Sharing (and Letting Go of Guilt) About Our Pain and Gratitude

by Rabbi Ilana Zietman / September 17, 2020

In my role as Community Rabbi at GatherDC, I spend a lot of time talking with people about how they’re doing in these uncertain times. Through these conversations, I’ve noticed that many of us have adopted a strange way of speaking about what we’re going through.

It usually begins when talking about a challenge in someone’s life. For instance, having to give up an apartment to move back home, pausing plans to change jobs, or generally feeling unmotivated and fatigued. And almost every time, just as the person is about to get to the heart of their particular concern, they pivot away and say, “But I know I have so much to be grateful for” and that’s that. Or, sometimes, they begin by talking about what they’re thankful for, then abruptly segue into what’s actually not going well. We all do this. I do it, too. 

This abrupt switch between difficulty and thankfulness seems to be motivated by the guilt of feeling or seeming ungrateful. We are, understandably, afraid of being selfish in this time of immense pain. So we belittle the ways in which we are genuinely struggling. While the impacts of COVID look different for each of us, and privilege certainly plays a role in this inequality, no one is unaffected by this pandemic. It’s time we accept that. 

I deeply believe in the necessity and importance of gratitude and perspective. I also believe that we should acknowledge what’s actually hard for us, not only to ourselves, but to one another. If we don’t, we keep our fears and anxieties below the surface and we stay stuck in or overwhelmed by those feelings for longer than we otherwise would. We’re also led to think that we’re more alone in what we’re dealing with than we actually are. The first step in building resilience is to acknowledge our particular struggles and disappointments.

It’s only in honestly sharing our anxieties that we’ll be able to feel sincere gratitude for the blessings we keep turning to so quickly. But, just as we don’t want to dwell on our struggles, I’ve noticed that many of us aren’t able to dwell on what we’re truly thankful for, either. Perhaps it’s not the usual way we go about a conversation. But, it’s equally important to take our time to articulate. To share what we’re grateful for and to not feel awkward or guilty about it. Your gratitude can, in turn, inspire someone else to explore theirs. 

The current Hebrew month of Elul, during which we prepare for the High Holidays, is a time for cheshbon hanefesh or soul-searching. It is a time to search our hearts and to review our past year for the sake of self-understanding and improved decision-making as we look toward the year ahead. 

I know many of us feel swept up in the midst of uncontrollable chaos right now. This is exactly why we need to take the time we are given this month to check in with ourselves and one another. And with generosity of spirit, to acknowledge the paradoxes that are the realities of our lives

So next time someone you trust checks in with you, share all that you are for your sake and for theirs. I’m holding myself accountable to this, too. I hope we can model this sharing of our full humanity for each other this new year. 

Wishing us all a shanah tova, beriah u’metukah—a happy, healthy and sweet 5781.