Hanging on to Hope: Facing Illness and Adversity

Oct 3, 2013 by

Hanging on to Hope: Facing Illness and Adversity

In 1978, I bounded across the finish line of the New York City Marathon wearing a T-shirt proclaiming me “The Running Rabbi.” I was just as tireless in my calling as a rabbi in Newburgh, New York. I had marched for civil rights in the 60’s, rallied to free Soviet Jews, and in 1980 visited the hostages held in Iran. I’d never been sick in my life. I felt indestructible. That was then.

Just six years later my illusion was shattered as I lay dying of leukemia. By a miracle of timing doctors saved my life with an experimental drug and I returned to my congregation to fulfill the new task God gave me – counseling those who face adversity.

For over 20 years as a rabbi, I had helped others through crisis. I was supposed to have all the answers. Yet when I got sick, I discovered I didn’t have them. I felt confused, frightened, and desperate. Who would comfort me?

My experience with serious illness has made me want to share with you what I learned about facing illness, or for that matter any adversity. Here are some of my thoughts and suggestions which I hope will help you or your loved ones if, God forbid, you have to face a threatening crisis.

  • Cheer yourself on. Ultimately you must learn to comfort yourself. No matter how many people are around during the day, reality can be very hard to face in the loneliness of the night.
  • Keep up your self-esteem. Be kind to yourself. Hug yourself if you can’t find anybody to hug you. Don’t feel cursed if you have a disease with a foul name. Don’t think of yourself as worthless or worth less because you’ve been stricken. Don’t be passive about your medical treatment or afraid to tell your doctors your needs.
  • Don’t feel guilty if you’re too sick to do things. You have value simply because you are, even if you cannot be “productive” in the way to which you were accustomed. Learn to cherish your very existence.
  • I really believe my fighting spirit meant the difference between life and death for me. My nurses told me that once when I was delirious, I pounded on the bed rails yelling, “Come on, Hirshel!” I was cheering myself on like my wife and daughters cheered for me when I ran the marathon.
  • Conversely, however, don’t make things impossible by believing your attitude is everything. You can’t control everything. Just some things.
  • Set goals for yourself. No matter how small, any goal helps you feel a sense of achievement.
  • Writing a book about my illness with my friends, the Rudins, gave me something to live for. I would wearily clutch the manuscript in my hospital bed and show it to my nurses. It took a lot out of me to write even a few words, but I know that completing Why Me? Why Anyone? helped keep me alive.
  • Life Projects. Keep up interest in your life projects. If you are able to return to work in some capacity, do it. Even if you have just five good minutes a day, use that time and build on it. If physical limitations prevent you from doing tasks in your usual way, try to devise new ways to do them. Reorganize, delegate, ration your energy sensibly.
  • Doing, learning, re-learning will help you to feel alive and regain self-esteem. When my physicians noticed how depressed I was in the hospital, they said, “Be a rabbi — go and counsel other patients.” That made me feel important again. My friends fighting cancer and other diseases tell me the same thing: Helping others cope is the one good thing they can do, the one good thing they feel qualified to do, and the one good thing they find real fulfillment in doing.
  • Keep your sense of humor. Learn to laugh at yourself and enjoy life. One morning when the doctors made their rounds, I said to them, “I think these antibiotics are doing something to me! Something strange is happening to my body!” They burst into laughter. I was wearing a Frankenstein mask !
  • Be thankful for each day and greet it joyously. Since my brush with death, every moment is special to me. Live life to the fullest, even if it might be for just a short period of time. How long you live is not as important as what you do with your time, or what you are in that time.
  • Today I feel I know what’s really important in my life. I’m learning to say “no” to people — I don’t want to fritter away my life letting other people tell me how to live. For me, being with the ones I love is the most important thing. And I make a point of telling these people often how I feel about them “while I still have the chance.”
  • Accept the comfort offered by friends and family. The strong support of all who loved me and prayed for me kept me going through my darkest hours. Don’t be afraid to let others know how vulnerable you are. It’s not a sign of weakness to allow them to do what they can to make things easier for you.
  • The Song of Songs says, “Set me as a seal upon thy heart, for love is stronger than death.” This I believe now more than ever.
  • Search for meaning from your adversity. We can find meaning and hope even in our darkest days. I didn’t ask for this painful experience. But I can choose my response to it. I can choose to grow from it and shape it into a positive force in my life.

By facing death I learned how to live. My illness taught me the real meaning of being a rabbi. It’s not who can be the best scholar; it’s who can touch people, who can comfort them. I used to be too “hyper,” the running rabbi, breezing by people. Now I take time to talk and listen more deeply. I know what it’s like to hurt. I understand people’s fears, and can now begin to reassure them out of my own struggle and confusion and fear. “God wants heart” is a saying in the Talmud that I now truly understand.

Will I run another marathon? Sure, I want to, but it doesn’t matter to me how long or how fast I go. Now I’m running the true race — trying to be a good husband and father, and a companion for those who walk the path of serious illness.

I hope that as you walk this path , whether illness or crisis or depression ,that you let the “Power” within you that you surely possess carry you over the rough spots, and stay with you, too.

And I hope your struggle with adversity, or your journey to the edge of life, helps you learn secrets of precious love, secrets of precious peace.

 This blog originally appeared on runningrabbi.wordpress.com.

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3 Comments

  1. Rabbi Douglas Kohn

    Hirshel, Kol haKavod! And, we should mention that Hirshel also turned his experience into wisdom for others, as besides this wonderful blog post, Hirshel wrote a book, titled, “Why Me? Why Anyone?” (Jason Aronson, 1994) with two dear friends, from which he also excerpted a wonderful chapter in my book, “Life, Faith, and Cancer” (URJ Press, 2008). Hirshel continues to be a wonderful inspiration for all of us!

  2. Lee Cherney

    Rabbi, my sister and I were together having dinner and your name came up. She is in upstate NY & I am in Florida. It has been a very long time (32 years since you officiated my Bar Mitzvah). I remember our runs together when I was in high school and often tell stories of the few times you ran with the MVHS Cross Country team.

    I have such great memories of you and what you meant to our family

    Believe it or not at 55, I am still running, though not too fast anymore. Please email me I would like to get in touch.

    -Lee Cherney
    leemcherney@gmail.com

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