Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
I'm facing a challenging situation with my brother and some of his choices. I was praying and asking God to help my brother and his daughters when I got a little flustered over what I was trying to say. Then, a thought popped into my head. Why should I try to explain my request to God? Doesn't He know everything I'm thinking, even before I think it?
-- D., via email
My go-to distress prayer is a verse from Psalm 130:1-2: "Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord.
"Lord, hear my voice: Let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications." This is a cry for spiritual clarity. People who are not religious can get to this place without praying, other religious traditions use meditation techniques to get there, but for the children of Abraham, prayer works to clear our minds of confusion, frustration and anger.
The way I reach clarity is to recite this passage until I calm down. Then, I ask myself two questions to help me see the way forward. (They might be the same question, but I don't think so.) The first I heard from Jack Welch when I once asked, "How do you begin your business meetings?" Without hesitating, Welch said. "I always began my meetings with the question, 'What have we missed?' " I thought then -- and I think now -- that this is a brilliant business and spiritual question. The things that trip us up are not the things we already understand, but the things we don't yet understand sufficiently. Searching for what we've overlooked in a problem we are trying to solve almost always provides a path to the solution.
The second question is my own, and it is much less impressive because, after all, I never ran General Electric. I ask myself: "What's really going on here?" In my experience, when we try to solve a problem, we immediately construct a narrative that supposedly explains what's going on, but that's just our best guess and often wrong.
This stems from the fact that we are participants in the problem we're trying to solve, so we can never have a truly unbiased view of events.
This is where God and prayer come in. Prayers diminish our egos. They make us more humble and more ready to accept the possibility that we are wrong. In the case of trying to persuade your brother and your nieces to make better choices, you might have missed the main reasons why they're making bad choices now. You also are not the last word about what constitutes a bad choice.
Calming yourself in prayer might help you see what you've missed until now. Also, the idea that your brother is just waiting for life-changing advice from you may not be true. What's really going on may be that you think your vision of your brother's life ought to be his. This also is not true.
If I were you, I'd pray to be present, loving and helpful with your brother, remembering always that he's neither your student nor your child. If you can get to this place, your prayer will have been answered.
What do you say to someone who still carries the guilt of having had to kill others (as a bomber pilot) during the Vietnam War?
-- D., via email
There are two kinds of answers to such a query -- the kind where you say something and the problem goes away, and the kind where no matter what you say, the problem remains. Your question has the second kind of answer. Of course, you can say that he was serving his country honorably and has no reason to feel guilty, but this probably won't help.
The bitter truth is that nothing you say can cure PTSD, survivor guilt, or whatever form of spiritual and psychological brokenness afflicts your friend. He must find a way to hope on his own or with the guidance of a trained therapist.
Ernest Hemingway wrote in "A Farewell to Arms": "The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places." Not everyone becomes strong, though. Some remain broken.
Helen Keller wrote: "Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it." I'm with Helen.
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