What would a mass vaccination programme look like for the pandemic of mental illness afflicting so many in our world today?
This was the question I was reflecting on in a couple of conversations this week. One conversation was with an Orthodox colleague who works part time as a community rabbi in North London and part time as a clinical psychologist in the NHS. His dual perspective brings him up close and personal with the mental health challenges prevalent both in our own community and in the wider community – affecting people of all generations and, especially, the younger generation. Together, we are part of a team of people beginning to work together to find skilful ways to address these challenges in our community.
Another conversation was with my brother as we were walking in the woods enjoying and appreciating the awesome beauty of the world coming back to life, the sun on our faces and the freshness of the early morning air. In his work with hundreds of parents and children (he runs a tuition business), he too, is confronted far too regularly with many of the mental health challenges of our time – anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, not feeling “I am good enough”, not feeling that “I have achieved enough”.
Reflecting on this situation we are coined a new illness: “Compare-itis” or “Comparevirus”. In this illness, the most pernicious symptom is the destructive thought process whereby a person compares themselves (generally in a negative fashion) to another person.
“They are better / prettier / slimmer / richer / smarter than me”.
“They are more successful / sociable / accomplished / popular than me”.
“They have a bigger house / more friends / a bigger car / more money / a better partner / better child than me”.
The list is almost endless. For many of us, once we start going down the slippery slope of comparing ourselves to others, the momentum builds, and it becomes harder and harder to drag ourselves out of the pit of “Comparevirus”.
One of the challenges in dealing with this virus is that too often the implicit narrative of the consumer capitalist society in which so many of us are immersed is that we would be happy and well, if only we had the right hair/skin/car/partner/clothes etc etc. This creates a fertile breeding ground for “Comparevirus” to mutate and spread. It is hard to socially distance ourselves from these pervasive messages.
So how do we vaccinate ourselves, our children and our grandchildren against this virus?
Today I want to share one powerful teaching from our wisdom tradition that may help. Two thousand years ago, our wise sages asked the question: “How do you become rich?” The answer they suggest is: “To cultivate appreciation and gratitude for what we already have”i.
So simple, yet so profound. It is a teaching we can learn intellectually in a few moments. However, to integrate this teaching into our way of being in the world, to live our lives and experience the world from this perspective requires regular practice, intentionality, effort and, ideally, a support group or community to practice with.
Our spiritual tradition encourages us to take up the practice of beginning each day, upon awakening, of appreciating the gift of our lives; by taking a few moments to reflect on, or to write in a journal several things that we are grateful for, that we appreciate in our lives.ii This is a powerful way to focus our awareness on what we have (the blessings in our life) rather than what we don’t have.
I truly believe that: “It is not that happy people are grateful; rather it is grateful people that are happy”.
i Chapter 4, Pirkei Avot.
ii By saying in a meaningful way, with intention and concentration, the prayer: ‘Modeh Ani’.