Saturday, December 26, 2015

We All Pull The Trigger

Here's my most recent article published in the Huffington Post:

When confronted with terrifying and inexplicable events we experience extremely uncomfortable and seemingly unbearable individual and collective chaos. We are thrown into crisis. Nothing makes sense. Everything seems out of control. Life becomes terrifying. Our very survival appears to demand an immediate return to the perceived safety and certainty of life before the chaos of crisis.
Surviving a crisis can sometimes be as clear as finding the most direct path to safety: Leave a burning building through the closest exit. Seek a storm cellar before the tornado arrives. Go to high ground during a flood. These safety strategies are historically effective and may help us survive such moments of danger. We further understand that fires are extinguished, winds end, and waters recede. Most of us don't live in constant fear of these dangers and those who do seldom thrive. We also generally understand the root causes of these dangers. When these understandable crises end, their dangers for the most part also end. We clean up the debris, we bandage the wounded, we bury the dead and then we turn once again toward balance and life.
Common wisdom indicates that the mass shootings of the past decade have devastated our necessary sense of equilibrium and left us in a different type of crisis state. As we reel from the violence we demand explanation. As life becomes increasingly scary we seek accountability. Unfortunately, this is no simple crisis and, despite our yearnings for one, there is no clear, direct path to safety. There is no single source of our current danger. Nevertheless, flailing, we grasp at anything that might steady us. We cling to the simple solution and the named culprit. With a culprit and a solution we feel safer and more in control.
This human need to quickly resolve a crisis and regain safety and control is innate and understandable. As a strategy for resolving our current crisis of mass shootings this 'quick-find- the-culprit-and-implement-the-solution' approach holds the potential for doing more harm than good. All too quickly and all too frequently we point our fingers at already disenfranchised minorities and proudly proclaim that we've found the bad guys. We then feel compelled to 'do something about' those to whom our fingers point.
After each tragic mass shooting we are called upon, for example, to 'do something about' mental illness. The majority of the 'mental-illness-is-the-culprit' strategies are sadly rooted in misunderstanding and misinformation.
Any strategy designed to target those among us receiving mental health services will likely violate the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) privacy rule. Federal law protects the privacy of our medical information. If you don't want your recent treatment for that STD made public then don't demand that your neighbor's recent treatment for depression be made public either.
It must be further noted that when we point our fingers of blame at the mentally ill in this country we are pointing at over 50 million people. Each year one in four adults experience a mental disorder. (Martinelli, Laurie R., Binney, June S. & Kaye, Rebecca.2014."Separating Myth from Fact: Unlinking Mental Illness and Violence and Implications for Gun Control Legislation and Public Policy." New England Journal on Criminal and Civil Confinement. 40. 359-357.) Seeing a woman odorous and disheveled jumping up and down while shouting at someone invisible to us can be unsettling. It is very different behavior. Unfortunately our national mythology equates different with dangerous and so we fear difference.
Between 2001 and 2010 people with mental illness perpetrated fewer than 5% of the 120,000 gun-related killings in this country. (Metl, Jonathan M.2015."Gun violence, stigma, and mental illness: Clinical implications". Psychiatric Times. 32.3. 54.) Different does not necessarily mean dangerous. Is it possible for a person suffering from mental illness to become violent? Of course it is. Is it possible for a person who has never experienced any symptoms of mental illness to also become violent? Absolutely. Predicting violent behavior is potentially possible. However relying on mental health providers to make such predictions is not practical. Definitions of mental illness are fluid. Even the bible of psychiatric diagnosis, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, publishes regular revisions.
Seeking our quick exit from crisis by identifying and pointing fingers at potential culprits also increases the stigma of already stigmatized minorities. Research tells us that public stigma robs the mentally ill of work, independent living and other important life opportunities and further negatively impacts their own self-esteem and self-efficacy. (Corrigan, Patrick W. & Watson, Amy C.2002."The Paradox of Self-Stigma and Mental Illness". American Psychological Association. D12. 35-53.)
In his address to the Institute of Medicine's (IOM's) Forum on Global Violence Prevention, Dr. Mark Rosenberg stated that, "Mental illness plays only a small role in violence, but that intersection is clouded by misconceptions and disinformation in the public's mind." (Levin, A.2014."Experts Refute Myths Linking Mental Illness, Violence". Psychiatric News. March 31.)
There is no denying that we are in the middle of a national crisis. However, by claiming the quick explanations and solutions we so desperately crave we risk not only missing the root causes of the crisis but also, in fact, making it worse. Our problem is systemic. Each of us is part of the problem and in our hands each of us holds part of the solution.
In a crisis it is extremely difficult to take time for analysis and consideration. We desperately want to take the quickest path to safety. This crisis, however, demands deliberation and careful attention. Our quick solutions based on knee-jerk blaming may feel good in the moment. In the long run, however, they will worsen our already terrible reality.
People don't like having fingers pointed at them. It doesn't feel good. However, to appropriately examine our current crisis it is absolutely necessary to first point our fingers at ourselves. It won't feel good but it may help us navigate through this crisis to a place of safety.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Torah Thoughts on Vay’chi

This week’s Torah portion, Vay’chi, (Gen.  47:28 – 50:26) is the final portion in the book of Genesis.  Jacob is on his deathbed, seventeen years after his arrival in Egypt.  At his request, Joseph brings his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, for Jacob to bless them.  Like his father Isaac before him, Jacob’s eyesight has dimmed with age.  He places his right hand on Ephraim and his left on Manasseh.  Joseph, thinking that his father has mistaken the older son for the younger, re-adjusts his hands, but Jacob tells Joseph that his act was intentional: “I know, my son, I know!  He too shall become a people and he too shall be great.  Yet his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his seed shall become a multitude of nations.” (Gen. 48:19)

Thus far in Genesis, the younger sibling has always had to fight the rule of primogeniture – that the eldest receives the birthright, regardless of aptitude or ability.  Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Joseph and his brothers, and even Rachel and Leah strive with one another over who will be the one to carry on the tradition.  Now, finally, Jacob settles the issue for the coming generation with no deception or violence.  The children of Israel are at peace with one another as they begin the sojourn in Egypt which will last four hundred years and culminate in the exodus.  This is the end of Israel as a family, and the foreshadowing of it as a nation.

When we bless our male children on the Sabbath, we do so in the names of Ephraim and Manasseh.  We do so because they are the only brothers in Genesis who are at peace with one another throughout.  May this Sabbath bring to all of us peace in our families, and may it radiate out to bring peace to the world.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Torah Thoughts on Vayigash

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, (Gen.  44:18 - 47:27) Joseph ends the cat and mouse game he has carried on with his brothers and reveals his identity to them.  He was about to continue his test of their intentions, but their spokesman Judah recounts their entire interaction.  When he tells about their old father, grief-stricken since his favorite son, Joseph can no longer keep up his deception.  He sends everyone else from the room, and tells his brothers that he is Joseph.  They are so dumbstruck that they cannot speak.  Joseph goes on speaking for ten more verses, telling his brothers that the famine will go on for five more years and inviting his brothers to bring their father and their families to Egypt, where he will see that they are cared for.  He then embraces his brother Benjamin, and his other brothers, and they weep together, and only after that do the brothers find their voices to speak to them . 
Speech is our usual mode of communication, but there are times when it does not suffice.  In such circumstances, only the language of an embrace and of tears can give voice to what is within us.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Torah Thoughts on Miketz

This week’s Torah portion, Miketz, (Gen. 41:1 - 44:17) begins with Pharaoh’s remarkable double dream of sickly cows and ears of corn eating up whole and healthy ones and looking even sicklier than previously.  When Pharaoh relates the dream to his cupbearer, the cupbearer remembers the remarkable young man in prison who had correctly interpreted his and the baker’s dreams when they were there.  Joseph is removed from his cell, cleaned up and brought before Pharaoh where he not only interprets the dreams but offers an administrative solution to the coming seven year famine that they predict.   Joseph goes from languishing in jail to become the second most powerful man in Egypt, dressed in fine linen robes and wearing gold chains around his neck.  

A 19th century Torah commentary, the S’fat Emet, sees a spiritual connection in Pharaoh’s dreams.  He writes, “What can be learned from this parshah to prepare ourselves in good days, days in which holiness is revealed, to set the light in our hearts, to be there in times when holiness seems far off? We must store up resources of faith, even as the Egyptians stored grain, to nourish us spiritually when events turn against us.”
During this festival of lights, let us also set the light in our hearts, and store the abundant love, livelihood and good fortune that we know that we may draw from those ample stores when we need it most.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Torah Thoughts on Vayeshev

This week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev (Gen. 37:1-40:23), begins with Jacob and his children settling in the land of Canaan.  Jacob loved his son Joseph—the elder of his beloved wife, Rachel—more than all the others and favored him.   Not surprisingly, his brothers hated him.  Taking advantage of an opportunity, they threw him into a pit, (where he was later taken by traders and sold into slavery in Egypt) took away his coveted coat of many colors, ripped it to shreds and stained it with a goat’s blood, and brought it to their father Jacob, saying only, “recognize this?” Jacob, accepting the misdirection that his sons intended, leaps to the conclusion that his son has been devoured by a wild animal. He tears his clothing and mourns Joseph’s supposed death until the time, many years later, that he learns that Joseph is not dead at all, but has risen to great power in Egypt.

It is worth remembering that, several chapters ago, Jacob himself carried out a deception that also involved a goat or two.  In Genesis 27, he and his mother Rebekah colluded in the charade in which he covered himself in goatskins to pose as his brother Esau so that he would receive his father Isaac’s blessing.  Jacob’s sons deceive him just as he deceived his father Isaac, and it happened for the very same reason – favoring one child over another.  The trickster Jacob has himself been tricked once again.