Sunday, July 31, 2011

Chocolate-Flavored Resilience

What has chocolate got to do with resilience? (You may ask.) I invite you to read on, and see if you agree with my take on this crucial issue.

Chocolate is a wonderful example of the tension that all of us in the modern Western world live with every day – that between pleasure and responsibility. When it comes to chocolate, the “pleasure” part of this dialectic is obvious – everyone (well, almost everyone) loves chocolate. Even better: It’s been discovered that chocolate loves us back, or at least pretends to love us by containing various substances that cause our bodies to release chemicals that make us feel happy and loved.

The “responsibility” side of this tension is not immediately obvious, but it’s very real. It’s composed, really, of two kinds of obligations: to ourselves and our families, on the one hand, and to society on the other. On the personal plane, it’s easy to abuse chocolate as one might abuse any substance. For one thing, we might substitute chocolate for “real” food, thus avoiding our duty to keep ourselves and our children healthy by eating and serving nutritious meals. It’s also possible to use chocolate as an easy way of keeping children quiet – much like plunking them down in front of the television – or of getting them to do what we want, thus avoiding some of our educational obligations toward them.

On the societal level, chocolate is often based on “plantation economies” that exploit, abuse, or even enslave their workers. In addition, some of the larger cocoa plantations were carved out of rain forests, thus contributing to the destruction of ecosystems that are vital to their countries’ – and indeed, the world’s – environmental health, perhaps even survival. Finally, in a hungry world, the land, water and financial resources presently used to make cocoa – a plant without nutritional value – might be better devoted to raising that nourishing food which, if we were really good, we’d be eating instead.

Put this way, it would seem pretty clear that we should act in accordance with personal and social responsibility, and shun what has – despite or perhaps because of its sinful qualities – become a kind of icon of Western culture. The Protestant ethic (which, Jewish as I am, I’ve absorbed together with everyone else in the West) would pretty much unconditionally seem to demand no less.

But I wonder if the very opposition of “pleasure versus duty” is as simple as that. We need to nourish not only our bodies, but our souls as well. An emotionally balanced person knows how to enjoy herself. Overly duty-oriented people tend to be rather grim, and can make their own lives miserable – as well as the lives of everyone around them. Moreover, people forced (whether by others or by their own conscience) to spend all their time tending to their responsibilities tend to get exhausted, thus rendering themselves far less efficient. Injecting enjoyment into our lives can give us the strength, and the good humor, to fulfill our obligations with a smile. If we spread the sunshine, others will also enjoy the lightness of heart to do what they need to do – and to pass the sunshine on.

So pleasure greases the world’s wheels, so to speak. Freud, of course, knew this well, as did the composer(s) of the well-known Jewish folktale in which God temporarily suspended the Yetzer HaRa (the “Evil Inclination,” including our most basic drive to pleasure), which caused life itself to stop.

To take the argument further, recharging our batteries regularly with pleasurable “fuel” can strengthen us not only to do what we need to in our personal lives, but to go beyond the call of immediate duty and work for the greater good, for example by volunteering for organizations working for social justice, or for sustainable development, or for any number of good causes.

I know that I personally am much more effective in my own work helping people who are suffering from depression, anxiety, and trauma when I'm making sure to spend time and energy on myself, doing – including eating! – things that make me feel good. As a matter of fact, I would go so far as to say that my ability to enjoy myself without guilt is one of the gifts God has given me to make me resilient. Put more simply, when I do good stuff for myself, I can bounce back that much more easily when the bad stuff happens.

Finally, life doesn’t have to be all or nothing! We don’t need to choose between Spartanism and Hedonism; we can take our pleasure in moderation. And nowadays the choice between social vice and virtue need not be so sharp, either. For example, one can find lists of “slave-free” chocolate brands, and there are several international organizations now advising cocoa-producers how they can make their farms environmentally sustainable.

So go ahead and eat that (Fair Trade!) chocolate every day. It might just be a mitzvah.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Unblocked, and Grateful

Here’s another entry in my Grief and Gratitude series.

Today I’m planning to submit a short story to a literary journal for possible publication, the one I mentioned in my previous post. I’m very excited about this, partly because finishing a story always moves me, but also because this story is palpable proof that I’ve become unblocked – I can indeed go on writing even after publishing my memoir.

I’ve been writing stories, in fits and starts, since I was six. My first was called “Susan the Clown,” and told the story of a clown whose big, awkward feet saved the day by outrunning the bad guys when her circus was robbed. Since then I’ve had long dry periods, but have come back to writing time and again as a way to process my experience and express my creativity.

While I was writing my original blog, and when I started to transform it into And Twice the Marrow of Her Bones, I was afraid I’d never again be able to write about anything unconnected with my daughter’s death. Then a friend told me about a three-day workshop on writing dialogue that was to be given in my area. Thinking it would help me with the book, I signed up.

Well, it did help with the memoir but, equally important, it showed me that I could still make stuff up – and stuff that had nothing to do with illness or death, at that. Since then I’ve participated in several workshops run by the same program, a writing group, and a regular writing course. These allayed my fear that I'd never write again once the book was out.

Then a new fear replaced my original one: Perhaps I could do writing exercises or even start stories, but I’d never be able to finish an entire story. Worse, all I seemed able to write was fictionalized memoir – stories so closely based on my own experience that I felt they didn’t “count” as fiction. True, one if my stories was accepted for publication in Israel Short Stories, an anthology of short fiction written by English-language writers living in Israel, but I’d written it about twenty years ago and only slightly revised it for submission last year. I was afraid the well of my creativity had dried up.

But for the past several weeks I’ve taken a short memoir that I started in the writing group and transformed it into a story with a completely different protagonist and message, as well as a main plot that I invented. And today I’m submitting it.

In my post Writing and Resilience, I related how writing about Timora’s illness and death has helped me process my traumatic experience, and how writing helped Timora deal with hers. I think that moving forward – beyond my trauma – with my writing is integrally bound up with moving forward in my life; that is, with my resilience.

And I’m truly, truly grateful for that.