In our journey through acceptance, we find ourselves arriving at the holiday of Purim, a time where the challenge of meeting reality stands at the core of the day.
We know by now that acceptance is not the same as resignation, giving up, or rolling over in the face of adversity. Nor is it an invitation to stop working on making things better. Rather, acceptance means not resisting the truth of how things are right now and deciding to adopt reality as the starting point to work and grow.
The problem is that sometimes the circumstances we face are incredibly daunting. Beyond the day-to-day challenges we all encounter, like getting out of bed on a cold day or running an errand when we’re feeling exhausted, there are hardships in life that seem to push us past our ability to cope. These are times when the problems in our lives look much bigger than we are, when we wonder if what we are dealing with is more than we can really handle.
How are we to meet a situation in life that is so difficult and so dark that we cannot imagine a way forward?
Two Types of Darkness: External and Internal
Real darkness exists in our world. There are times in life when our external environment produces a total lack of clarity, a pervasive sense of feeling lost, confused, and not in control. Intense family conflict, crushing financial obligations, the sudden loss of a loved one, a worldwide pandemic, debilitating illness, war and ensuing destruction – these are just some of the crises that stretch our coping capacity to its absolute limit. We feel as if we have entered a thick, disorienting fog, where the future seems bleak and uncertain. We are plunged into darkness, with no idea of where to go or how to locate a path forward.
Sometimes the darkness we experience is internal – this is what we commonly refer to as depression. This feeling can take on various shades, from mild gloominess to a more debilitating sense of being stuck inside a heavy cloud of blackness. The nature of this darkness is a sinking feeling that pulls a person down into a pit of despair and hopelessness. It narrows our view and allows us only to see a very thin slice of what appears to be a deeply grim future. When we slip into this dark place, it seems as if the walls are closing in and we can’t find any way out.
People who reach out for help in therapy are often suffering with some form of darkness. They have found the courage to seek assistance despite whatever deep internal sadness may be sapping them of hope. How are we to help them face such difficult challenges? How are we to help ourselves?
The Purim Story
The Purim story marks one of the darkest periods in Jewish history. At Haman’s behest, an official proclamation was issued to eradicate every single Jew in King Achashveirosh’s entire kingdom of 127 provinces. As the news of Haman’s decree spread, each Jewish community found themselves buried in a state of “great mourning…with fasting, weeping, and wailing, while everybody lay in sackcloth and ashes” (Esther 4:3). They were facing the reality of total extinction, a literal holocaust that would have brutally extinguished our nation from the face of the Earth.
What was Mordechai’s response to Haman’s evil decree?
The Megilah tells us that Mordechai approached Queen Esther to plead with Achashveirosh on behalf of the Jewish people. Esther’s initial response was one of reluctance – she had not been summoned to the king’s palace and would therefore be facing possible execution were she to approach unannounced.
Mordechai’s reply to Esther was the following: “Do not think to yourself to escape into the house of the king, away from all the Jews” (Esther 4:13, see Rashi). Mordechai’s message to his niece was clear: Do not try to escape our plight. Do not turn away. Do not hide from the reality the Jewish people are facing. Yes, our situation is terrifying and the future appears bleak, but we must approach this dire reality armed with the resolve that dealing with darkness is far better than avoiding it.
Not Looking to Escape
Esther’s dilemma carries a message for our own lives. The darkness we face can seem formidable at times, even impossible to withstand. Many of us look for ways to sidestep it, opting instead for escape routes to bypass direct confrontation with our own predicament. The myriad of harmful ways we have devised to circumvent dealing with hardship is well known to us. Substance abuse, internet addiction, compulsive gambling, serial toxic relationships – these are just some of the means with which we try to hide from both external and internal darkness.
Rabbi Reuven Leuchter points out that even misplaced bitachon, trust in Hashem, can be a way in which we run away from dealing with the dark. We paper over our struggles by quickly saying “it’s all for the best” and moving on. While we believe that Hashem orchestrates the events of our lives and guides us in the direction He wants us to go, we should not mistakenly use bitachon as a means of avoiding grappling with adversity and, as a result, emerging stronger. This process takes time and sometimes much anguish, but it is essential for moving us down the path of personal growth.
Allowing Darkness to Change Us
Allowing ourselves to be constructively affected by the difficulties we face begins by asking ourselves the following question: What personal change is meant to come about through dealing with this challenge? How am I intended to be different as a result of what is happening to me?
Each specific challenge we face holds a clue for how to meet reality and discover the direction in which we are meant to grow. Finding the personal message in our hardships provides us with the meaning and courage we need to continue moving forward. What am I meant to appreciate that I have been taking for granted? What do I need to be more sensitive to? What change in my character should result from this? What should I be recommitting myself to?
These are difficult questions to ask, but they were precisely the questions guiding Esther’s decision of how to move forward. After taking to heart Mordechai’s reproach, Esther requested that all the Jews of Shushan gather together and fast for three days. In the Jewish tradition, fasting is a vehicle for introspection, an invitation for us to stop and ask ourselves what Hashem wants from us and how we are meant to change. This is what Esther understood. She knew that growth through hardship was the message of the moment and needed to happen before she could face the king. As a result of her call for self-reflection and the Jewish people’s ensuing triumph, there was a recommitment to religious observance (Esther 9:27) and interpersonal relationships (9:19). Our bein adam l’makom and bein adam l’chaveiro both became stronger.
Finding Meaning in the Darkness
I recall sitting with a client who was suffering through an immensely difficult time in his life. At one point he started tearing up and then closed his eyes. I leaned forward to offer him comfort, but he held up his finger for me to stop talking (always good advice). We sat together in silence for a while, until he slowly opened his eyes and said: “If I just knew that all of this had some sort of meaning, I know I would be able to handle it.”
That moment has stayed with me, because I learned that finding meaning in the face of darkness is the key to personal resilience. We humans are meaning-makers. In order to thrive in this world, we need to attach ourselves to the broader significance of what’s going on. We may need to dig deep in order to find it, but without meaning we cannot endure the trials and tribulations of being human.
When hard times hit, we are not expected to be unafraid. Rather we are called upon to lean into reality, look for meaning in the moment, and grow despite our fears. Leaning into difficult circumstances means allowing ourselves to be uncomfortable but not run away. It means changing our orientation from “get me out of here” to “let me face this moment with grace and presence.” It means not numbing ourselves to the pain we are experiencing but rather using that pain as a catalyst to grow and change.
The story of Purim provides us with a blueprint for accepting difficult circumstances. We learn that meeting challenges includes facing them and becoming better versions of ourselves as a result. Perhaps this is the happiness we are meant to experience on this holy day, not one of frivolity, but rather one that brings about the joy of meaning that can only emerge from darkness.