Dr Judith Guedalia

Counting-Up Our Days And Hopes For The Future

By Dr. Judith Guedalia and Mr. Chaim K.

         One of the hardest things to do is the "count-up." Start at a point of extreme, almost ineffable sadness and pain, and start counting the seconds, minutes and hours for the relief, elimination or resolution of that pain. The destruction of the Temple provides a larger-than-life insight into what may be the only way a person can cope when so overwhelming a tragedy strikes us as individuals or as a community, and doesn't seem to have a 'repair/resolution' immediately available. How we respond and act on a community level may provide insight into the individual's coping options.

         On Tisha B'Av in many synagogues, there is a Minhag to do the count-up. Starting the counting with day one, from the destruction of the first of the two Holy Temples, the head of the community announces, "This Tisha B'Av is seven hundred and fifty seven thousand, seven hundred and forty (757,740) days since the destruction of the Holy Temple."
         In a way, this horrifically large number and the act of counting up to the Redemption may make us ponder: How much longer must we suffer? Help is surely close at hand. With this concept of a community resolve to cope with defeat, sadness and loss, our Minhag may be shining a light on how to deal with what may seem as endless despair.
         Other outward community signs of mourning include: sitting low or on the floor in a room darkened, using candles or flashlights and the reading - from an unbound book or from leaflets (symbolizing the "temporary" status of the "Destruction") - of Eicha, Lamentations, which we mournfully chant.
         So I am saddened, though not surprised, that Chaim K. is in a "blue funk" when I see him on a sweltering summer's day at the end of July before the Ninth of Av, when national mourning is palpable and may offer a moment to feel a part of - and not apart from - a communal experience.
         He is a sensitive young man, no longer a teen at age 20, and, had it not been for the car that hit him at aged 14, he would be over six feet tall with shoulders and a chest span a football player would brag about. Sitting in his motorized wheel chair, quadriplegic, with his respirator breathing for him, his kind face and twinkling eyes send a different message, a lamentation all their own: "Oh, what might have been...Oh, what is..."
         With the end of the Fast we go on with our lives. Soon it is the month of Elul, and preparations for the new academic year as well as Selichot (prayers and psalms of repentance) prepare us for the Days of Awe, Rosh Hashana, and Yom Kippur, which are followed by Sukkot. But what if every day resembles the one before? And what if your hope of becoming independent and being able to care for yourself in the most basic of functions, like breathing, fade with every machine-assisted breath? How do you deal with 'imposed' acts of mourning when nano-seconds of your life are spent silently wailing your loss of who you were and who you might have been?
         In over the two years since we first met, I have found Chaim K.'s resilience nothing short of astounding, even miraculous. Holidays are when people who have many fewer apparent dysfunctions are "blue"; the newspapers are full of articles describing this phenomenon. However, in my opinion, these "imposed" days of mourning are the hardest for Chaim K.
         How does he do it? "I have so much to learn from you and need your help to interpret this 'talent' to others through our writing and through teaching budding professionals," I tell him. He looks at me askance. "Are you pulling my leg? It's not fair to tease the handicapped," his smiling eyes wink.
         "No", I say, "I'm very serious. We keep ourselves from buying something new, wearing leather shoes, swimming, even not eating for 26 hours and feel that we are victorious and should be 'rewarded' for our success over frailty. You must be laughing at us and not the other way around."
         Chaim invites me to approach his "souped-up" chair, to which he has just added a Bluetooth-equipped earphone and cell phone which allow him to talk, answer and hear music on his phone wirelessly.
         "Disconnect the Bluetooth, I know you know how to do it. You're very high-tech for someone your age, and a woman too," he smiles. "Then push the following buttons on my phone."
         He directs me to play a song on the MP3 application of his phone. We listen to it together. I then go to my computer and try to download the lyrics in order to discuss them. Together we try to figure out or "psych-out," as Chaim says, the motivations of the songwriter and singer (and the listener who "chooses" which tune to save and play, as well).
         Chaim K. is not like most people who listen to a tune and let it go in one ear and out the other. He spends time really listening and trying to understand the lyrics in much the same way as he used to learn Gemara in "the old days."
         "Many times I am inspired by the songs. I hear things in the Goyish as well as the Jewish songs that let me think and feel. Songs are a very powerful force and influence one's mood. For example, everyone has his/her personal song that makes him or her sad. I have 'tested' this hypothesis on those around me and have proven to myself that this is a truism.
         "There are people for whom the song itself changes their mood significantly within seconds of hearing it. I am one of these people. I can hear a song and it can throw me into the depths of depression and sadness. Another time, I can be 'blue' and hear a specific song and my heart feels like it is flying and soaring above my body."
         Here are some of the lyrics of his latest favorite song that I chose and put on paper to discuss with Chaim K:

... Dancing all night and having a blast to cure my condition

My heart is in prison, I'm hoping and wishin'

That I'm forgiven, Say yeah.

'Cause every time you leave me I'm sad,

The moment you're returning I'm glad,

So let's not go forgetting what we had,

'Cause its badsobad, yeah.

we're loving each day as if it's the last,

I need you here

'Cause we're loving, and we're dreaming

and we're hoping and we're dreaming"
         He is quiet for a bit. "What do you think it is about?" he asks.
         "Hum," I say in my most professional tone. "It is clearly about the Days of Awe: Teshuva, Yirah and Ahavat Hashem - asking forgiveness, returning to the righteous path, the awe and love of G-d."

         He looks at me thoughtfully, and says something about how psychologists are really in great need of help. He calls for his "pusher"/aide and leaves smiling and humming the tune.


Originally published in the Jewish Press on November 14, 2007.

Tags: Blue Funk | Chaim K. | Jewish Press | Music