Finding serenity in tears, in these pandemic times

October 26, 2020 6:00 am

Photo by Getty Images.

On several outdoor runs this past week, the brisk autumn air led my eyes to water uncontrollably. The tears were flowing so quickly that it must have looked like I was hysterically crying.

I have been running a lot more lately in pursuit of a stress-dissolving outlet during this pandemic. Playing beer-league ice hockey previously was a stress-reduction outlet — forcing me to block everything else out of my head for 90 minutes. But the pandemic put that on hold. And I have consistently sought moments of serenity in the face of the chaos, anxiety and fear that we are all regularly experiencing.

Running has had a different effect and impact for me than ice hockey. Instead of providing me a vehicle to block all thoughts, I experience heightened senses while running, and a change in my awareness of self and the world around me. Running allowed those tears to give me pause — and strength.

During daily morning Jewish worship, we recite a blessing of gratitude referred to as asher yatzar. The blessing gives thanks to God for not only creating us with such intricate “plumbing” (that’s the verbatim Hebrew word in the liturgy) and openings and hollow spaces, but also for keeping open what should be open and closed what should be closed — ending with a final “thanks” for healing and wondrous action.

I never before stopped to wonder at my tears. I have regularly used this prayerful moment each day to give personal thanks for health — even more poignant during this pandemic. I realized this week as those tears flowed that this moment of daily thanksgiving is not just about gratitude for “keeping me healthy.” Every single moment my body is designed and ready to protect me — whether I want it to or not.

It took running — and subsequently those tears — to transform my daily pause into a moment of deep reflection and introspection.

Scientifically I know why my eyes started tearing: Cold wind increased the evaporation of moisture from my cornea; the brain ordered my tear glands to lubricate to prevent damage to my eyes from dryness. And it happened involuntarily.

Spiritually I realized something greater — those tears were not simply protecting my eyes. Those tears were protecting me — and have done so my entire life without my explicit awareness.

But now I am aware. And each time my tears flow freely, I experience that momentary serenity. I return to that moment in prayerful gratitude and reflection. Blinking the tears out of my eyes as I run — that awareness recharges me to get through the day. That serenity reminds me that I have it within my power to control the “controllables” and I can let go of what I cannot control — that God opens what I need open and God closes what I need closed.

Better stated: I can “let Go and let God.” I draw strength from a belief that there are still forces in the universe that can and will protect me from that over which I have no control.

Surely, not every person’s body works the same way. And not every person will find running an appropriate path to this revelation. But each of us has those involuntary defense mechanisms. And if we pay more close attention to those moments, to those forces within (and without) working to defend us, protect us, heal us, we can draw strength and calm knowing that we can endure anything thrown our way, even unprepared and unplanned.

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Rabbi Avi S. Olitzky
Rabbi Avi S. Olitzky

Rabbi Avi S. Olitzky is a senior rabbi at Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.