The Elephant in the Room

November, 16 2012

Moment’s annual Elephant in the Room Contest–designed to foster conversation about important but little-discussed topics–is taking on an issue many of us deal with but one still shrouded in secrecy and embarrassment: anxiety. We’re asking readers to tell us how anxiety has affected them, their family or the Jewish people in general. Here are some excerpts from a few of the entries we’ve received:

“My grandparents survived the Shoah. Like many of our beloved family members, their story is one of fear, horror, strength, courage, and resilience. I grew up hearing bits and pieces of their past, but for the most part they tried to shield us kids from the details. We lived comfortable, blessed lives, and yet the one thing that they couldn’t shield us from was, what I call, “the hum.” The best way that I can explain the hum is that it is this underlying buzz of muted anxiety, rarely discussed, but ever-present. My grandmother, who has lived in Canada for 60 years, still needs to be cajoled into putting on her seat belt every time she gets into a car, and when she sits in a chair, there it is. She sits on the edge, readying herself to jump up if need be. The Gestapo isn’t coming. She knows that. We all know that… but the thought of being stuck, unable to escape at a moment’s notice is unbearable to her. That anxiety is always there, it’s the hum.”

“I’m not sure that anyone realizes just how similar Jews and WASPs really are. I was raised Episcopalian, and as far as I can see, the only real difference is that we try to keep our crazy on the inside, drowned in high-quality alcohol and denial. Jews, on the other hand, wave their anxiety flags high and proud. They’re finger drummers, foot tappers, anxiety attack-having, Tums-munching crazy faces. And I adore them. Every single anxious one of them. Mostly because, my upbringing aside, I’m one of them – to my crazy face, anxious core. When I very briefly left the comforting, neurotic world of Jewish non-profs, my boss-of-three-months told me that I was high-strung and uptight. No one in Jew World has EVER told me that.”

“The Rabbis of the Talmud were very astute observers of human health and behavior, and were well aware of the corrosive effect worry can have on the mind and body. Indeed, the Talmud seems to have anticipated modern psychosomatic medicine when it tells us, “Worry can kill; therefore let not anxiety enter your heart, for it has slain many a person.” We now know that, indeed, there is an increased risk of fatal coronary heart disease among patients with panic disorder and related conditions.
It’s not surprising, then, that the Talmud instructs us, “Do not worry about tomorrow’s trouble, for you never know what the day will bring.” So far, so good. But then the Rabbis add, “Maybe by the time tomorrow arrives you won’t be here anymore, and you worried about a world that was not yours.” This sounds a bit like Woody Allen’s contribution to the Talmud! Were the rabbis being deliberately paradoxical?”

Join the conversation by entering the contest–we’re accepting entries through December 7. Three winners will each receive an iPad and will have their essays published in Moment. This year’s contest is a partnership between Moment and the Andrew Kukes Foundation for Social Anxiety.

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