We’ve all done it. We’ve been in those awkward situations with nowhere to turn and nothing to ease the tension and so, almost instinctively, we reach for our phones and suddenly all is right again. Maybe it’s when we are sitting by ourselves at a simcha when suddenly, everyone gets up and leaves us sitting at the table alone. Somehow the phone acts as another person so G-d forbid no one should ever think we are sitting by ourselves. Or maybe it was when we were finishing up a quick encounter with an acquaintance whom we really didn’t have anything to talk about and thank G-d our phone happened to ding with a crucially important notification to help us get out of the conversation. Or, in the worst-case scenario of all, feeling all alone in the darkness of the night and fighting off sleep like a toddler, while we grasp the phone so tightly to make sure it doesn’t fall because somehow, just having it close by makes us feel better.
Why do we find comfort in a phone? Why do we feel as if there is some form of emotional bond that soothes us at the end of every day? Spouses are refusing to face their struggles and work on their issues, instead finding solace from a crumbling marriage in their Instagram feed. Teenagers are evaluating their self-worth based on their Snapchat streaks (go ask any nearby teen) rather than by how much they are growing and striving to be a better and more self-aware person. Individuals are convincing themselves that they really do have 737 meaningful relationships, instead of being willing to sacrifice themselves for just one true partner in life.
Over ten years ago, my professor in Social Work school was teaching us about Dr. Donald Winnicot, one of the most influential psychoanalysts of the 20th century. Dr. Winnicott was particularly curious about how a baby navigates the stages of development, each time having to become more and more distant from the primary caregiver. How does a baby cope with no longer being physically attached to the mother? How does a child manage to leave his or her parents at home and go off to school? How does a teenager travel away to college, leaving his or her parents behind for months at a time? Dr Winnicott theorized that one of the things that helps in this maturation process is the transitional object. Something that is there to help soothe the baby and help him or her feel connected to the source of their longing. A baby will have a pacifier, a child may have a blanky, and a teenager will carry a little family picture in his or her wallet. The older we get, and the more secure we are in our connections, both with our parents and our present relationships, the less we need to rely on these transitional objects.
My professor then explained that in her opinion, our society has made it completely acceptable even for adults to always have on them a transitional object- the cell phone. With it, a person is never more than one click away from their 737 best friends. One swipe is all it takes to dull the pain of loneliness. And we are all guilty. We all find comfort in these little boxes we carry around with us, failing to stare down the loneliness and discomfort and face it head-on.
The haftorah for Shabbos nachamu begins with the famous words “nachamu nachamu ami- be comforted be comforted my nation”. We have just completed our mourning over the loss of the Beis Hamikdash. We have realized how lonely we truly are in this never-ending galus. But we have gotten off the floor and now must face the rebuilding. We are picking ourselves up and forging forward. It is with these three words that we garner the strength. It is simply by knowing that we are Hashem’s nation. That each one of us has a personal connection to Him. No Jew is ever alone. No Jew ever goes unnoticed. No deed is insignificant and every mitzvah counts beyond our imagination.
A Jew who lives with this reality, who internalizes these words in a tangible way, will never need a transitional object. We can go to sleep at night and by simply saying the Shema is all the comfort we need. We can sit by ourselves in public and not care who is looking at us; just because we are alone, does not mean we have to feel lonely. We can experience ups and downs in life, and even struggle to accomplish anything, and still feel comforted knowing that Hashem is with us, and He cares more about the effort than He does the results.
The Chazon Ish was once asked what the most important thing is to teach children. Of all the perspectives and ideas the great leader of the Jewish people could have said, he simply said this: “To enroot within their hearts their faith in Hashem”. Because feeling Hashem’s closeness to us is the beginning of everything. It is where we should draw our strength from and what we must fall back on. And, most applicably in these weeks, it is the true comfort that we so desperately seek.