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Help – my naturopath sister doesn’t believe in corona!

From its start in 1906, A Bintel Brief was a pillar of the Forward, helping generations of Jewish immigrants learn how to be American. Now our columnists are helping people navigate the complexities of being Jewish in 2020. Send questions to [email protected].

Illustration by Liana Finck

Image by Liana finck

Growing up is hard to do

Dear Abbys,

I was raised in a religion that I’m not going to name and I lost my faith when I came of age a few years ago. I had put a lid on it for a while until I broached the matter with my mother, who made it clear that “no unbeliever is welcome in my house.” I’ve since had to pretend to continue to be religious and practicing because I can’t fend for myself and Mom has been homeschooling me since second grade. I’m 19 now, entirely dependent on her and I’ve got no friends — that’s the way I grew up.

My question is: Is it hypocritical of me to continue to depend on her knowing that she would kick me out if she found out the truth? Is it morally wrong?

Henry, Portland, Ore.

Dear Henry,

First and foremost, now you have a friend. Two in fact, and we’re both named Abby.

It’s clear from your letter that you believe your mother will kick you out if you tell her the truth. But it’s not clear if you’re ready to leave, or at least make moves in that direction. Our vote is: PLEASE DO.

Easier said than done, we know. You’ve been instructed how to read, write, think and feel all from your mom, which is quite a feat. And quite a burden for you. One of us Abbys had a very dependent relationship with her mom for a long time — always wanting to look like her, sound like her, be her. Even after going to college and moving hundreds of miles away, this Abby was determined to become a facsimile of her dear mother.

Until she realized that was impossible.

That’s when they started fighting. First it was about Abby looking like a shlump. Then it was about dating the wrong guys, having bad posture, or not getting enough iron. It was heartbreaking, really. Because it had taken almost 30 years for this Abby and her mom to disagree with each other and distinguish themselves as separate entities.

Henry, finding your own voice and identifying who you are beyond your mom’s son will be a process. There’s no way around that. Maybe it’s a vestigial piece of umbilical connective tissue, or maybe it’s the fact that she’s been your everything for so long. Either way, it’s daunting, but necessary. Clearly, you already see how your beliefs are different than hers, and that’s OK. We don’t want you to be kicked out of your home, but we do encourage you to start looking for ways to live on your own.

So, is it morally wrong to depend on her as an “unbeliever”? No.

But is it time to start defining yourself as a unique individual? Heck yeah.

The return of the cubicle

Dear Abbys,

My “coworker” whistles. It’s very annoying. Sometimes he also taps his foot against the desk and shakes the space. Also: he asks what there is for lunch. And when he unloads the dishwasher, the counters look like Bed Bath & Beyond because he is uncertain where to put things. I still love him. After all, he is my husband.

Should I say anything?

Quiet in L.A.

Dear Quiet,

Thank you for this fabulous question — especially the way it was worded (so kindly!). Please tell your officemate that he is your co-worker first and foremost, and then your husband.

Or, at least that’s how it feels in this upside-down world.

For the record, one of us Abbys is a consistently horrible whistler in the corner-of-the-bedroom-that-now-equals-a-co-working-space. She was informed of this by her dear husband just a few weeks ago, which led to a rousing game of “Let’s Name Something About Each Other That’s Supremely Annoying.”

There wasn’t much chitchat by the watercooler that day.

But it was actually very helpful to know some of the habits that endanger peaceful cohabitation. For hints on how to word these gripes, we like to refer to Marshall Rosenberg’s primer, Nonviolent Communication. Rosenberg has mediated peace talks all over the globe, and he recommends starting with phrases like “When you do X, I feel Y.” (As in, “When you whistle and tap your foot, I feel a hot rage take over me, scorching the dense forests of our life together.”) Or however you would phrase it.

If your co-worker/husband doesn’t respond to this, there’s always social media, where you can post about his infuriating habits in real time while he figures out how to empty the dishwasher and make a sandwich for himself.

Comic of intergenerational argument.

Image by Liana finck

Is there anything natural about a pandemic?

Dear Abbys,

My 96-year-old dad is healthy and vigorous — with the exception of a history of life-threatening respiratory illnesses that make him particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 exposure. His goal in life is to live to 100, as his aunt and one of his uncles did back in the good old days. He is doing well in quarantine along with his personal attendant and the guidance of a team of health-care professionals.

Unfortunately, my sister is married to a naturopath and therefore finds the existence, or at least the power, of COVID-19 to be inimical to her ideology. She believes that my dad should take time off from his email, Zoom, Netflix and AMC sessions to go out and enjoy himself along with daredevils and COVID-19 agnostics.

I’m afraid that her charismatic personality is having a perilous influence on him. She thinks that I am too intellectual and spiritual to understand her worldly philosophy and that non-hugging is at risk of becoming the new normal. How can I explain to her that society is right every once in a while and that vulnerable, 96-year-old dads should not serve as dystopian guinea pigs? Thank you for your insights.

Worried Spinoza

Dear Spinoza,

Our first instinct is to yell at your sister: This isn’t about too much Zoom! ! Don’t you want to hug Dad again? Celebrate him turning 100 in four short years? Repeat after me: SCIENCE IS REAL!

OK, don’t yell. We just had to get that off our chests.

We’re not against naturopathy. It can be very helpful in connecting people to their innate ability to heal. Plus, the idea of treating illnesses with acupuncture and wheatgrass is a lot more appealing than antibiotics or steroids. And your sister is right on one very important front: If we fail to get this pandemic under control, non-hugging is at risk of becoming the new normal. The longer people defy rules about social distancing and refuse to wear masks (or even, GASP, “believe in” COVID-19), the longer we will all be in this purgatory.

And yet.

The first principle of naturopathy is primum non nocere, which is fancyspeak for “first do no harm.” While we still don’t know how to cure COVID-19, we do know that it’s highly contagious and harmful. Exposing your father to this disease could be deadly, no matter what treatments you try.

One of us Abbys grew up watching her neuroscientist father and naturopath uncle argue about the merits of vaccines and about whether AIDS and HIV were related. These fights were awful and contentious and absurd. Vaccines save lives. AIDS and HIV are related. COVID-19 is killing people at an alarming rate, especially the elderly. Anyone who believes in science — or has read this devastating account of the deaths — knows this thing is real.

Spinoza, it sounds like your sister is deeply under her husband’s sway, so rationalizing may be out of the question. Instead, throw her a bone: Yes, there’s a lot of value to naturopathy. Yes, it is sad that your dad can’t spend these last years of his life gallivanting around as he’d like. Yes, this is a complex virus that is challenging scientists and doctors around the globe, and we still don’t really understand why it kills some and leaves others asymptomatic and unscathed.

But we do know that the safest place for him right now is inside. If she wants, she can order him some herbs, make herself a green smoothie, and virtually hug him on your next Zoom call.

Abby Sher and Abby Rasminsky are writers living in, respectively, Maplewood, N.J., and Los Angeles. Got a question? Submit your questions to [email protected].


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