“Most misunderstandings in the world could be avoided if people would simply take the time to ask, ‘What else could this mean?”” – Shannon Adler
A Tale of Two Roofers
I needed some roof repairs and suddenly, the name of an Italian roofer I had used to put a new roof on a house I owned 25 years ago came to mind. I googled the business and told the man who answered the phone that I was a former customer from years past. “That wasn’t us,” he replied, “that was our competitor.” “Wait a minute. I’m confused. You’re saying there is another roofer in the area that happens to have the same name as you – who is not you – but a competitor? That’s a pretty strange coincidence.” “It’s my uncle,” the man confessed, “but he left the family business.” I could hear the righteous Italian anger starting to creep into his tone. “He learned everything from my father, from my grandfather actually. We started the family business in 1920 – everything he learned, he learned from us. We were the first. We’re the originals.” “Wow – so did I just land in the middle of a family feud?” “Well, he’s retired now, not in the business anymore.” “That makes sense,” I said, “he must be in his 70’s by now.” “No – he’s in his 80’s.”
Even though this old man was no longer a “competitor,” in the eyes of the family, he still needed to be wrong. How much time did they think was left before this feud went irreparably to the grave?” What was the “story,” I wondered, the subjective interpretation of events cast as “truth,” that caused the rift in the first place and what was the story that was invented to keep it going?
This dynamic exists in my family, in my husband’s family and I see how many variations on a theme play out through the next generation. We all spin stories – that’s how we make sense of what we experience (or have been told). But frankly, I am bewildered why so many of us have a built-in negativity bias to interpret the behavior of others – not Nazis, terrorists or serial killers – but our kinfolk and friends, in the most negative light possible. When we reduce people to two-dimensional stereotypes, we can justify not wanting to entertain or understand their point of view; indeed the “other” is not capable of a credible thought or feeling. We then have to live in the stories we create, and often we seem more interested in defending and protecting “the story” than opening up to new possibilities and deeper connection.
Stories of brotherly (and sisterly) love are an anomaly in the Torah; more common are the accounts of jealousy and the violence or threat of violence they engender. While the back story of the favoritism surrounding Joseph helps us understand the rationale for the brothers’ hatred, there is no contravening voice of reason challenging the story they spun to give themselves the permission – no, the moral justification – to justify selling him to slave traders and concealing the truth from their father, Jacob. And further, did they think this through? Did they imagine that by simply eliminating their painful rival, that Jacob would wake up, realize how magnificent they all were, and shower them with the love and approbation they craved?
A Tale As Old As Time – And It’s Not Beauty and the Beast
Sibling rivalry has been around since the famous first siblings and has remained entrenched in the human psyche ever since. In that first case, God tried to intervene. When Cain was filled with a jealous rage over God’s preference of Abel’s sacrifice to his own, and he wanted to kill his brother, God spoke to Cain. Interestingly, God didn’t dispute the facts; nor did God try to console Cain with protestations of equal favor. Instead, God acknowledged the anger which placed him on the precipice of an inevitable destiny, but then in no uncertain terms advised Cain that he could avoid this outcome. “You can conquer this,” God told him. And so, we all are hardwired with the ability to control our behavior and change outcomes. The problem is that most of don’t know how.
The ABCDE’s of How Crazy Thinks
For decades, Freudian psychoanalysts bypassed their patients’ conscious thoughts to get to their unconscious minds. Later on, behaviorists also ignored the cognitive realm, focusing instead on patients’ behaviors and feelings. While it seems common sense and commonplace now to understand the interconnections between our thoughts, feelings, and behavior, when Albert Ellis, the father of REBT (Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, from which emerged Cognitive Therapy), set forth the notion that the way we think shapes the way we feel, it was novel. Said Ellis, “People are not disturbed by things but rather by their view of things.” If our irrational thoughts shape a distorted perception of reality, which create negative emotions and dysfunctional behavior, then we can rationally challenge those beliefs, set forth a new working reality, and drive a positive outcome. It looks like this:
A – Activating Event / Adversity
This is the first step. Some event or situation triggers us, and we generate an irrational belief, which we erroneously believe is helping us manage the situation.
B – Irrational Belief
We have a total buy-in with our irrational belief. Even if the theory is hurtful, we prefer it to not understanding the situation.
C – Emotional and Behavioral Consequences
Irrational beliefs always produce a consequence. And they are not good. When we interpret what people do in the least favorable light (as opposed to the command to judge favorably) then we feel hurt, and, as the saying goes, “hurt people hurt people.”
D – Disputes or Arguments
If we are willing to admit that we may have an irrational belief that is causing a problem, we can begin the rational process of disputation with our thoughts, by challenging their validity. Is this thought true? Really true? When is it not true? What is the evidence to the contrary? What about all the times when this person (whom I have labeled as a narcissistic jerk) has been kind, loving and supportive? Can I draw a different conclusion about this person – or myself? What’s the most generous inference I could bring forth?
E – New Effect
When we successfully counter the irrational belief with a new (and hopefully positive) one, we can reframe our old stories and write new versions that can serve us and our relationships.
New Science – Old Truth
Rebbe Nachman, the founder of Breslover Chassidim, famously said: “You are wherever your thoughts are. Make sure your thoughts are where you want them to be.” If our thoughts create our reality, then let us make sure that they serve, empower and elevate us – and those around us. The essence of Judaism is to refine and transform ourselves and our environment. That is what Tikkun Olam is all about – the process of elevation that reveals Godliness and brings light to the world. Thousands of years ago, when God told Cain to conquer his inner crazy, he left out a few details, namely how to do that. I guess He has been waiting for us to figure that out on our own. Maybe it’s as simple as your ABCDE’s. You are the author of your life; write a good novel.
Reference: What is Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy?