Columns, Opinion

Bearing Witness: Learning vulnerability in 15 days

Fifteen days ago a terrorist came to my hometown and took the lives of the members of Tree of Life Synagogue. Since that time, I have been on an emotional rollercoaster ride to say the least.

As a young couple, my Bubbie and Zeiti (Yiddish for grandparents) purchased seats in the back row of the synagogue, mostly so my family would remain low key and so that they could leave early. Today, the Stein family still sits in those seats. By habituating in that back row, we could see the entire synagogue. We also got to witness Cecil Rosenthal, a man with an intellectual disability, greet every member who walked into the shul. Cecil Rosenthal and his brother David were the pulse of the synagogue.

Beloved by everyone, they spent time at the Jewish Community Center and remembered every person whom they met. I cannot help but wonder if they greeted Robert Bowers the day of the incident. I wish I had personal anecdotes about each of the victims. They were the backbones of the synagogue, those who prayed for love, family, peace, prosperity.

In the past 15 days, I have been confronted with the type of pain that gets you at any time or place. Just when you think you have defeated it, you are confronted with a new fact. Another article. Or simply a reminder of the shocking truth of what happened in your perceived safest and holiest place. I have watched family members struggle and suffer. But I have also watched my family members, as well as the entire city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, bleed all-consuming pride, unsurmountable love and wisdom that can only manifest in times when life is questioned. I have friends and family who have written beautiful articles about what makes Pittsburgh special, and I had touched on that in last week’s article. That is a topic in which a book could be written on. Right now, I am actually going to talk about a valuable lesson learned this week — the act of being vulnerable.

When something as shocking as this happens, we are confronted with life’s toughest questions. The whys. The hows. The “What is to be done?” How do you even find the words? I have spoken at vigils, rallies and dinners. I have also processed alone. It is people’s support and love that has helped me the most. But in order to get that support and love, I had to share my feelings — the ones that our culture tells us not to.

I have shared my pain and learned that friends will always listen. I have shared my narrative and felt the love from thousands of Bostonians. I have told my story countless times and have been in awe at people’s empathetic responses. I have been inspired by the beauty of people’s words, but why must we get to the core of our beings only in times of conflict or tragedy?

Among the American people, it is abnormal to be vulnerable. We have a preoccupation with status and perceived identity. This is shielding us from relying on each other, from getting to the core of a human’s thoughts and feelings. Human beings inherently have internal conflict, so why do we hide it?

I could only help to wonder if anxiety and depression rates go down if we were open with others about internal struggles. Could cathartic speaking lead to internal validation? If our problems were accepted by others, they would carry much less weight.

This idea creates conflict when identities are stigmatized. When people speak out against marginalized identities and oppression, it is almost always going to be met with backlash or criticism. This act has psychological consequences in itself. Some people’s pain is not met with empathy, creating even more struggle.

I am hesitant to call my observations lessons, because it adds a new positive connotation to the event. It is too soon for many to even turn this event into a lesson. But one thing I will extract from this continuous journey is the power of love and support, which could simply be sitting in silence with someone. Hold your friends tighter, and always be an ear to listen — you never know what could be going on inside someone’s mind.

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