Doing Our Best (Even When It Doesn’t Feel Like Enough)

By Suzanne Sawyer / Special to the BJV

Not long ago, the week was winding down and we were getting ready for a Zoom Shabbat with my parents and not-at-home kids. I was looking forward to “seeing” my parents, who we usually visit with almost every month, but who I have not seen in person since early February. Several times over the last two months we joined Hevreh for Zoom Shabbat, but to be completely candid, after a full week of remote meetings and phone calls, welcoming Shabbat on the computer is not what refuels and recharges me, or prepares me for what should be a day of rest. 

And yet video is the only way to see most people right now, even though many are not that far away. We are grateful that two of our girls are in the house, but two are not, and video is the only way to see them with their faces uncovered.

We've been in it for over 2 months now, and I tell people we're fine and blessed that we are all healthy and doing okay, because if I stop to really think about how we're doing, I'm not fine. Each time we reach some kind of equilibrium, another wave of sadness at new closures or losses begins – most recently, the announcement by the Union for Reform Judaism that there will be no in-person youth experiences this summer. This was the first public declaration I had seen of this very hard and painful decision, another blow to the many children who will not have graduation ceremonies, step-up days, school concerts, or any of the landmark events that mark the end of one school year and transition to the next. And it’s another blow to the frazzled parents who have been juggling remote work and family, or onsite work in vulnerable situations while trying to keep their homes clean and safe.

I am grateful that the URJ took the lead in making this decision, as the Jewish community was among the first to close down in March for the same reason: pikuach nefesh, to protect lives. Navigating this roller coaster of events has taught me I can be both proud and very sad at the same time.

I have adjusted fairly well to staying at home and going to the grocery store once every three weeks. I am an introvert by nature, so reading a book or alone time in the yard are natural for me, but I feel bad because I am not being one of the visible helpers. I feel selfish for not jumping to shop for neighbors or volunteer at a food pantry or deliver meals. My choices are about caring for my family, and that is how I am helping – I am staying home. So I hold the guilt of not doing enough for my community on one hand and the comfort of doing what I need to protect my family in the other. It’s hard to convince myself that I am doing enough and don’t need to be a hero to everyone.

Our family’s challenges are not unique, but they cause stress all the same. I worry about the girls and their exposure risks. Devorah is marketing manager and Shayna is curbside pick-up coordinator at the Co-op in Great Barrington. Donovan is in the Army National Guard and her military police unit was activated to assist during the pandemic. They are all in high-contact locations. We struggle daily with internet challenges: who needs it when, will it drop out on us during a Zoom call, and needing to drive to a location with better WiFi to do anything substantial. Fortunately, Shira handles her schoolwork with equanimity and can manage her time pretty independently, but I know she’s tired of me checking on things that need supervision. And now with no band or chorus concerts or spring sports, on top of her schoolwork, she has to manage the feelings those losses create.

Tom and I are also adjusting to working from home. We are fortunate to be able to continue working, but as a school-based occupational therapist, the work I do requires hands-on and direct observation and interaction with my students. How to do this remotely is a huge leap, and since my work has shifted, I feel I never leave work because there is always something else I can do to help my students. And I never seem to know what day it is anymore.

We are all experiencing our own version of this. Times right now demand flexibility and latitude and we are doing our best, but it is exhausting, even when there are rays of sunshine in our days. For some of us, however, our best may not feel like enough.

The lesson I am learning is it’s okay to acknowledge how hard this is and that we need to be gentle with each other. We need to recognize our experiences are different yet no less challenging, and to give each other space and permission to do what we need to take care of ourselves and our loved ones. That may mean working odd hours, working fewer hours, prioritizing family and self-care in order to more effectively take care of others or our congregation.

None of us is perfect, and while we are “all in this together,” our “this” varies. Hillel says, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me. If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” We cannot be effective leaders if we are not caring for ourselves. That includes understanding we are not obligated to be everything to everyone, and neither is our neighbor. Doing the best we can for ourselves and our families allows us the space to be there for our community with empathy and understanding, and that is how we can care for the world.

When this crisis ends we will have stretched in ways we cannot imagine. We will eventually be back in our synagogues and living in a new normal. In the meantime, again, (note to self) we must remember to be gentle with ourselves and with each other.

Suzanne Sawyer is the immediate past president of Hevreh of Southern Berkshire in Great Barrington.