By Jo Strausz Rosen

It can be difficult to deal with darkness and lean into the light. How can we live at the height of hope and optimism when we are bombarded with news of natural or manmade disasters, and the injustices faced by so many? How can we let go of the feelings of sadness when we learn of the horrors in the world and find our way back to hope and joy? And is that the proper response to tragedy?

Darkness is a path toward despair, from which comes more darkness. Staying in the light gives us hope, and forges a path toward being our most giving, helpful, joyful, genuine selves. Although it seems counterintuitive, our ability to help when there is tragedy or disaster relies on our hope, on our light. And living in the light not only gives us joy, but gives joy to those around us, helping all of us live our best and be our best.

So how do we flip our own internal “joy switch”? When prone to depression and anxiety, we need compassion and should acknowledge the need for psychological counseling, and spiritual guidance to clear the dark thoughts from our brains. Jealousy, anger, fear, despair, and selfishness work against us. They chip away at our joy and keep us locked in a small world view with narrow aspirations. Nurturing spirituality helps us overcome these negative emotions and opens us to more ways of understanding ourselves and others.  Real joy comes with self-knowledge and self-acceptance. We can all benefit from this work.

Here on the campuses of Jewish Senior Life, we work with intention to stay in the light. Our own Jewish Community Chaplain, Rabbi Dovid Polter serves as our spirituality coach. He shares stories of faith with a kind heart, amazing depth, and wisdom. He brings more than spiritual services to the residents; he offers guidance and brings a listening ear. His weekly column in this Shabbat newsletter shares a peaceful beginning to our weekly day of rest.

The thoughtful and kind administrators in every building are bright and creative, loving keepers of homes and builders of relationships.  Resident Service Coordinators (RSC) are licensed social workers who often sit with, listen to, and dispense inspiration and advice to residents who may be wrestling with the difficulties of living their best lives. JSL Life Enrichment Coordinators prescribe and plan daily activities which are fun, informative, pleasurable and spirit-lifting.  We know that fun and recreation can provide an escape. We also get joy from some of our residents who are comedians and love to share their laugh-out-loud humor.

Working with purpose, the professional staff at The Dorothy & Peter Brown Jewish Community Adult Day Program schedule meaningful activities that provide support to cultivate joy and happiness in our greater Detroit community for people living with dementia. At the same time, the caregivers enjoy well deserved respite.

It’s true, fun can be an escape and we often entertain ourselves to distract from unpleasantness. But the trick is the balance, acknowledging that life presents challenges, pain, tragedy, but staying in a place of light so we can confront these moments without falling into despair and hopelessness.

Practice Joy. We must do this with and for each other, and for ourselves. Consider writing about times you have experienced deep joy. A fond memory of the past can flip the “joy switch” in the present. Remember to count our blessings. I find it a wonderful practice to begin Shabbos dinner by recalling the good things that happened during the week. Our own gratitude blesses us. Try a “complaint fast.” Take notice of complaints as you are about to voice them, and then… choose not to. Controlling the impulse to complain can help lift our mood. Or we can turn it around and try laughing at ourselves.  “Turn your frown upside down.” It takes practice.

Pleasure comes from joy. We could try to rehearse funny lines to say when we realize we forgot someone’s name. We can accept our senior moments.  Think of the pleasure, the “nachas” we get from the success of our loved ones or friends… their happiness and good fortune can bring us joy – if we let it. Foster empathetic joy in each exclamation of “Mazel tov” or “Congratulations” when you hear or read of your friend’s amazing travels or special honors.

Present a cheerful face to the world. Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.”

Science has found that using your facial muscles to form a smile releases neurochemicals that can have a positive effect on your mood – it even works if the smile is a fake smile.

Joy takes practice. Keep at it.

This inspiring poem by the Sufi poet, Rumi, describes the challenge and the opportunity of cultivating and nurturing joy. I recommend reading this out loud slowly.

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

Some momentary awareness comes

As an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,

Who violently sweep your house

Empty of its furniture,

Still treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

For some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

Meet them at the door laughing,

And invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

Because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

Shabbat Shalom

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