourself and you will thrive; muscle building requires first moving through the pain, only then recovery; you are stronger than you think; rely on the endurance, energy and creative adaptability of those around you.

It is for these reasons that I read with concern Dr. Betsy Stone’s recent blog post, “Endless Fatigue. Give Yourself a Break” and the advice offered to “set the bar lower” and “do less and be satisfied with what you can achieve,” to “say no” and “don’t ask so much – of you or anyone else.” Particularly concerning to me is that this advice will be read, especially by women, as encouragement to step back and not power through the moment. The pandemic has already threatened the progress of gender equality in the workplace, with women’s careers and professional advancement at high risk. Advice from seasoned professionals to “say no” seems to me to be the wrong approach.

I do not advocate that we push ourselves to the brink; our physical and emotional health must come first. But thresholds are individualized, and many people – men and women alike – are capable of a pushing themselves a lot harder than they first think is possible. I fear that women – but not just women – who read this advice will give themselves license to step back, say no, and be left forever behind as the world continues to progress, institutions continue to operate and other individuals continue to thrive. For those who can push through the pain, might we encourage them to do so lest they be left behind?

Of course, embracing pain without proper support will only lead to collapse.

So what is the approach that can best offer support as we navigate the impossible tasks being demanded of each and every one of us right now? What advice would allow individuals to continue to grow and thrive, while leaning into the pain of the process? What should we be telling educators, parents, leaders, teachers and students, that will give them the strength to continue on this long and arduous journey, making sure they endure and emerge healthy and do not find themselves left behind?

For me, and many others, like on that cold and rainy race day years ago, it has been the reliance upon strength and support of others. Now is the time, like no other, to draw upon networks, communities, families, support systems, friends, neighbors, children, partners, collaborators and even competitors. Ask from them, so that they can provide. Give to them, so that they will rise. Join forces so that all can thrive. As Wharton professor Adam Grant has explored in his book Give and Take, in our shifting and reconfigured world, to be successful depends in great part on collaborations with others. Giving to others strengthens ourselves, so now is the time to give and take.

This advice may seem intuitively obvious, but given our contemporary culture of supreme independence and deeply entrenched ethos of individualism, it is not an approach that I have heard preached nearly enough. This moment of intense isolation and necessary distance from others has resulted in an unfortunate retreat from even the few support networks that individuals have relied upon. We need each other now more than ever.

Following this advice throughout the pandemic has manifested itself in both the personal and professional realms of my life. My friends and family members and I have banded together to consistently cook for one another, we pool our resources to provide entertainment for our children, we have divided and conquered educational challenges, holiday planning, hike-navigating, gardening queries, and we have shared not just ideas but paint and resin for our craft projects. I have joined online fitness communities that offer strength and support as gyms remain shuttered and pools closed. My family has become my rock, for both the practical and existential.

But most saliently, I have found that collaborations , partnerships and the creation of new networks in my professional world have allowed me to thrive and grow as an educator and leader at a time when all odds seem stacked against my professional advancement and growth. There is chaos at home, my children are bouncing off the walls, the world is crumbling, my parents need attention, the to-do list seems endless. And yet, new fellowship opportunities of which I am a part and new and innovative cutting-edge organizational collaborations which I have co-built continue to propel me forward. They have raised me up, allowing me to grow and thrive. At the beginning of the pandemic I would never have thought there would be time to do more, and yet there is. I could not have imagined finding collaborators and partners who squeeze every ounce of energy out of themselves in the interest of building, supporting and creating, but they were there.

I am privileged this year to be a fellow in the inaugural cohort of The Jewish Pedagogies Circle at M2: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education, where I can think and dream, alongside scholar-practitioners as we design, test and produce our own Jewish Pedagogies. We are given guidance and feedback from leading experts who are carrying each of us through this tumultuous time. It is a gift to have been paired with a havruta as part of the fellowship, someone with whom I can “talk shop,” debrief, and lean upon every other week. Every member of the cohort has had to add more to their plate, at a time when we feel stretched to our limits already. And yet, each and every one is motivated to push personal limits, dig deeper, do more, and draw upon the strength of others to sustain them.

At 929 English, I have been awed by the power of organizational collaboration as we have built The Akedah Project, a platform and accessible Jewish content media-hub, with three other organizational co-partners. We have each brought our talents, skills, resources, scholarship, and creativity together to build something new at a time when just keeping afloat seemed challenging enough. And yet, leaning upon one another, we were able to create and produce something bigger than each of ourselves and the organizations we represent. The strength and power of the partners and the ingathering of energy to propel one another has allowed some of the organizational “little guys” to not just survive, but thrive at this moment.

As we continue to move through this age of solitude, it is the talent, advice, expertise, and experience of others – novices and seasoned professionals alike – that will bring us all to the finish line. We will likely be tired, sore, and perhaps even wobbling in pain, but energized by the strength and resilience of one another, ready to take on the next challenge. More important than what we accomplish this year is the strong collaborative position we will be in when we emerge from this moment. If those who can stay in the game – as painful as it may be – instead opt to slow down now, and say no, will they ever be able to catch up? I worry that too many may unintentionally drop out of the race, when we would all benefit from their staying in, carrying and being carried by others.

Shira Hecht-Koller, Esq is the Director of Education at 929 English, the global platform for the study of Tanakh and a Fellow in the Jewish Pedagogies Circle at M2: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education.