Follow along with the transcript below for episode: Finding Happiness in Hard Times with Rabbi Matt Derrenbacher
[0:00:02] PF: Thank you for joining us for episode 440 of Live Happy Now. In difficult times, sometimes we’re left wondering if it’s selfish to focus on pursuing happiness. But this week’s guest is here to explain why right now is more important than ever.
I’m your host, Paula Felps, and this week I’m talking with Matt Derrenbacher, Solo Rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom in Columbia, Missouri.
In the face of violence and uncertainty in the Middle East that have affected many of us here in the US, Matt sat down to talk with me about the importance of seeking happiness in hard times and what we can do when we’re not sure what to say. He also gives us some great tips for managing the anxiety and overwhelm that accompany uncertain times. Let’s have a listen.
[0:00:51] PF: Matt, thanks for being with me here today.
[0:00:54] MD: Thanks for having me.
[0:00:55] PF: We needed to have a conversation because I reached out. I know you’ve been doing a lot of interviews. And I’ve seen you in the newspaper. You’re doing some radio, some TV. This is just a really difficult time. There’s horrific violence going on in the Middle East. We have the conflict in Ukraine continuing. I wanted to know from your perspective, how do you start the conversation with people who are struggling with all the things that are going on right now?
[0:01:22] MD: Thank you. That’s a very important question. A lot of times, the conversations already started with so much access to information through social media, through news, through conversations, it’s something that – especially with things going on in the Middle East right now for the Jewish community in particular, we think of like three degrees of separation. But for a lot of communities, it’s one degree of separation. Someone knows someone or has family members.
One of our charter members, one of the founding members of our congregation, his daughter and son-in-law were killed a little under two weeks ago. For a lot of people, the intensity of all of the conflicts across the globe, there’s already an internal dialogue going on. For me approaching these conversations, it’s trying to discover where each person is at in that internal dialogue and picking it up from there.
[0:02:23] PF: And that’s a great way to approach it. Because sometimes we as individuals don’t even know what to say. It’s like I find myself stammering a lot right now. I don’t know what to say. Because we can’t make sense of everything that’s going on. Instead of trying to make sense of it, what path should we be taking instead?
[0:02:44] MD: The path that myself and my congregation have been going on is the path of peace and holding space. Last week, we held a vigil. And it wasn’t a vigil for one particular group or another. It was a vigil to remember those who were killed and to hold space for a hope for peace.
In approaching these conversations, our society and social media has gotten so fractured, so fractured where it’s you have to pick one side or the other. And there’s not a lot of room in the middle for growth, for learning, for healing. And I think that’s an important thing to remember is that middle space where the real conversations are being had is where the greatest amount of healing can happen. And that’s where compassion is found, right?
On both ends of whatever spectrum you may fall in for whatever issue it may be, there’s this sort of tendency to pretend like compassion is a finite resource where we can only use –
[0:03:49] PF: I’m not going to spend it on that. Yeah.
[0:03:53] MD: I can only spend it on the group that I care about. And we miss the entirety of the human experience, right? That there are lots of people facing a lot of loss right now. And to hold compassion, and to hold space and to hope for peace and healing, that’s where we ourselves can begin to heal and figure out where we really fall interacting with any of these big issues.
[0:04:16] PF: And where do you have people start with that? Because finding compassion can be difficult when you’re outraged, when there’s so much chatter around you that is venomous. As you said, it’s one side or the other. These are no longer human humans. They’re parts of a group. And so, where do you start looking for that compassion and toning down the noise?
[0:04:37] MD: I think the best thing we can do is take a step back. Because when we’re on social media constantly, it is unfiltered information, right? And so, anyone with any sort of perspective or agenda can put something out there that will upset someone. And that misinformation will continue to grow and to spread and cause more anger and more violence. And by taking a step back and recognizing the humanity of each one of the situations, we can hope for better conversations. Honestly, just better conversations where we can recognize the pain that everyone is feeling.
[0:05:17] PF: But how do we talk with someone who has very strong feelings that don’t include compassion? That don’t include the humanity aspect of it?
[0:05:26] MD: That’s the hard part, right? I mean, I will say, even being a part of a community that has been deeply affected by the events going on, especially in the Middle East. I mean, Shabbat and Simchat Torah, one of our supposed to be happiest holidays where we’re celebrating finishing the completion of a Torah cycle, it was the deadliest 24/48 hours for the Jewish people since the Holocaust.
With that, there’s deep pain, there’s deep mourning, but there’s also a lot of deep anger too. Speaking from my own context, my own community, it can be really easy to jump to that place of anger, of betrayal and being able to take a step back from some of that and to just wade through the feelings. Wade through the feelings of loss, of betrayal, of pain. And to really sit with that and then to recognize that we have community. That we have one another. And that we can support one another.
During our vigil at Thursday night, I was talking about the holiness of the oneness of community, right? Regardless of where an individual sits on any particular issue, coming together as a community can sort of help soften those edges.
[0:06:45] PF: And I think you bring up a really good point about people having to sort through their feelings. We’re not asking or saying that people should deny the anger, and the outrage and all the other feelings, the sense of betrayal that comes with that. I think you do have to wade through all those before you can reach that sense of compassion. And you’re kind of the guidance that they get. How do you navigate people through those emotions? Because we know that if you don’t feel those emotions, if you don’t deal with them, they will come back at another time and it won’t be convenient.
[0:07:21] MD: Right.
[0:07:21] PF: How do we do that? How do we walk through some of these feelings that people are having right now?
[0:07:26] MD: Right. Well, and it only won’t be convenient, but they can also intensify over time too, right? And then they can be misdirected. A lot of times when we push those emotions down and then they start to come out, they come out at people who we don’t necessarily want them to come out towards or in situations we’re not particularly upset about.
By really leaning into those feelings, leaning into the anger, the pain, the mourning, the loss and being able to transform those into sort of conduits for fighting for a better future, I think that’s how we can really honor those feelings. In the Jewish Community, memory is one of the strongest things. And one of our greatest values is Tikkun olam, which is to repair the world.
And so, at the end of every service, we list off the names of those in our lives who have died in this season and years past and we say Zichrona Livrocho, may their memory be a blessing and a guiding light along our journeys. So that we continue to fight for a better future in their honor.
[0:08:35] PF: That’s really powerful. And someone doesn’t have to be part of the Jewish community to participate and to be part of these rituals and start understanding. And how does that help them heal? Even if we’re not of the Jewish faith, how does that help us heal when we can participate in something like that?
[0:08:55] MD: Oh, absolutely. A lot of Jewish values can be boiled down to universal values, right? And so, I speak from my own context as a rabbi. And so, I use a lot of the language that is familiar to me. But taking a step outside of that, the idea of memory. Cultures around the world, religious traditions around the world plays a very heavy focus on memory, right? Memory is how we learn from the past. It’s how we bring the joys, the pain, the complications, everything that life has to offer, all of those past experiences. If we allow them to be honored in a beautiful way, then they can help us to grow into better people. Into the people that our ancestors would be proud of. And then we can then hope that the future generations will look back at us and say, “Hey, they did a really good job laying a foundation for us.”
[0:09:46] PF: I like that. I like that a lot. How do you help people with the uncertainty right now? Life is always uncertain. It is filled with uncertainty. And we’ve learned that very well through the last three years. And now things are very tumultuous, very disrupted. What techniques or what practices do you encourage to help people deal with the uncertainty? Because uncertainty breeds anxiety. And then we know that can take you all kinds of places. How do people deal with what’s going on right now?
[0:10:17] MD: Someone who is both generally anxious and Jewish, I’ve learned to really lean into and love questions and certainty. Uncertainty can be very scary. It can be very daunting. There can be a lot attached to it. But it can also be an opportunity, right?
If there’s uncertainty then we can create a new direction. If things are going terribly wrong and we see no way forward, well, then maybe all we have to do is turn right or turn left and a new opportunity opens for us.
I think the biggest thing that I can say is just learn to be friends with uncertainty. Uncertainty doesn’t have to be scary. It can be an opportunity. It can be an invitation. I would say be friends with uncertainty and be okay with taking a step back. I know I have to – even though in the position I’m in people, expect me to know what’s going on and when so I can have an informed opinion about whatever. Taking a step back is very important, right? Because it’s the cliche of the oxygen mask in the airplane, right? You got to put yours on. Take care of yourself; mind, body, spirit. And then you can walk with someone else in that conversation that you’re having.
And whoever you’re speaking with, you may not agree, you may not even get along that well, but you’re doing the work together. And that’s the important thing is that connection, that community building. It’s not about agreeing. It’s about growing together.
[0:11:52] PF: Yeah. And I do want to get more into the idea of community here in a moment, but I also want to say that not everyone understands the people who do feel a sense of loss. Some of us are more removed from it than others. And we’re at different spaces and different places. If we are one of those people that feels removed from it, what are some things that we need to be keeping in mind as we talk to other people?
[0:12:19] MD: I’d say one of the biggest things that we can do actually is to reach out to other people. Think about those in your life who this may be affecting and just say, “Hey, how are you doing?” Because chances are, regardless of how they’re affected, the level of loss, the degrees of separation from loss, there is that uncertainty, right? And so, in order to become friends with that uncertainty, we need to know that we’re supported.
[0:12:45] PF: That’s right.
[0:12:46] MD: One of the greatest things we can do is just be there for one another and questions. I would say one of the most meaningful parts of this whole experience has been people that are not affiliated with the community or are pretty far removed from the situation, reaching out and saying, “Hey, I know there’s a lot going on. I don’t quite understand it. But are you okay?” And that means the world. And that’s where those connections and those opportunities for education and just beautiful growth can happen.
[0:13:22] PF: I love that. Because that is one challenge. Even for myself, it’s like I don’t want to say the wrong thing. I don’t always know what to say. I’m at a loss for words. And so, being able to – I love that. Just asking if someone’s okay. Just checking in.
[0:13:38] MD: Mm-hmm. Yeah. A lot of times, if we don’t know what to say, we can ask a question or we can just be. Just letting someone know, “Hey, I know there’s a lot going on right now. I’m here for you if you need anything.” That’s it.
[0:13:51] PF: I love that. I love that. And so, one thing that – at Live Happy, obviously our mission is always about our well-being, living a happy life. And for some people right now, it can seem selfish. It can seem counterintuitive to be prioritizing our own happiness right now. Because it’s a very difficult time. Can you talk about why it’s important for us – no matter what is going on in the world, it’s important for us to still be pursuing our own well-being and pursuing our own happiness.
[0:14:20] MD: Pursuing our own happiness and our own well-being is sort of the key to the better future that we’re hoping for, right? If we aren’t taking care of ourselves, then we’re going further and further down whatever rabbit hole we’re already in. We’re feeling worse about ourselves. We’re feeling worse about the situation. And so, being able to take that step back to take care of ourselves and recognizing that honoring ourselves is actually honoring the situation. Because then we can approach it from a more positive viewpoint, right? We can ask tough questions. Have meaningful conversations. And we can have that growth happen within ourselves. And that sort of becomes contagious, right?
If someone sees, “Hey, okay. Maybe there is a little bit of hope in this really terrible, horrific situation.” Well, then we can use that to drive towards that better future together.
[0:15:13] PF: I like that. Because you are always – you are a ray of sunshine wrapped around a rainbow. I mean, you are. You’re just always, always happy. And what are some things that you do to keep yourself positive and hopeful throughout everything that’s going on? And you’ve got kind of double pressure because you’ve got whatever is going on with you. And then you also have people who are depending on you to inform them, to enlighten them, to encourage them. What are your practices? And how do you stay so dang cheery?
[0:15:48] MD: No. I appreciate that a lot actually. I think I stay positive because life is more fun that way. And I know that’s a very, very weird thing to say in a conversation like this. But we need to hold things in tension, right? We need to recognize that the human experience is very messy, it’s very complex, where we can experience the greatest joys in life and we can witness the greatest horrors in life.
I think the greatest example that I can think of – sorry. It’s coming from a specifically Jewish context. But at the end of a Jewish wedding, there’s the smashing of the glass, right? And so, we break the glass. Everyone shouts mazel tov, which means congratulations. And it’s a moment of recognition of the complicated nature of life, right?
It’s this beautiful moment where two souls are coming together. They’re embarking on a new committed life together. And we break the glass to recognize that there is suffering in the world. That our world is incomplete. At this very beautiful, joyous moment, we break the glass to recognize that there’s still work to be done in our world. And both things can be true at the exact same time. I choose to face the complexities of the world with joy in my heart. Because otherwise it would be completely overwhelming, right?
[0:17:21] PF: Yeah. I love that.
[0:17:24] MD: Thanks.
[0:17:25] PF: How do you do that? How do you maintain that in the face of negativity? In the face of overwhelm? What are some of your go-to practices that help you do that?
[0:17:36] MD: For me, it’s all about connection. I find joy in connection. In like deep and meaningful connection, right? Whether it’s with a person. Whether it’s with one of our furry friends. Whether it’s with nature in general, right? Sometimes being alone in nature going for a walk to clear the head, get the body moving, get the spirit engaged with the organic, natural world, it can be a very, very moving experience, right?
A lot of people say like, “I found God outside. I found God in the breeze. I discovered my spirituality when I was out in the forest.” Things like that. And then I experience incredible connection anytime I give one of my doggies a hug.
[0:18:24] PF: Exactly. And all this is scientifically proven. Being in nature has incredible scientifically shown benefits. Same thing with petting a dog, hugging a dog, looking at a dog. I mean, pet. I’m not being exclusive. I’m not dogist.
[0:18:39] MD: Yeah, that’s fair. That’s fair. I am a little bit. I’m very team dog. But I appreciate all the beautiful critters on the earth. Well, and with other people too, right? I really do find something so sacred about just being in community with one another. Whether it’s friends. Whether it’s family. Whether it’s a wider group of people that just want to come together to be. I find each one of those very sacred in their own way. Connection with people. Connection with animals. Connection with the natural world. I really rely on those connections. Because there’s beauty in connection.
[0:19:22] PF: And we need it. As humans, we need that. We crave that and we thrive on it. That’s really important. And I did want to ask you about something else, and that is obviously news coverage. We have news coverage everywhere we turn. And if we try to get away from the – I think some people still watch it on TV. But it’s like our phone is constantly going off. Everything in our computer is coming at us. Can we talk about the difference between staying informed and being consumed by the news? Because what’s going on is horrific. And the images are haunting and you cannot unsee that if you watch that. What kind of advice is there? Some people feel like if I don’t watch this, it kind of reminds me of 9/11 where people felt they needed to be glued to it. It’s like I’ve got to watch this tragedy unfold because I’m part of it. That’s also very dangerous to our psyche. Tell us how you approach that.
[0:20:20] MD: Yeah. It can get – I really like the way you phrased that. It can get very dangerous very quickly, right? And there is a very fine line, especially with all of our access to information and misinformation. There’s a very fine line between staying informed and being consumed.
Staying informed means that we interact with what’s going on. We consume news where we are the ones doing the consuming, right? We, as the individual or the community have the agency on what we consume rather than it consuming us. Because when all of the information and misinformation come together and consume us, then we’re reacting to a reaction to a reaction, right? It’s not even – there’s so many degrees of separation that it becomes just easy to be fueled by anger and to feel disillusioned and to not know what to do. And at that point, we are consumed.
If we’re able to take a step back and reclaim our agency as individuals consuming the news and consuming what’s going on, then we are approaching the situations intentionally. We’re approaching them thoughtfully. And we have more capacity to approach them with compassion.
[0:21:43] PF: Yeah, I love that. I love that. Because one thing that I’ve stopped doing is watching live news. I do not watch live images. I do not watch video images. Because those are generally intended to be – grab your attention. And they’re often very explicit. And so, that is one way that I kind of shelter myself from the atrocity of the news is to I choose to consume it by text and read only about the news. That way, I can kind of control what’s coming into my head and I don’t have images that I then have to live with and try to figure out where I’m going to place them now that they’re stuck in my head.
[0:22:23] MD: Yeah. Well, and that’s the hard part about algorithms, right? On one hand, if you only follow cute animal accounts, it’s going to keep pumping out cute animals, right? You’re going to see a pig rolling in the mud and you’re going to laugh and you’re going to feel great. Or the algorithm can go the other way too. If you interact with particularly political material or any sort of content that is related around a specific viewpoint on, a conflict on something that’s going on in the world, then it’s going to keep pushing that. And then we’re going to start reacting emotionally in ways that we wouldn’t normally do, right?
[0:23:05] PF: And I think the danger of that too is we start seeing the world through that lens. Because if that’s all we’re being fed – to your point, if we think it’s just the world is full of cute little barnyard animals rolling around, the world’s a wonderful place. But if it’s just this constant stream of bad news and horrific pictures, the world feels unsafe. We’re going to angry. We’re going to be anxious and overwhelmed.
[0:23:30] MD: Well, and it perpetuates violence, right? Generally, when anything happens with Israel, synagogues get targeted. Whether it’s bomb threats. Or in Tunisia a couple of days ago, there was a synagogue that was burned because of events that are happening related to the Middle East. And the same thing can be said for the Muslim community too, right? If something happens, Islamophobia skyrockets, anti-Semitism skyrockets, things related to Israel sometimes. And it can be a very, very difficult thing to mediate because we have complete access to information and misinformation. And that leads to anger. And that leads to more cycles of violence. And I think reclaiming our agency as individuals who consume the news rather than are consumed by the news can help us break those cycles. And then we can lean into community. We can lean into hope and peacemaking rather than anger, and violence and destruction.
[0:24:35] PF: I love that. Matt, you are always insightful, always wonderful to talk to. I really appreciate you sitting down with me and talking about this. It is a hard time, but it’s also important to keep in mind that we can keep pursuing our happiness during this time. And we can keep reaching out to others and kind of be that light that other people need to see.
[0:24:56] MD: Mm-hmm. And I appreciate you creating the space so that we can have these conversations and we can push out the noise for just a little while and remember the core of humanity at the heart of all of this.
[0:25:08] PF: Yeah. It’s still intact.
[0:25:10] MD: Absolutely.
[0:25:16] PF: That was Rabbi Matt Derrenbacher, talking about finding happiness in hard times. If you’d like to learn more about Matt or follow him on social media, just visit us at livehappy.com and click on the podcast tab.
That is all we have time for today. We’ll meet you back here again next week for an all-new episode. And until then, this is Paula Felps reminding you to make every day a happy one.