By Malkah Binah Klein
My personal calling is joyful service to my family, my local community, and to my realms of influence in the greater world. I feel grateful for the rhythm of my life, for my support system, for spiritual practices that sustain me, for my family and friends, and for the appreciation I receive almost daily for my contributions.
It hasn’t always been this way. In fact, some ten years ago when I first studied this verse from Psalms, “ivdu et hashem b’simcha,” “Serve the Beloved with Joy,” I was unbelieving that joy could guide and define one’s life path. As a teenager and beyond, I believed that I was meant to be burdened. I thought that my role in life was to carry the troubles of the world on my shoulders. This was a recipe for anxiety and depression and fear, and ultimately, self-centeredness.
Even as a young child, I had a sense of dread for the world. In 2nd grade I invented an “everything machine,” which I could get inside and it would keep me safe and it would give me anything I needed. This machine was my protection as I lulled myself to sleep each night.
In retrospect, I attribute the early stages of my anxiety, in part, to the heritage of my hometown. I was raised in Los Alamos, NM, a small town in the Rocky Mountains with breathtaking views and a known secret. During World War II, scientists gathered secretly in Los Alamos from all over the country and, after a few years of intensive teamwork, came up with the design for the first atomic bombs. During my childhood we never talked about the destructive capacity of nuclear weapons; rather, my recollection from middle school is watching Norris Bradbury, former director of the laboratory, draw a diagram for a hydrogen bomb on the blackboard. This was an exercise in scientific curiosity. The fact that the hydrogen bomb test blew up an island was never mentioned.
What was perhaps hardest for me as a child growing up in the 70’s and 80’s in Los Alamos was the denial that something was terribly wrong with making nuclear weapons, more and more nuclear weapons. The only narrative welcome was that dropping the bombs on Japan saved a million American lives. We weren’t supposed to talk about the morality of these weapons. We weren’t supposed to acknowledge our pain and confusion.
My discomfort came to a head when I arranged a lunch with the director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory when I was working there one summer during college. I asked him (while my high school friends squirmed with embarrassment), “How do you make sense of the harm to the environment in Nevada that the testing of nuclear weapons causes?” Without missing a beat, he responded in a composed, confident way that there was no evidence that we were causing harm. There was something terribly wrong and our leaders had developed a finely-tuned capacity to deny.
It was in this moment that I came to understand just how deep the American capacity to deny responsibility runs. And it’s not just nuclear weapons, but many other kinds of weapons, and the reckless burning of fossil fuels, and the slave trade-transformed-into-the-mass-incarceration-industry, and that’s only the beginning. I began to understand that denial is a strategy to avoid responsibility, and it may protect a certain quality of life on the surface, but deeper down we have an epidemic of anxiety and depression and all kinds of health conditions that are rooted in stress. When we don’t live authentically, we suffer physically, emotionally and spiritually.
It was the experience of this upbringing that convinced me, in my early 20’s, to not pursue a scientific or medical career, which was the path that had been laid before me. Instead I opted to pursue a life of spiritual development and leadership. I recall a friend telling me how brave I was for turning down my entrance to Harvard Medical School. For me, it wasn’t bravery; it was survival. I was being called to a life of service by connecting with deeper truths, and my mental health depended on it.
A powerful healing metaphor came to me in my early twenties. I began to imagine that I embodied both the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life from the Garden of Eden. My Tree of Knowledge, though, had become overgrown from years of unwanted academic pressure, and from years of repressing the values I knew to be true, that my Tree of Life was not able to receive the sunlight. The past 20+ years has been about pruning back my Tree of Knowledge to enable my Tree of Life to grow and flourish.
During this journey of pruning, I learned about depression and how it skews our ability to see clearly and to know our own worthiness and potential. Being depressed makes it hard to believe that there is a way out of the painful, deadening swirl of stuckness.
When I finally had the courage to try medication in my mid-twenties, it helped and gave me more capacity to enjoy life and make decisions. I recall saying the blessing “mechayei hametim” (the One who brings life to the dead) once the Prozac started working. Yet I didn’t want to stay on the medicine. The psychiatrist recommended I take it for a year, and so I took it for a year and then weaned myself off and within a month or two, was once again depressed and struggling with managing day-to-day. I then saw a psychiatrist who recommended that I take the medicine for five years. I kept track of the passage of time and when five years were up, I weaned myself off again and subsequently relapsed.
Why did I keep weaning myself off antidepressants? Was it the side effects, including the inability to cry? Was it the shame around being someone who needed medicine to get through the day? Perhaps, yet even more so, it was because I believed that the depression was a signal that deeper healing was needed, and while enabling me to function better, the medicine was not healing the deeper imbalances.
Since the last time I took antidepressants, about twelve years ago, I have been on a journey towards healing, wholeness, and joy. Just like any journey through the wilderness, the path is not always clear or easy, yet the process of cultivating my inner life has led me to much greater ease, gentleness, and hope. Many teachers and healers have guided me along the way.
A few key ingredients for my healing have been:
- prioritizing the cultivation of my inner life
- choosing to believe that there is abundance and goodness underlying our Universe, and learning how to experience and tap into this goodness
- long-term learning with teachers of spiritual practice whom I trust and respect
- developing a circle of friends who also embrace the healing journey and who serve as cheerleaders and practice partners along the way
- embracing joy and beauty
- honoring my pain and grief for our world and learning to cry
- learning to love and accept my family as they are, rather than as I wish them to be
- fostering my creativity and expressing my truths through writing, public speaking, music, art, and ritual
- embracing practices that align my energy fields and help me to become more embodied, including qi gong, Hebrew chant, and authentic movement
- spending time in nature and learning the wisdom of the trees: root yourself into the earth, reach for the sun, dance in the wind, and stand tall, even through the storms.
I feel so blessed to be developing the resources that are moving me to ever greater joy, connection, wisdom, and readiness to take courageous action. I am grateful for the miracle of modern antidepressants that helped me to manage my debilitating depression in my mid-twenties, and I am grateful to now be in my mid-forties with a robust spiritual life and community that supports my thriving as a human being and as a leader.
I am curious and excited about how the next stage of my journey will unfold.