By Rabbi Yehoshua Berman
Looking for Direction
Question: I am almost twenty three years old and I feel like I am not really getting anywhere. Life is passing me by in fast-forward and I am stuck in slow-motion. Or perhaps pause. I used to be in a good school, but I left a number of years ago. After that, I was in a program for girls like myself who didn’t make it in the system. I did ok there for a while, but I still felt like I wasn’t really doing anything, or maybe it was feeling disconnected from what I was doing. It’s hard to describe. A lot of times I just don’t feel like doing anything at all. Also, I’ve got internal baggage that I am trying to sort through. For now, I am not doing anything or in any type of structure. I don’t know how to get myself out of this, and part of me doesn’t even feel like trying. Any ideas?
Answer: First of all, let me say this. Irrespective of any practical advice that you may or may not take from this response, you deserve to be much commended for reaching out. Feeling lack of accomplishment and direction in life can be extremely frustrating and disheartening. The situation you are facing is very challenging, and the fact that you have taken this step is very significant and meaningful.
Another point, before we explore your personal situation, is that it may help you to know that you are not alone. There are many more young people struggling with very similar issues as that which you describe than most people are aware of. Sometimes, just knowing that what you’re going through is normal can go a long way to relieving some of the burden of the challenge.
Now, your description seems to point to a lack of motivation. Perhaps even a degree of sluggishness. Seeing that this can be brought about by various causes, I’ll try to briefly touch on a few.
Do you have interests that you feel have never been explored in any meaningful way? Perhaps one of the reasons that you did not succeed in the institutions that you have attended is that deep down you may have felt that there wasn’t anything there for you.
For example, let’s assume that you are a caring, people person. The type of person who really thrives off of taking care of and giving to others. If you couple that with a more intuitive, as opposed to academic, slant, that can certainly be a possible cause for why someone would feel estranged from a particular, educational system.
If the places you attended only pushed for rigorous academic achievement and were leading girls towards a limited gamut of careers such as computers, accounting, and the like, it would make a lot of sense that your ever-mounting sense of lack of fulfillment would leave you frustrated and disappointed.
Try to probe inward and discover what your individual strengths and interests are. Chazal tell us that Ha’Kadosh Baruch Hu implanted into each person a sense of enjoyment and fulfillment in doing that which one is inherently inclined and skilled (Brachos 43b). In the same vein, the Chovos Ha’Levavos says that a person should try to choose an occupation based on what comes naturally to a person (Shaar Ha’Bitachon, chapter three).
Rav Elchonon Fishman, the Mashgiach of Yeshivas Toras Moshe, once said in a vaad that people choosing occupations that are not in accordance with their natural inclinations and skill can create chronic unhappiness. “You can have a guy who becomes a doctor or a dentist because that is the direction in which societal pressure pushes him, but he may have been much happier as a plumber! When a person is happy with what he is doing, his Shalom Bayis is different, his Shabbos table is different, his whole Yiddishkeit and that of his family is totally changed for the better!” This is what Rav Fishman said to us as third-year bachurim, knowing that many of us would soon be leaving Yeshiva and making serious life decisions about which direction to take.
So if you feel like this is something you haven’t ever taken the time to do, do it now. And if you discover that you do in fact have interests and skills that have never been tapped, try to find the right structure that will help you to materialize your goals.
Another consideration to take into account is this. Do you have some type of ongoing stress in your life that is eclipsing everything else? Perhaps there is a strained relationship in your life that is filling your heart with too much pain to be able to focus on proactively going after your goals. There is no question that emotional pain can be paralyzing. In fact, the Tzitz Eliezer writes that emotional pain can be more crippling than physical pain (Volume 13, chapter 102).
And it doesn’t even have to be something as acute as dysfunctional relationships. It could also be something like feeling overly stressed out by shidduchim. Or perhaps even about schooling and parnassa. At your age, it makes a lot of sense that you may be feeling a lot of internal pressure about your future. Sometimes this can become overwhelming. Especially if you don’t have any outlets to de-stress and fill yourself with some pleasantness.
To that end, it may not be bad idea – if you aren’t already doing so – to make it a habit to get some fresh air and regular exercise. Go swimming. Take hikes in the woods. Try to get your heart rate up and keep it like that for enough time that you get a good, solid workout. Spend some time having fun with friends on Shabbos. Maybe even take up an enjoyable hobby.
Sleep is also something that must be taken into account. Rabbeinu Yonah writes that if a person doesn’t get proper rest he can lose his mind from over exertion (Avos 2:12). Human beings are not machines (truth is, though, that even those need rest), and need proper sleep. Not getting enough can definitely wreak havoc on a person’s life. One of the tricky things about this is that it isn’t only quantity that matters, but quality as well. For example, if someone has sleep apnea which is waking them up innumerable times throughout the night, that can generate during a person’s waking hours a chronic feeling of exhaustion and lethargy, and cause serious interference to productivity. But this is not necessarily something that a person is aware of. Apnea can rouse a person from deep sleep throughout the night, but not wake them up enough to realize what’s going on. Speaking to a doctor about this is a consideration that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Diet is also something that cannot be ignored. There are numerous sources in the Gemara and Rishonim that point to the singular importance of having a healthy diet and cultivating healthy eating habits (see, for example, Brachos 44b, Eiruvin 56a, Rambam Deios, chapter four). I have a friend who decided to completely cut added sugar out of his diet. He told me that he could not believe how his energy and stamina level grew by leaps and bounds! The change was simply enormous. Poor dietary habits can rob the body of essential nutrients, without which functioning can be drastically lowered.
Yet another point that must be mentioned is friendships. In the Mussar sefarim we find the following expression: A person without friends is like a left hand without the right hand (Mivchar Ha’Peninim, chapter 20, Shaar Ha’Chaveirim). Incorporating meaningful friendships into one’s life affords one with a sense of togetherness and belonging, a feeling of shleimus that goes a long way to increasing an individual’s sense of happiness and enthusiasm, in addition to providing one with a supportive ear in tough times. Our contemporary, super-busy lifestyle can often make this seem like an elusive goal, but it really ought to be placed as a non-negotiable priority.
Finally, I would be remiss if I would not mention one last point. Occasional downs and blues is a normal part of life. But if a general sense of sadness and melancholy persists for long periods of time without let-up, that could warrant seeking professional help. Particularly if it is coupled with a sense of apathy and indifference about anything and everything. If you try numerous ways to resolve your problem and nothing seems to help, or particularly if you find yourself completely devoid of any motivation to try anything, it may mean that you are suffering from clinical depression. If that is the case, don’t prolong your suffering. You deserve to be happy and fulfilled. Get appropriate help.
In discussing these issues in the context of women who suffer from post-partum and other forms of clinical depression, Dayan Yitzchak Silver said it this way: “The clever ones take medication.”
I would like to add that they are also the courageous ones. Because overcoming the unfortunate and completely misguided stigma that is so often associated with psychiatric and/or psychological intervention in order to do that which one knows is what he or she really needs to be doing is an act of true courage. And the opposite is true when a person tries to sweep such a problem under the rug. It is not an expression of strength. And it can cause so much unnecessary suffering. So, if called for, do make an appointment with a competent professional for a proper evaluation. It is the wise and courageous thing to do.
If you have a question to submit to Rabbi Berman, email it to EmpoweringAdvice@gmail.com. There is no need to sign your letter, but for the most effective results, do try to include all relevant details of the situation.
The advice offered in this column is provided for informational purposes, and is not intended as a substitute for the responsible procurement of Rabbinic or professional advice where called for. The author and publisher of this column cannot be held responsible for any negative results of following any advice in any given situation.