“In most critical situations, we can light a candle instead of cursing the darkness.“
Rabbi Olan begins this sermon by normalizing “periods of despair and frustration” as reactions both to bad news from the wider world and to disappointment and loss in our personal lives. Because these feelings are sometimes unavoidable, “being despondent is a normal reaction to life.” At the same time, he suggests that “we ought to identify as much as possible with the healthier side of ourselves.”
According to Rabbi Olan, we can improve our mood by taking positive action: “the man who lives a meaningful life has little time for moods of depression.” This position is consistent with Rabbi Olan’s emphasis throughout these sermons on the value of doing our part in tikkun olam, “healing the world”. He also reminds us of the importance of teaching these attitudes to our children by example, by modeling “healthy ways to handle critical situations”.
Rabbi Olan would no doubt have been sympathetic to the words of the Italian political thinker Antonio Gramsci writing from prison: “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will!”
*Written by Frances M. Olan and Lionel S. Joseph*
So much has changed in the understanding and treatment of depression since Rabbi Olan delivered this sermon on March 10, 1968. It is still of great historical interest, but if one is feeling depressed, Rabbi Olan’s message should not be seen as a substitute for a consultation with a trained mental health professional.