My grandmother told me about the Tree of Troubles.
In a certain small town, each person groaned under the pain of life. This one suffered from a constant toothache. That one’s husband couldn’t keep a job. Another’s child had died young; his neighbor had been an orphan. Everyone suffered and, looking at his or her fellows, envied the easy lives they led. Everyone wanted what the others had.
The townspeople conceived of a way to be done with their problems once and for all. They determined that each person would pack a bag with his or her troubles. They would carry their bags to the large tree on the hill outside town and leave them hanging on the branches. Over the course of the week, they’d each return, open the other bags, and consider each other’s problems. In seven days, they’d select another person’s bag of troubles, take them as their own, and be done with their former struggles forever.
When the week was over and all the parcels were picked through, they each decided to retrieve their own bag, and return to the lives they had known. They were better off than they had realized.
As I rabbi, I’m invited into people’s lives in profound ways. I visit them in the hospital or hospice. I hear of their marital struggles, job woes, addictions, anger and grief. I have come to see that all of us lead complicated lives, that no one’s bag of troubles is empty. Through my work, I’ve gained what the townspeople didn’t originally have — empathy. Whether we know it or not, everyone around us is struggling. The choice we make is whether to focus exclusively on our own bag of troubles, or to seek to alleviate someone else’s burden.
Each day, we have the chance to help another person — to listen, to care, to pitch in.
The first step is to observe those around you, from family members and co-workers to parents at your kid’s school and waiters at the restaurant. Listen to their tone of voice; pay attention to their body language. Do you sense tension or pain? Do they resist making eye contact? Do they tell you everything’s great when you know it isn’t? Some people use humor to signal their inner anguish. If your instinct tells you that something is up, you can, gently, ask how you can be of assistance or let them know that you’re available to listen. It’s rarely helpful to give advice, but it’s powerful medicine to know that another person cares.
Being a mensch in this way is good, but it is not enough. In addition to helping each person experiencing depression or pain, we need to help solve the systemic problems that impact so many of us: abuse, addiction, food insecurity, poor psychological and physical health, among others. We can support the organizations that work to reduce these pervasive problems through our dollars and labor. In the East Valley, these include Sojourner Center, Tempe Community Action Agency, United Food Bank, Community Bridges, and Gilbert Senior Center. Helping someone else is a powerful healer, too.
What’s more, we should each be conscious of the problems we ourselves carry. We should refuse to deny the realities of our lives. We need to take care of our own well-being, and seek help when needed.
I was told another story, attributed to Rabbi Haim of Romshishok. It’s called the Parable of the Long Spoons. In it, we imagine visiting hell, where the inmates are starving. Although their banquet table is laden with food, they only implement they have is an extraordinarily long spoon, and they cannot figure out how to get the food into their own mouths. In heaven, by contrast, the residents have discovered how to work together to feed one another. Their burdens are shared, and thereby lightened.
We’re all in this together.
• Rabbi Dean Shapiro is the spiritual leader of Temple Emanuel of Tempe. Contact him at email@example.com and visit his “Rabbi Dean Shapiro” page on Facebook.