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This morning, I find myself concerned not so much with my own high school experience, but the lives of an inestimable number of high school students, college students, early childhood, elementary, and junior high students: the present-day montage of dreams deferred due to COVID-19. It is, after all, the month of May, a time meant to be filled with proms and prom dresses, graduations and caps and gowns, moving-up ceremonies, end-of-year athletic playoffs, internships, and packing lists for summer camp. Everyone has been affected. Semesters abroad have been cancelled, job offers have been rescinded, and long-planned reunions put on hold. I think of the eleventh-grader who was looking forward to being scouted by college teams. I think of the ACT and SAT exams being rescheduled and the cascade of resulting implications. I think of the millions of regretful decisions that are every teenager’s right to make but are being presently denied them. The other day my daughter stoically shared with me that her final day to be together with her high school class had come and gone without her realizing it at the time. I was supposed to officiate at a wedding this coming week and one the following week and another the week after that – so many simchas being rescheduled. Sometimes life gives us second chances; yesterday, after all, was Pesach Sheni, a biblical redo for those who missed making the Pesach sacrifice the first time around. But you and I both know that not everything can be redone. Many dreams have been deferred, and an equal if not greater number have been derailed and denied, never to be rescheduled.
The sense of loss, of course, is not just about our children and grandchildren. It is about all of us: the loss of stability, predictability, and reliability. The very scaffolding of our existence has come undone. The rhythm of our days is upended, from the most mundane acts – the risk vs. reward of stepping into a subway – to the most weighty decisions – to change jobs, leave an unhappy marriage, or bring another child into this world. People on the verge of retirement are now needing to work longer, for themselves and for their children and grandchildren. If you stop, really stop, to consider the number of dreams deferred by our dark hour, the thought can suffocate. And it is a thought made even heavier by the knowledge that the road ahead is so uncertain. We just don’t know if and how campus life will resume in the fall; we don’t know what vaccines are on the horizon. I recently read about a category of loss called “anticipatory grief,” the feeling we get when the future is so uncertain. None of us know when the light will appear at the end of the tunnel. Like passengers on ships lined up off-shore waiting to find safe harbor, our heartache is not just about what has been lost, but about being stalled in place as the calendar moves inexorably forward into an unclear future.
So what shall we say in response to dreams deferred? We have no solutions; we have no crystal ball. But people are in pain; we need a response. What shall we say to our children and grandchildren? What shall we say to each other? What shall we say to ourselves?
It is not an easy question to answer, so let me begin by suggesting what not to say, how not to respond when your kid learns that camp is cancelled, when your friend shares that her wedding is postponed, or your nephew graduates college without a job. First, avoid drawing from what I call the “at least you are not dead” basket:
- “So your program was cancelled – read the news, people are fighting for their lives!”
- “Sorry you have to take the SAT next fall – but at least you have a roof over your head.”
There are certain moments in life when the first words out of your mouth really matter: When someone gets engaged, you say, “Mazel tov!” When a new parent tells you the name of their baby, you say, “I love it.” When my wife asks me if I like a dress, “I do!” Most often, there will be time to redirect and recalibrate, but you get only one chance for a first response. And when someone is suffering, do not respond by spotlighting weightier losses. It may come from a good place, it may even be an intellectually defensible position, but an indelicate “at least you are not dead” response makes a person feel that you don’t find their pain to be real. I thought long and hard about whether to give a sermon about the loss of high school graduation and other such deferred dreams when people are on ventilators. I decided I had to, because not to would be an omission which in itself would invalidate the world of pain that so many are experiencing right now. Rule number one of first response to a person’s loss: don’t tell them that in the big scheme of things they are lucky.
The “at least you are not dead” basket of responses takes on many forms, some more subtle than others. There is the “imagine what it was like” variation: imagine what it was like to be born in the Depression, to be part of the Greatest Generation, or, for Jews, to have lived through any number of pogroms or persecutions. Again, it may be true that someone else in another time and place has also suffered, but when I am in pain, is that really going to help me? It is a bit like when I was kid and I would complain to my dad (a physician, by the way) that my ear hurt, and he would pinch my arm and ask, “Now what hurts?” It didn’t make me feel better when I was a kid and it didn’t make my kids feel any better when I did it to them. You can’t tell a kid that it was never about receiving a diploma on graduation day, but about the accomplishment leading up to that day, because in that kid’s mind, at that moment, it is all about the diploma. You can hold these thoughts in your head; just don’t share them – not yet and possibly not ever.
Another category of response to be avoided is the “silver lining” basket. Camp is cancelled – what a great time to take up an instrument or start studying for your ACT! Today is that rainy day, that block of downtime you’ve been waiting for: to read that book, to take up that pet project, to learn chess, to lose five pounds, or to finally learn how to mix a margarita. Again, it may be true, and it may even be good advice. Just don’t say it to a person as they stare eye-to-eye at a dream deferred. We are all familiar with the “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” response: telling someone how the best things in life happen in response to setback. Perhaps, but generally speaking, when a door slams in a person’s face, they are not ready to hear about the ten that just opened. Similarly, to suggest that this crisis will prompt us to reexamine our priorities, teaching us what is really important – the fragility of life, to treat the environment with greater care – is also fraught with problems. I am reminded of the Talmudic exchange between Rabbi Yohanan and Rabbi Hiyya, who was lying ill. Rabbi Yohanan asked Rabbi Hiyya if his suffering was dear to him, to which Rabbi Hiyya replied, “I welcome neither my suffering nor its reward.” (Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 5b) Not all lemons produce lemonade, and like Rabbi Hiyya, I personally would forgo any silver linings if doing so could avoid our present world of hurt. I have no idea if the pandemic will make us stronger as a society or if it will break us, if it will pass soon or prove to be our enduring new normal. All I do know is that we do ourselves and our loved ones a terrible disservice by sugarcoating pain with pithy bromides.
So what can we say? What can we say that does not risk pablum or platitude, that is not tone-deaf or insensitive? Rather than tell you what I think, I will tell you what one of my kids thinks, words spoken to me when I asked what a parent should say if summer camp is cancelled. My kid said:
“Dad, what I need to hear, what every kid needs to hear, is an acknowledgement of the pain of the situation. Let me know that you know how much this sucks. Don’t tell me to move on. Don’t tell me that other people are suffering more. I have looked forward to summer all year for eight years and to not have it happen is a hurt that I cannot even begin to process. What I need from you, Dad, and what every kid needs from every parent is empathy. I know it is not the end of the world, but right now it feels like it is. So support me as I go through this, but know that this is a “me” problem that I need to solve – not you. I need to let myself grieve, I need you to be present and I need you to give me space, and confusing as that may sound to you, it makes perfect sense to me.”
My kid said all that and a whole lot more, and we sat, and there were tears shed, and much as I wanted to fill the moment with words, I think the most important thing I did was to say nothing. There is a reason tradition teaches that when visiting a mourner during shiva, you are supposed to say nothing, rather to wait until the mourner speaks to you. Loss is best acknowledged with tears, with hugs, and with silence – not necessarily with words. It is not one size fits all, but let your polestar be your very presence, your honesty, your empathy, and most of all, your compassion.
The rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, when asked by his community for a response to their suffering, at first suggested that perhaps it was an expression of God’s will, a punishment perhaps, or maybe a test to strengthen their fortitude. But as suffering increased, Shapira’s explanation changed. He wrote that at a moment of great suffering, God weeps for our suffering as we, a suffering humanity, weep with God. We weep together and are strengthened; we are broken but find the courage to go on. In the very moment that God seems most distant, God is right there next to us – weeping alongside us, supporting us, wiping away our tears. Maybe the proper and best response to a dream deferred is to perform the Godlike act of being present, affirming a person’s pain, and standing by so that person can put one foot ahead of the other and then the other until they can support themselves.
Beginning with Adam and Eve being cast out of the Garden, the story of humanity is a tale of individuals seeking to reconstitute themselves in the face of setback and loss. Abraham and Sarah – barren; Isaac – scarred for life on Mount Moriah; Jacob – pitted from birth against his brother; Joseph – brought low being thrown into the pit. The list goes on and on and on. The story of Ruth, the hero of our coming harvest holiday, begins by defining Ruth as a widow – a dream deferred if there ever was one. Her story is one of rebuilding after the rug is ripped out from under her. We know that our present losses are an extension of that ongoing human drama, but that knowledge does not soften our sorrow. Like those who came before us, we stand outside the Garden, bound on the altar, thrown in the pit, our dreams deferred. And from the depths – mima·amakim keratikha Yah – we call out to God. We call out and we seek the divine presence of God and Godlike friends and family who acknowledge our pain, sitting there at our side, weeping as we weep, ready when we are ready to take a step forward.