There are so many takeaways from the story of Passover but, for me, the one that resonates most is that of overcoming hardship. In my life, the most difficult thing I’ve had to contend with is my adolescent struggles with a severe and debilitating form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
The compulsions I acted out during that difficult period were mostly mental ones so, from the outside, most people couldn’t tell that I was suffering, but I was – save for the five or so minutes after getting into bed, just before falling asleep, where I’d listen to music by Miles Davis, Nat Cole, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus and more. I treasured those few minutes – and every moment I was able to spend at the piano. It was during this time that the piano became a safe space where I can always express and be myself.
Toward the end of my dark days in high school, I reached out to Sonny Rollins via his website to tell him how much his music helped me deal with OCD. I was shocked when he actually responded:
“Dear Joe, Your comments were appreciated. We all have to use adversity as an opportunity to find a way. So, keep a strong mind throughout this short existence. Your examples give us all hope, as all of us here in this life have to struggle.”
Those words have become my life’s motto and now, quite a few years after cognitive behavior therapy helped put those rough days behind me, I see how right Mr. Rollins was: OCD was nothing more than the greatest opportunity in the world to strengthen my mind and myself.
I know it was hard to see during the darkest of days, but I am truly thankful for that experience and know I wouldn’t be where I am today had it not been for my OCD. People often approach me at my performances and say things like, “You sound like an old man who has been around a while.” I’m always incredibly touched by that and totally credit any “feeling” people associate with my music to my experience with OCD.
As mentioned, the story of Passover resonates with me. Back then it inspired me, reminding me that there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel. Today, looking back over the past 2000-ish years of Jewish history, knowing that our current journey began with the brave decision to leave Egypt and step into the unknown, the story serves as a motivating reminder of all the unexpected rewards and possibilities that can come from facing one’s fears and taking that first step into the darkness in search of the light.
Joe Alterman is an internationally acclaimed jazz pianist & executive director of Neranenah Concert & Culture Series.