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Rabbi Howard Cooper

Shabbat Bo - Mental Health Awareness Shabbat

You can listen to Rabbi Howard's sermon or read it below:



Exactly one hundred and one years ago this weekend,  Martha and Sigmund, a bourgeois Viennese couple, received some devastating news. The phone call came at noon. Their pregnant daughter Sophie, mother of two young boys, a six-year old and a thirteen month old toddler, had died: Spanish flu (so-called) with pneumonia complications. She was the second youngest of the family’s six children, and her father’s favourite daughter.

The flu pandemic had swept through Europe in 1918 and 1919 - brought to Europe, ironically, by American troops who’d come over to fight, when America entered the fray, late in the war. The flu ended up killing more Europeans than the war itself. And 27 year-old Sophie Halberstadt, as she then was, would probably be just another grim statistic if it wasn’t for the fact that her father was then, and has remained, a rather significant figure in the history of ideas:  Sigmund, is Sigmund Freud, of course.

Because of Freud’s renown, all the correspondence to and from Freud, and between other family members, has been preserved and from it we can gain an intimate picture of the sadness, the grief, in one family, a century ago – but it could be yesterday, and will, for some, sadly, be tomorrow.

I want to spend a few minutes with this family tragedy – and it might seem an oblique way of speaking about Mental Health Awareness – but I hope you’ll find the path I want to trace of some minor interest, maybe even value. Because as we know Freud did spend a lifetime thinking about how the human mind works, and he was passionately, obsessionally, devoted to what wasn’t then called ‘mental health’.  One way or another we are all the inheritors, willingly or not, of the mapping of the human psyche that he pioneered. Which later became a multi-faceted industry, much of which wouldn’t recognise, and might even vehemently deny, its roots in that long-left behind central European milieu.  

Having heard the news, the first person Freud wrote to was his mother. And he came straight to the point.

Dear Mother, I have some sad news for you today. Yesterday morning our dear lovely Sophie died from galloping influenza and pneumonia… She is the first of our children we have to outlive. What Max will do, what will happen to the children, we of course don’t know as yet.

I hope you will take it calmly; tragedy after all has to be accepted. But to mourn this splendid, vital girl who was so happy with her husband and children is of course permissible.

I greet you fondly. Your Sigmund.

There is a lot I could say about this letter, its tender yet austere tone, both compassionate and dispassionate; both empathetic and fatalistic: ‘tragedy after all has to be accepted’. And its concluding sentiment - that although the reality of the loss has to be accepted,  to mourn this splendid, vital girl …is of course permissible - what of that?

That word ‘permissible’ might sound strange to our ears now, a century later, maybe even slightly chilling. What do you mean it’s ‘permissible’ to mourn!? Who could ever doubt that? Who needs to be given permission to mourn? This isn’t Dad’s Army. And yet what Freud was on to here is worth reflecting on, because what he’d discovered after 25 years of working with patients with all kinds of mental and emotional distress, was the vital importance of mourning, of being given permission – and giving oneself permission – to grieve fully and deeply and truly, to feel and express the pain of loss.

You have to remember that 19th century emotional repression – active suppression of tears, the ethos of the stiff upper lip - was not only a Victorian, British phenomenon, but a bourgeois belief throughout Europe. Particularly for men, but not only for men. Freud was one of the first to systematically explore the detrimental consequences of keeping a whole range of innate human feelings at bay, out of sight, suppressed. Feelings that might be judged by oneself, or one’s society, or one’s religion,  or one’s parents,  to be wrong, or to make you into a bad person.

In that little word ‘permissible’ Freud is signaling to his mother something that he made the cornerstone of his revolution: it was permissible, indeed vital, to accept one’s deepest human feelings. Because every day of his professional life he was working with people who were blocked from doing that and were suffering from everything from depression to hysteria, neurotic anxiety to medically-undiagnosable bodily symptoms, psychosis to melancholia. And  a thousand other ‘mental health’ issues in between. Freud gave permission, gave space, for people to own up to, to own, their own feeling life. If it seems simple now, it was a revolution then.

A day later, Freud wrote to a close friend, the Swiss pastor, Oscar Pfister, that “our sweet Sophie in Hamburg had been… snatched away in the midst of glowing health, from a full and active life…all in four or five days, as though she had never existed. Although we had been worried about her for a couple of days, we had nevertheless been hopeful; it is so difficult to judge from a distance. And this distance must remain distance, we were not able to travel at once, as we had intended…there was no train, not even for an emergency. [This was post-War central Europe where transport links were still infrequent]. The undisguised brutality of our time is weighing heavily upon us. Tomorrow she is being cremated, our poor Sunday child!”

So Sigmund and Martha aren’t able to be at the funeral of their daughter. We recognize distant echoes in our own times of how circumstances have forced us to lose out on so much - whether it is funerals and shivas, or hospital visits, or care home visits - so many losses we are suffering. I know that we too sometimes are feeling our own version of Freud’s sentiment: “The undisguised brutality of our time is weighing heavily upon us.”

A final few words from Freud before I switch from January 1920 to January 2021. From a letter a few days later to a Hungarian colleague, Sandor Ferenczi :

“Dear Friend, Please don’t worry about me. Apart from feeling rather more tired I am the same. The death, painful as it is, does not affect my attitude toward life. For years I was prepared for the loss of our sons [During the War Freud’s sons were away fighting and one of them, Martin, went missing in 1918 and it was a month until the family heard he’d been taken as a prisoner of war and he wasn’t released until mid-1919] ; now it is our daughter; as a confirmed atheist I have no one to accuse and realize that there is no place where I could lodge a complaint….Deep down I sense a bitter, irreparable…injury.”

Actually I think Freud was in denial when he wrote that this loss hadn’t affected his attitude to life. You can’t suffer an ‘irreparable injury’ and think it won’t impact your “attitude toward life”. The devastating loss of Sophie was in fact only compounded when Sophie’s younger boy, the toddler Heinele, whom Freud doted on, himself died, of TB, three years later. Freud mourned for them both for the rest of his life.

So where does all this history  leave us?

It’s clear that in these lockdown and pandemic times – and we are fast approaching a year now since our world was turned upside down – the question of how we are managing our day to day life is a major preoccupation. The newspapers, and radio and Tv and social media are full of advice and stories about how people are coping, or not coping, tips for survival, guides to lockdown living, how best to look after our mental health, our emotional and practical wellbeing.

And yet, for all the stuff that is out there which is trying to help us and support us, and that includes things we are doing in the community, when it comes down to it, and you dig into how each of us is bearing up, you don’t have to dig very far to touch into just how distressing we are finding this, how disturbed we are feeling, how frightened we might be, how insecure and uncertain we are about the future – and that is regardless of whether we have had the vaccine injection or not. We might not have emerged from a World War – but nobody I know is manging well, sailing through this, however brave a face we are putting on it.

Our mental health, our emotional wellbeing is being challenged, perhaps as never before in our lifetimes. And that is separate from those of us who might have actually lost someone to Covid over this last year. When somebody dies, however painful that is, we can mourn the loss. The loss is real, the grief is real, yet we sort of know what we are dealing with. With the pandemic though, what we are struggling with is a different kind of loss and because we have  never gone through this kind of loss before we don’t know what we are dealing with.

We just know that there are a variety of symptoms: be it an edginess, an unsettledness, an irritability, maybe sleeplessness, feelings of hopelessness or despair,  a low level anxiety, maybe we find we are being forgetful or tearful or distracted.

One of the things I want to highlight here is something we may never have realised was so vital for our mental health, our emotional wellbeing – and that is real contact with other people, live connection, sharing physical space with others, touching other people, being touched by other people, bodies in space together. How much we are missing this: the living, embodied  presence of other people, people we know and love, or people we see only once in a while, but also strangers, people in the street and in shops and on the tube and at football. Real people whom we mix with and interact with and keep us in touch – though we never appreciated how vital it was - keep us in touch with our own being alive, in our bodies, in our selves.

Zoom and the phone does not touch some deeper human need for embodied presence, a need we have never been deprived of before, and so never realised – and we are only just realising now – helps us feel alive. Breathing, sweating, smiling, grimacing, glowing humanity. We go out and interact and other people mirror our aliveness. And a lot of that is happening at a subconscious level.

Our sense of being fully alive – heart, mind, body, soul – becomes atrophied, slowly, if we have no physical connection with others. Why is solitary confinement the ultimate punishment in prison? In certain regimes it’s used to drive prisoners into despair or madness.

So we need to acknowledge that if we are abiding at all with the guidelines, our mental wellbeing is being tested, it’s like we are experiencing a collective bereavement, and maybe at some fundamental level that is why, psychologically, people might not be complying – it’s not just being anti-social, or bloody-minded, or perverse, or dressed up as libertarian - it’s because unconsciously we all know that connecting to others makes us feel more alive. And aren’t we all determined, in our own ways, to try and stay alive?

Well, as I have illustrated today, we are of course not the first to experience disorientation,  dislocation, bereavement, the having to endure month after month, sometimes year after year, anxieties about separation and loss. It is part of the human condition.

There is of course much that we can do to help ourselves – everywhere you look there are suggestions about how to survive lockdown, so I’m not going to catalogue those. Some of the things you do will help, some won’t. Sometimes you will just feel low, sad, morose, upset, disconnected from others, disconnected from your deeper more alive self. But for our own mental health it can be important, I would say vital, just to accept that – it’s easier said than done, but we need to be able to just accept those feelings. Using Freud’s word, it’s ‘permissible’ to feel low – that’s congruent with what we are having to live through. Those feelings won’t last forever, they don’t last forever, even though when we are in them we sometimes feel as it they will.

We have resilience fused to our souls. We will continue to meet together, even at a distance, continue to celebrate together, to mourn together, to learn together and from each other, we will continue to support each other, through the community, through our shared conversations and activities and services, we will see this through. To put it in Biblical terms: we will be coming out of Egypt. We may not have a Moses but we will be coming out of Egypt, in God’s good time.

Sun, 26 June 2022 27 Sivan 5782