Many people want to talk to me about fear and hopelessness these days.
They look at the pictures of wildfires across America and in Europe, the boiling temperatures everywhere, and they are afraid. They are afraid for themselves and they are afraid for their children and grandchildren.
They look at the new spate of repressive laws across the nation, limiting a woman’s right to make deeply personal choices about her own body, and they are afraid. They are perhaps not afraid for themselves, but they are afraid for their children and grandchildren.
They look at the incredible uptick in antisemitism right here in America, right here in our own neighborhoods, and they are very afraid for themselves. And they fear for their children and their grandchildren.
What are we supposed to do with this fear? How can we mitigate it when we know we are powerless? Putting out the fires is not within our grasp. Climate change is not within our grasp. Changing the laws? Stopping antisemitism? All of these things are too big.
I was talking with a congregant who feels these fears deeply, and I said to her, You can’t do anything about it. But tearing yourself apart is also not good. You can worry until you make yourself sick, and it won’t do a damn bit of good. It’s up to you, I told her, It’s up to each of us to take care of ourselves. Only then can we turn outward and help the world.
I have been beating this drum for a long time, and if you are tired of hearing it from me, I understand. But this is the only answer that I have, the only answer that makes sense to me in a world that does not make sense, in a world that is too big and too scary and too much to handle.
My answer is this: You do what you can. You understand your limitations, you understand that the infinitesimal change that your actions make will not change the world. And you do it anyway.
You are kind to strangers. You are kind to your friends and family. You are kind to yourself. You appreciate the goodness in your own life, and you show that gratitude. You wallow in the small joys. In the sunlight and in the thunder.
You look for stars in the night sky even though you know that light pollution blocks most of them from your sight.
You do the small things. You write letters and you write checks. You vote and you encourage others to vote. You recycle, and you don’t buy single-use plastics.
As you do these small things you know that in the grand scheme of things they will not make a difference. But you do them anyway, trusting that doing the right thing is always the right path, hoping that others will join you, that someday you will be a member of a giant army of do-gooders who want to save the world.
And when you are at your lowest and can’t feel the little joys and gratitude, call someone who you love, someone who you trust. Let them help you up. Let them remind you of the goodness in your life and in your world, even when things seem terrible and bleak and dark.
On the Jewish calendar, we are nearing the end of The Three Weeks, a time of communal mourning, during which we are asked to not listen to live music. But I have happily broken that rule over and over again, as I have been inundated with videos of a 78-year-old Joni Mitchell performing at the Newport Folk Festival this week.
The videos of her singing, now in a low alto instead of the high soprano from her youth, are joyous and moving. This is a woman who suffered a near fatal aneurysm just seven years ago. Impossibly, she is singing, playing guitar, smiling, performing.
Although she is accompanied by many well-known musicians on the crowded stage, the person you notice immediately is Brandi Carlile, sitting beside her, encouraging her, cheering her along and cheering for her. Carlile’s joy is palpable, perhaps even greater than Mitchell’s own.
None of us go through this life alone. We rely on each other, sometimes more heavily, sometimes lightly. But we know that our successes are not own. They are shared with the ones who walk beside us, who remind us to look up in the dark times.
Choose joy. Choose life. Choose to believe in God, if you wish. But whatever you do, choose to believe that the world can be a better place, and that the butterfly effect is real, and go ahead and flap your beautiful butterfly wings every single solitary day.
This post is a revised version of my sermon tonight at Kol HaNeshama.