Written by Taylor Paige Winfield Haboucha, Founder of RUACH: Emotional and Spiritual Support.
I often joke that I was lucky to have my “mid-life crisis” at age 19.
It was the fall of my freshman year in college. I was ecstatic to be attending my dream school, Stanford University. Yet, I also felt like an imposter. You see, I had worked my whole life to get into Stanford. One of my earliest memories was being on the playground in preschool, standing on a little fire truck, and when someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, “I want to go to Stanford!” My mom had completed her dermatology fellowship there when I was very little, and it remained a dream location in my mind.
I worked hard in every class in elementary school, middle school, and high school, filling my free time with extracurriculars, all so that one day I could get into Stanford. And yet, spring of my senior year of high school, I was waitlisted at all of my top choices. Not a rejection, not an acceptance. Another confirmation of my underlying understanding of myself--I was almost good enough, but not quite. I remember staring out the window of my bedroom after I opened the letter, feeling resigned to my fate as someone who was destined to be almost but not quite.
Fast forward to July, when I received news that I was the last person to make it off the waitlist at Stanford. Instead of feeling excited, I felt furious. Now you want me? After basically rejecting me at first, now you come back to accept me? I was not good enough for you at the beginning, but now you have decided to take me anyway? I had a week to decide, and my family and friends convinced me that it was the right decision to attend. So August 2009, I showed up for my first quarter in college. I felt that I was quite literally the least qualified person in the freshman class- the least wanted, the least good enough.
I spent the first quarter in college trying to prove to everyone and myself that I was worthy. I spent all of my time studying, and the time I was not studying I was stressed that I should be doing more. I looked around at the beautiful, fit, and brilliant students around me and tried to show them that I was just as good as them. The time I was not studying, I spent in the gym--if I could not control how I did in other aspects of my life, then I might as well control what I put into my body and the amount of time I exercised. I was addicted to studying, “healthy” eating, and exercise--trying so hard to be the perfect person. I was still in the rat race and running faster and faster. When I got my transcript at the end of my first quarter, I had all A’s. Instead of feeling joyful, I felt empty. I had achieved what I had expected of myself, and yet I felt nothing. An empty, hollow shell. All that effort, all those moments of trying to gain control, and for what? What was the point of all of this? I realized I had been pushing myself my whole life to get into Stanford, and then when I got there, I continued doing the same thing. Was this how I was going to live the rest of my life? Striving for the next thing, never stopping to cherish the moment? Was this ever going to stop? What was the end game?
This realization shook me to the core. I refused to live the rest of my life in the way I had lived it thus far. Okay, so then what? I decided I needed to either take a quarter off school to figure it out, or to come back with a completely new mindset. I contemplated over winter vacation and decided to return to school but committed to doing things differently. I reduced my course load as much as possible. In order to change my mindset, I realized I first needed to change my attitude toward my body and my time. To change myself internally, I had to change what I did with myself externally on a daily basis. I filled in the free time in my schedule with yoga classes, a class on positive psychology, and a meditation club. I still kept myself busy (a whole other adventure!) but I spent my time doing activities that could cultivate inner peace and reflection rather than anxiety and perfectionism. I focused on finding my joy, writing a daily gratitude journal, and spending my time doing things that helped me feel alive. I reached out to my family and friends with vulnerability, and let them know that I was struggling and allowed them to comfort me. I also found support in the care of a psychologist who helped me identify the thought patterns that were no longer serving me and taught me how to lovingly accept the thoughts and then let them go. And, gradually I started to feel better. Not perfect of course, but more accepting of my imperfections. I was becoming gentler and kinder to myself. I leaned in to the spiritual nature of meditation and yoga.
As I started to feel better and more grounded, I wondered if other people also benefited from these practices. My extracurricular work became focused on promoting wellbeing amongst my fellow Stanford students. Academically, I delved into literature on positive psychology, spirituality, and well-being determined to use my academic mind to understand what was happening to me. As my curiosity took over, my personal journey started to manifest itself in my research. As a sociology major and anthropology minor, I decided to do a research project on spiritual seekers (like myself). I spent six weeks in India undergoing and studying the experiences of those in Buddhist and Hindu meditation retreats. I spent the next summer walking El Camino de Santiago, the way of St. James, in Northern Spain. As I analyzed my data and wrote my honors thesis on spiritual seekers and subjective happiness, I learned that while spirituality was great and made people feel connected to the universe and each other, discipline was an important part of moving forward in spiritual practices.
Since I had discovered the importance of discipline in spiritual practice, my next step was to determine what it meant to be disciplined in my own spiritual tradition: Judaism. I had always known I was Jewish, but it had never been a relevant part of my life. It was something my grandparents did at their Reform Temple, and I knew nothing of the spiritual implications of that identity. At the beginning of my journey, I had tried to adopt the spiritual teachings and disciplines of other religions I came across in my research and meditation practice, but when I was in India, I realized these did not feel authentic to me. As a Hindu nun told me, “all the paths lead to the same place, but right now you are going in circles. You need to choose a path and stick to it.” My ancestral path was Judaism, and it was my time to journey along that path.
I spent the next two years in yeshiva soaking in everything I could about Judaism and then started a doctoral program in sociology to once again conduct research on the themes that were emerging as I delved deeper into the overlap between identity, spirituality, community, and meaning. Again, my questions were: how do people find meaning in their lives? What is the role of spirituality in this process? What is the role of community? What is the role of discipline? I learned that discipline helped knit people together into communities, kept them close together, and provided immense emotional benefits. Although discipline could take the form of traditional Jewish law and practice, it did not have to. Any shared practices and beliefs could create a meaningful community, and this community could help support its members during their deepest moments of difficulty and joy. There was a tool-kit of strategies one could employ to feel connected to their spiritual communities, and I wanted to help people find their ideal tool kit (just as I had worked so hard to find mine).
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I realized the citizens of the world were up against an emotional and spiritual crisis. A return to void and chaos, as lives were disrupted, feelings of control slipped through our fingers, and there was extreme anxiety around the health of loved ones and ourselves. These moments of disruption and utter chaos are exactly the moments when bridging emotional care and spiritual care is critical. I reached out to my networks to see if people would be willing to help provide emotional and spiritual support during this time of upheaval. I was finishing my first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) and felt that the skills I was learning could be crucial in walking alongside others during the pandemic. Within ten days, I had a team of twenty professional emotional and spiritual caregivers signed up to provide free support. We voted on a name--RUACH, which means breath, wind, and soul in Hebrew--and launched our project on March 26, 2020, Rosh Chodesh Nissan. Rosh Chodesh Nissan is often believed to be the date of the first commandment (to celebrate the new moon), the birthday of the biblical forefathers, and the date G!d decided to create the world. It is also my personal Hebrew birthday. I felt it was the perfect day to give birth to this new project.
In less than two months, RUACH: Emotional and Spiritual Support has grown to be a network of over ninety active caregivers supporting over 200 clients. RUACH is able to provide free, short-term supportive care for immediate emotional and spiritual needs of 1-6 sessions. When a client signs up, they are matched with an emotional and/or spiritual caregiver within 72 hours. The caregivers span the full spectrum of the Jewish community, with members from all denominational backgrounds and practice. Caregivers provide inclusive and accessible emotional and spiritual support to clients of all walks of life, regardless of religion, observance level, age, nationality, gender identity, orientation, ability, or political affiliation.
RUACH continues to grow and develop organically in a way that feels spiritually guided. In many ways, RUACH feels like the cumulation of the past decade in which I have strived and failed and tried again to find the balance of wellbeing in my own life and the acceptance of who I am as a good and perfectly imperfect person. It has been over ten years since my first “mid-life crisis.” I am still far from perfect, but I feel okay with that. I have worked tirelessly to remind myself that at the core, I am good. All of us are. We all have goodness inside of us, and although sometimes we might not do the best things, at the core we are love and goodness. We all deserve love and to be treated with dignity. Whether people want to call that spark of goodness the divine light or the breath of G!d, it is up to them--but whatever it is, knowing that we are good at the core is crucial to our sense of self-worth and love. To me, this is spirituality. A sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves (even if that is just community), a sense that we have a sacred core, and that there is meaning in our lives. RUACH bridges emotional and spiritual support, because, if I have learned anything on my own journey, the emotional and the spiritual are intertwined within us. We need them both. As humans, we need a sense of purpose, meaning, and community. RUACH is here to help everyone find their way along their personal paths.
I hope that my experience may resonate with you and help you see that you are not alone in your personal struggle. There is a community here at RUACH that wants to support you and help you thrive in every way. Please reach out to us today.
Taylor Paige Winfield Haboucha is the founder of RUACH: Emotional and Spiritual Support. She is a spiritual care intern with experience in corrections, military, and healthcare settings. Her training is in spiritually-integrated psychotherapy. Taylor is also Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology at Princeton University. Contact her at taylorpw [@] princeton.edu.
For more information about RUACH: Emotional and Spiritual Support visit www.ruach.support and sign-up for free supportive care here. RUACH is here to support anyone for any needs, and we hope to exist long beyond this current moment of crisis and bring accessible spiritual and emotional support to all those who need it. If you would like to join our team of caregivers, please email RUACHemotionalandspiritualcare [@] gmail.com.