By Dr. Bernie Kastner
“In school, you’re taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you’re given a test that teaches you a lesson.”
This wise aphorism applies throughout our lifetimes. I pluralized the word “lifetime” because, as most of you know, we come back several times in order to reach our individual tikkun objectives. We don’t always learn life’s lessons in one try—that is part of the challenge we face when our neshamos choose to come down to this world. Sometimes our neshamos have more control over our bodies and at other times our physical bodies have more control. It is this give-and-take that marks who we are and ultimately defines the path we take toward olam habbah.
It is easier for those of us who are generally healthy and well to discuss what happens to us in the next world because we perceive it as something in the far distance, too far out of range to scar our fragile psyches. However, when one is seriously ill, one stands at the crossroads of fear and hope. Such an individual will be less open to considering how wonderful it may be in the next world. After all, we wish to remain in this world and will block out the thought of having to leave. The very thought instills a fear of doom and gloom. Hope can balance out the equation, but it is a stiff, uphill battle. Fortunately, there are tools that can be acquired in order to deal with this.
Recently, I was feeling extreme pain in my lower back. After taking a number of tests, my doctor told me that I was not sick, but that I was a man in pain. That was an interesting perspective. One tends to combine the two, reasoning that “if I am in pain, I must be sick,” or “if I am sick, I must be in pain.” However, there are many examples that don’t quite fit that mold, so it’s better to separate the two. I immediately started to feel better about my condition because being sick denotes being in a more vulnerable medical condition than (merely) being in pain. Furthermore, he likened my back pain to the pain of someone who has strep throat. Just as the pain of a sore throat will dissipate with a regimen of antibiotics, so too will the back pain be relieved with antibiotics, assuming the source of the pain is bacterial. So, in my mind I was picturing my back having a sore throat, and that put me more at ease.
I emphasize this because it is critical for one’s physician to choose his or her words and tone of voice very carefully when explaining a diagnosis to the patient. It is terrifying enough to be waiting what seems like endless hours to undergo a CAT scan or MRI, and then seemingly longer to get the results. Our thoughts can and do lead us to jump to conclusions, make unsubstantiated statements, and arrive at premature assessments that can make us extremely morose and scared. This roller-coaster ride can literally make us sick to the stomach.
Hence, a physician ought to be highly sensitive to his or her tone of voice when speaking to a patient, especially by phone. A patient who is already in a heightened state of anxiety will be attuned to small nuances, and may well interpret them falsely.
How does one spend the time while waiting for a result? Distraction is one method—work, study, play, reading, shopping, volunteering. But that doesn’t work for everyone. Some patients are so focused on the upcoming diagnosis that the rest of their lives stop until they receive it.
Now, what can we suggest for those individuals? Prayer is an option. Having other people pray on their behalf is another. Offering good wishes to those who are going through a similar situation is yet another possibility. Talking to Hashem is another. Negotiating with Hashem is also a common thing to do—if you get me through this, I’ll donate a building to a good cause, or I will increase my Torah learning, etc. Bargaining happens all the time, even when we are not sick—I am sure this goes on in the business world and throughout the student community. If You’ll just make me pass this test . . .
And how about guided imagery? Image how you will feel after the illness is behind you. See yourself playing a round of tennis or jogging around the park. Paint a mental picture of living healthy and staying positive. Yes, this can be a tall order, and I do not minimize the degree of difficulty this may require to achieve being in a positive frame of mind.
Ultimately, hoping for a good result can only come from deep within one’s own emunah. A loving family and good friends also help tremendously towards one’s esprit de corps.
Once we have a sense of direction and have a short-term plan outlined, we can then climb on board with the strength and confidence to fight and beat whatever the challenge is at the time.
Hence, the true test of our faith lies at the crossroads of fear and hope. I am reminded of a wonderful quote by Rabbi Aron Moss: “Every soul journeys down into this world with two suitcases. One is full of the challenges the soul has to face during its lifetime. The other is full of the talents and strengths necessary to withstand those challenges. The first suitcase is opened for you; the second you have to open yourself.” v
Dr. Bernie Kastner is a psychotherapist in private practice with offices in Jerusalem. He is also the author of “Understanding the Afterlife in This Life,” “Masa El Haor,” and “HaOlam She’acharei.” His upcoming book “Back to the Afterlife” is scheduled for release later this month. Visit his website at drbkastner.com or write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.