Monthly Archives: March 2011

The Nihilism of Nir Barkat

This week, a bomb was detonated near Binyanei HaUma, a large convention center in Jerusalem.  The bomb killed one woman, Mary Jean Gardner from England, and injured many others.  The explosive went off near bus number 74, which is a bus line that serves my neighborhood.  Not only that, but all of the buses that pick up passengers at that bus stop come to and from my neighborhood.  Later that evening, I received an email from a neighbor reporting that a little girl from the neighborhood was undergoing surgery on her head as a result of injuries she sustained at the bomb site.  After that, another message landed in my inbox with a quote from Jerusalem’s mayor Nir Barkat that really took me aback.  I did some research, and discovered that its source was an interview with Neil Cavuto from FoxNews. I suggest that you click on the link and read the interview, but here is a quote that I believe gives the basic gist of Barkat’s position:

Mayor, what’s the latest there?

NIR BARKAT, MAYOR OF JERUSALEM, ISRAEL: well, the latest is that, in Jerusalem, we’re going back to normal life.

And, naturally, the Israeli security forces are, I believe, will hunt the person and the find the root of the terrorists and pursue the maximum under law. And it’s very imperative and important for Jerusalem to go back to normal life as fast as possible, which we’re doing.

CAVUTO: Well, you guys are very good at that. And you have been sadly used to these kind of things, but lately not. And maybe since the building of that wall, these incidents have dramatically been curtailed. What now? What do you do if this is a sign of maybe more increased violence to come?

BARKAT: Well, I think terrorism is a global problem. And if anybody, here in Israel and in Jerusalem, we know how to deal with it.

It’s a local incident. And I believe that when we find the terrorists that is putting death in the — as — as — is the most important thing in a city that promotes life, I believe we’ll find the roots of it and get things back on track.

Israel and the world needs quiet. And we mustn’t get the terror to have any gains, zero gains for terrorists, and go back to normal life. It’s the best way to deal with terror.

Whether or not Barkat carefully crafted these statements just to sound good for the American media, while he secretly felt the gravity of the situation is irrelevant for the simple reason that everyone is responsible for what he or she says, no matter what the motivating factor.  Therefore, I reserve the right to take these statements at face value.

If I was the mayor of Jerusalem, I would have issued a completely different type of message, not only to the world but to the people whom I had been privileged to govern, the residents of Jerusalem.  I would have described the situation for what it was: a tragedy.  I would have made it clear that their pain was my pain and that their loss was my loss.  I would not glibly suggest that the best way to deal with terror is “to go back to normal life”, and then go on to talk about the upcoming Jerusalem marathon.

You don’t have to be religious, a rabbi, or even Jewish to have that kind of sensitivity.

You see, those people are not going to return to normal life.  When the media describes people as “hurt” or “injured”, that can mean anything from scratches and bruises to 3rd-degree burns and having one’s limbs blown off, G-d forbid.  Some people who are “only” injured live the rest of their lives in a vegetative state as a result of “mere” injuries.  Even those among the injured who will hopefully be restored to a state of perfect health will not return to normal life as it was before the bombing.  Nor will their respective families and loved ones.  Nor will the people who were in the vicinity who heard the blast, saw the glass shatter and witnessed the throng of ambulances and paramedics whisking the victims away to the city hospitals.  There are many, many people whose lives have been changed forever by that “local incident”, as Barkat describes it.

And when there is a directive to simply return to normal life, victims are turned into pariahs, because they stand as living reminders of that which we would like to ignore on our rush to resume our everyday affairs.  These are people who have been horribly traumatized, who need support and sympathy, and who will suffer terribly if their needs are perceived–and resented–as an imposition on others’ normal lives.  This is precisely what happened to the residents of Gush Katif, many of whom till this day have not been able to resume normal life.  And nobody wants to hear about it anymore.

I am an American living in Israel, and I have observed that a defense mechanism employed by many people here is lo kara klum, “nothing happened”.  Because of the intense pace of living here, and the often chaotic, sometimes explosive interpersonal reality of this culture, people develop an incredible amount of body armor; they go to great lengths to demonstrate how they are totally unaffected by things: unfortunate events, criticism, outrageous behavior, and in Barkat’s case, terrorist attacks.  But to brush these things aside in order to maintain the increasingly canned image of Israeli toughness is a form of existential neurosis.  Because tragedies are meaning moments, opportunities to take a stand towards inescapable fate, to reflect upon life, upon values, and to decide how to suffer without losing one’s human stature.

Frankl said, regarding the prisoners of the concentration camps, that, “the best of us did not return”.  I had trouble understanding this statement; did Frankl mean that those who did survive were of lesser caliber than those who did not?  If it was the strongest who  survived, whether through their physical endowments or their ability to psychologically adapt to their insane circumstances (i.e. choose to react to the stimulus in a way that affirmed life), is one to conclude that a Divine injustice was done, or that the world we live in now is populated by stronger, worse people?

I have concluded that what Frankl meant was, survival is not the litmus test of human victory; upholding one’s human stature, adhering to one’s values even under the most adverse of conditions is.  Thus, there were people who perished in the camps, but whose righteousness exceeded that of others who survived but were not able to maintain their values or character traits at the highest level.  The former were the true victors.

Similarly here, I do not believe that denying terrorists victory is the highest value, nor is displaying one’s toughness by simply resuming normal life.  Rather, trying to understand how we are being commissioned by this tragedy, seeing which values we can realize through this event, at the very least coming together to support and nurture the victims of the attacks and their families in the most empathetic way–this is a proper response to a very meaningful happening.  And I believe that it is the human response.  We do not need quiet; we need meaning.

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Let’s Get Honest About the “At Risk” Thing

We in the Orthodox Jewish world have become accustomed to using the term “at risk” to describe teenagers who, because of unmet needs and resulting negative feelings, go about trying to satisfy their needs in ways we find tragic, one of which is to cease their observance of Torah and mitzvos. This “off the derech” type has become a familiar personality in the cast of frum characters, like the water carrier or dairyman of the shtetl. The question is, when does this person become “at risk”? Is it only when he or she stops davening? When he or she begins to experiment with drugs? When he or she stops keeping Shabbos?

Logically speaking, anyone who is exposed to conditions that endanger him or her is to be considered “at risk”. And, if you noticed, I loaded this question earlier when I placed “at risk” within the framework of Non-Violent Communication (NVC).  People have needs and feelings. When their needs are met, they have good feelings. When their needs are unmet, they have bad feelings. But they continue to attempt to satisfy their needs.  The problem is, trying to satisfy one’s needs amidst bad feelings tends to lead a person down some very dysfunctional detours.

This basic needs/feelings formula may be an oversimplification in some regards, but I believe that (in combination with other factors) lies at the heart of the aggressive and self-destructive behaviors that are the hallmarks of the “at risk” kid. Recently, a client of mine told me that I should know, at the outset of the therapy, that he “self-medicates” by using marijuana. Listen to the language; “self-medicating” with drugs implies that the drug is being used as a way to deal with a problem–as opposed to simply being a risky form of escapism or hedonism. What is he medicating away? This, of course, becomes the first order of business in the therapy, since it is clear that there remains a meaning for the client that has not been tapped, that is being obscured by the pot–but because it is ensconced in the client’s pain, he does not want to deal with it.

Any therapist will tell you that much of a client’s pain is linked to early life experiences. You don’t have to be a Freudian analyst to say that. Taking the Logotherapeutic perspective as man as an open system, we see that people, from their first few moments in the world, reach out beyond themselves, first and foremost to explore the world.  And there is a basic need that exists in every human being to receive a response from that world that is affirming, one that tells us that, not only is the world a meaningful place, but also that our presence within it adds value, that we matter, that our arrival in this world is something to be celebrated.  Somewhere within the first few years of a person’s life, he or she will receive this message or something that contradicts this message.  If the latter, then here begins a painful saga: the frustration of the person’s most basic concern–meaning.  To have one’s path towards meaning obstructed is representative of the ultimate unmet need, and has far more impact than not receiving a tricycle for one’s birthday.

It is easy to blame the internet or “Western culture” as the wolf that ran off with our sheep, but if you work in the helping professions, you know that people generally turn towards destructive, hedonistic vices in an attempt to numb their existential pain–to “self-medicate”, to fill the void (or in Logotherapeutic terms, their existential vacuum).  But needing to fill a void implies that the void was created in their lives much earlier, before they encountered the internet and “Western culture”.

I believe if those of us in the Jewish community would like to understand and help our young people make healthy choices and lead happy, fulfilled, meaningful lives, we will have to ask very honest questions about the way we have set up our world.  We will have to strengthen those aspects of Jewish life that affirm, that promote a sense of meaning, fulfillment and belonging–and we will also have to take a stand against those elements of our own “system” that promote the opposite of these, elements that destroy meaning and ostracize those who seek it.


Seasons in Therapy: Take Heart, Shrinks!

Cow abducted by aliensHave you ever had a time your career in practice where a good portion of your client load just disappeared? No, I do not mean that they were abducted by aliens or just happened to all get caught in the Imperial tractor beam at the same time. I mean, they seemed to all come to the conclusion–simultaneously–that the time had come to end therapy? Well, at the risk of sounding like a therapist who is incompetent but unaware of it, this is an experience I’ve had.

It’s easy at a time like that to lose perspective entirely and wonder why you had the nerve to step into this profession to begin with. It’s all too tempting to doubt your own abilities and to go scrambling for the next continuing education opportunity, or to concern yourself with the impact this will have on your bank account.

Slow down.  I have a few words of encouragement to offer you.

First of all, we should never forget that we do what we do–primarily–to help others.  If you didn’t become a therapist with this at the forefront of your mind, perhaps you should consider sales.  I know that sounds a bit aggressive, but really, we cannot look at people as income.  This is true even though we do this professionally.  That’s what makes being a therapist by profession unique: on the one hand, this is your vocation, the way you make money.  On the other, until you can put aside all of the financial aspects of this career when dealing with clients, you will not be able to do therapy with them.  There cannot be another concern other than doing this work and helping that person.

This is really no different than the challenge facing artists: how to set aside all other items that can preoccupy the mind, such as the worth or creative value of the work being developed, the potential for fame and critical acclaim, wanting to be the famous artist, etc., in order to do the art, do what you’ve been blessed with the talent to do.  Many people in the creative arts can attest to the fact that only when they buckled down and just painted paintings, just made music, just wrote the novel, did they do something genuine that was then able to resonate with others.

The same is true of therapy.

Second, you have to try to evaluate why a particular client chooses to end therapy at a specific time.  Sometimes, the concern is purely financial. Other times, it is because you did not manage together to build the type of relationship that is necessary for good therapy.  And sometimes it just isn’t the right fit, or the client feels he or she is getting nowhere.

But, there is another type of situation, one that any therapist should consider to be a triumph and a gift.  That is when a client turns to  the therapist and says, “I think I’m OK.  I think it’s really up to me now.”  The life cycle of the therapy will end, perhaps, but then again, this was a client who came in however long ago thinking that he or she was not OK and not capable of facing his or her problems.  Sometimes this happens before the sun rises again in the client’s life, before the house is reorganized and refurbished, and you don’t get to see the client in his or her full glory.  He or she is simply leaving with gratitude and the hopeful assertion that he or she is able to fly again.  If this is why your client is leaving, please tune in and appreciate the great honor you are being given.  You did it!

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