So many of my friends love the water. They swim laps, do water aerobics all year long, conceding to the indoor pool during Denver’s chilly winter, but, especially for a couple of them, it is summer’s heat that calls to them. Once the sun’s warmth raises the temperature even into the mid 60s, into the outdoor pool they dive, swimming lap after lap after lap in the sun’s friendly rays.
I grew up in Minneapolis and firmly believe in the traditions of walking around the lake, going up north to the lake, fishing, reading by lake, boating, and even entering the water to water ski. But I do not like to swim. I don’t want to dive in, jump in, or even get my face wet. My parents fulfilled the Talmudic dictum of teaching me how to swim, and I did the same for my daughter, using happy and encouraging young people at the JCC to instruct her in the delights of the pool noodle and the glories of the front crawl and backstroke. As it turns out, she doesn’t like to get her face wet either. As a child, learning the basic safety measures in the pool, I remember thinking, “Dead man’s float? Who named that, anyway?” It was not encouraging to this fearful child.
I am not really one for diving into things either. I like to study them first, learn all about them, make sure I am prepared. As I reach middle age (okay, I’ve been there for a while!), I am witnessing my colleagues and friends doing, and advertising themselves as being capable of doing, things that I only dream of. That old boyfriend from rabbinical school whom I helped with his papers and planning his dissertation ideas? He’s writing books and touring the U.S. as a scholar-in-residence and expert on topics right and left. Someone younger than I am is heading my rabbinical association. A friend with less education than I have, and less expertise, is teaching classes in my field. Colleagues are running from pillar to post, running this organization and that one. And I? I do not want to be jealous of these folks. I just want to know how they do it.
Over the past few years, I have begun to speak and teach about mental illness, my own and its existence in the Jewish community. After almost a lifetime in therapy, and a rabbinic career that has always emphasized pastoral care, I feel comfortable in mental health outreach. I like listening to people’s stories; I am, in fact, good at being that non-anxious presence that someone in crisis or pain, mentally ill or just hurting, might need. On a larger scale, my years of learning Talmud and other Jewish texts have come together with personal and rabbinic experience to give me some expertise in Jewish mental health outreach. My ideas are guided by Jewish middot/values and embodied though mitzvot/commandments.
And yet. It is frightening to claim an expertise. As I go public, I am afraid. Not of being shamed for having a mental illness—that, oddly enough, feels like something I am willing to share, if it can help others. Indeed, it is my hope that I might take my life’s experience with illness, mental and otherwise (I had a stroke almost eighteen years ago and its effects on my life continue in profound ways), and use it to help others. Rather, I am afraid to be told that I have no right to be teaching about mental health outreach. That I have no wisdom to offer. That what I say is obvious, basic, almost useless. It is the fear of a child, who both wishes to be seen, and is afraid that, upon being seen, will be rejected. My colleagues have much to offer. What if I do not?
Going public with my goals, my dreams, means opening myself to criticism, both helpful and not. I tend to believe everything negative someone says about me or my work; probably not a useful or accurate position. There are those who say that feedback is always about the other person. This idea isn’t really true either; it would shut me off from ideas that could help me grow. Last year, when reading evaluations from an adult education class I taught at local university, I came across perhaps my favorite piece of criticism ever: When asked, “was the teacher engaging,” the student replied that the teacher, me, was endlessly interesting and fun, which was good, because the subject was terribly dull! Positive and negative wrapped up together in a single sentence! If only all comments could be so devastating and charming all at once.
The only way to find out, is to try. I want to make meaning out of life, to have a sense that I have something to contribute. That belief, that there is meaning in my pain, is what gets me through, will give me a sense that God is present, is here with me.
My friends are in the water, splashing about, trying new things, having fun. It is uncomfortable here on the edge of the pool, boring, lonely. I’ll never find out what I can do without jumping in. It takes faith to find out what will happen. But I’m an adult now. The shallow end is not what I need. Indeed, while the deep end of the pool—the riskier end—is more frightening, it is also, oddly enough, safer. Even though I can’t stand, there will be more water to hold me up.
Rabbi Sandra Cohen teaches rabbinic texts, provides pastoral care, and works in mental health outreach offering national scholar-in-residence programs. She and her husband live in Denver, Colorado. She may be reached at email@example.com.