Years before “Black Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” became slogans, Christopher Peterson, one of the founding fathers of positive psychology, used to say, “OPM: Other People Matter.” But millennia before him came the giving of the Torah, a Divine blueprint of transformation for both the individual and society. In an unbounded and unrestrained world where “might makes right,” G‑d introduced a new concept: You can be better than this. How so?
“Saying nothing…sometimes says the most.”
– Emily Dickenson
I ran into a friend at the market, and she looked sadder than when I had seen her recently at her father’s shiva. “It’s hitting me harder now,” she paused, looking down, “and there was so much family business going on.” At first, I thought she meant those nasty family dynamics that can be catalyzed by a death in the family, but she meant it literally. The people around her were very focused on the “business” of her father’s estate, despite her repeated requests that these conversations wait until after the mourning period was over.
Proper shiva protocol requires that people who want to pay their respects do not talk; instead, they are to sit quietly and wait for the mourner to speak, and they follow the mourner’s lead. After all, it’s the mourner’s show, so to speak – we are there to comfort them – not add to their pain with inappropriate conversation or behavior. Why is that so hard to do? It’s challenging enough to “say the right thing” under difficult circumstances. When we are given a pass, however, where we don’t even have to speak, except to offer simple mandatory scripted words of condolences, why are so we uncomfortable with silence?
I tried to explain to my friend how different people react to grief and mourning differently, where some negate or avoid pain by becoming preoccupied with busy work or mundane matters to feel a sense of control. Looking back, I wish I could take back my words. In a misguided attempt to make her “feel better,” or “fix the situation,” I was negating her emotions, whereas I should have held the space to witness and validate her experience.
What is Silence Anyway?
It’s one thing to shut down external noise, but what about the noise inside? Have you listened to yourself lately? Research has clocked the average person as having 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day, 95% of which are the same thoughts from the day before, and what’s worse, 80% of our thoughts are negative. Despite the books on mindfulness that I leave strategically around the house, my husband isn’t fooled. When he catches me staring into space with darting eyes, he’ll ask: “How’s the conversation going in your head?” Umm, you probably don’t want to know – it’s not pretty in there.
Is silence just the absence of noise, the mere cessation of the inner chatter? Try to stop thinking and pretty soon you’ll be thinking about how you’re trying to stop thinking. Instead of picturing silence as a mere empty void, however, imagine silence as a gateway to another dimension. Silence leads to stillness, which leads to awareness, which leads to presence, which is a state of being that accepts the present moment as it is. This mindful pause leads us to our center, the natural place of self-regulation, resilience, and choice. Whether you call it emotional mastery or emotional intelligence, it’s the space from which we can choose to operate and respond from our highest self, that part of us that is in harmony with our deepest values. Otherwise, the noise in our head – which judges, condemns, blames and resists – keeps us in a reactive state, and that leads to adverse and undesirable outcomes.
The Silence of Aaron
In Shemini, after the consecration of the Mishkan, (the portable tabernacle in the desert), Aaron’s two sons, Avihu and Nadav were consumed by a “heavenly fire” when they entered the Holy of Holies without permission or authority to do so. When Aaron learned the heartbreaking news, however, he was silent. He was not without emotion; the commentaries tell us that he was weeping, but that when Aaron heard Moses’ explanation for their deaths – that God considered this to be sanctification, he was silent. Silence allows us to hear profound messages. When we face significant upsets and disappointments, or when we incur the unjust wrath or accusations of others, silence gives us the space to consider – what else could this be?
We don’t all have the luxury of Moses softening the blow with consoling messages from God. Sometimes, there are simply no answers – at least none that we can comprehend with our limited intelligence. Sometimes life makes absolutely no sense. Someone is in distress, and you struggle for answers as to why they are suffering or why an inexplicably horrible event has happened. As Eckart Tolle says, “When you fully accept that you don’t know, you give up struggling with the limited thinking mind, and that is when a greater intelligence can operate through you. This vast intelligence can then express itself through you and assist you.” Then, if and when we choose to speak or act – because there are times when we must speak, and times we must act – we will serve the moment, or the person, or the situation in the right way.
So This Time I Got it Right
Last week I was in synagogue with a woman whose mother recently died after a protracted and painful illness. With tears welling up in her eyes, she shyly confessed how in the last days she was praying for God to take her. “I feel a little guilty about that. Was that bad?” Words of advice streamed into my head. Of course, it’s not bad! You were an amazing and loving and devoted daughter who couldn’t bear to see her mother suffering. But I said nothing, because the real question – why did my mother have to suffer so – could not be answered. Instead, I looked into her eyes with soft tearful eyes of my own, and with silence, held the space for her to accept it all – the grief and the love, the guilt and the relief.
Said Henri Nouwen, “The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing… not healing, not curing… that is a friend who cares.” Just as we are to use the gift of speech for the good, let us also learn to use the gift of silence. Sometimes, it’s just what is needed.
Hanna is an author, attorney, speaker and coach, who helps people find happiness, meaning and spiritual engagement. Her new book, A Year of Sacred Moments: The Soul Seeker’s Guide to Inspired Living, provides a method for people to engage their faith in a way that feels authentic and will make a difference in their lives. For more info, visit www.ayearofsacredmoments.com.
“How ‘bout a shot of truth in that denial cocktail.” – Jennifer Salize
For better or worse, part of the human condition is to contend with a built-in sensitivity to negativity, called “the negativity bias.” When taken to an extreme, however, a negativity bias creates a filter to that which is good and positive. When we turn a blind eye to the inherent worthiness of our children and loved ones, for example, we damage impressionable psyches – sometimes for a lifetime – and we wreak relationship havoc. The flip side to this is to view people through rose-colored glasses so thick and idealized, that we cannot see any flaws or faults – even when others clearly can.
My husband and I just watched a classic film from the forties – The Heiress – where Olivia de Havilland plays a plain Jane character, socially awkward and unassuming, who gets swept off her feet by a stunningly handsome fortune hunter. De Havilland lives with her father, who never misses an opportunity to compare her unfavorably to his dead wife. Romanticizing her as the epitome of idealized perfection, he views his dowdy and shy daughter as an insult to his wife’s very memory. On the other hand, de Havilland’s aunt is so caught up in the wishful fantasy of a prince charming rescuing her niece, that she absurdly supports the “romance” – even after de Havilland is jilted when the promise of money disappears. What made the movie compelling was de Havilland’s heartbreaking courage to allow and accept truth to pierce her illusions, even though it shattered her world.
I Just Don’t Get It – How Could They…
How many relationships are strained when we cannot, for the life of us, understand how someone can hold a particular opinion, or who remains tenaciously committed to problematic behavior in the face of objective and incontrovertible facts that contradict their beliefs? It takes a great deal of courage for people to be willing to change their worldview; so, it’s naïve to think that pulling back the curtain of their illusions will make them fall in line. That is because our versions of reality can be bound up in our very identities, our dreams, and the stories we tell about ourselves and the world.
That is why sometimes we “fight to the death” over insignificant things. The need to be right at all costs is the fear of the loss of self, our history, our values, and our way of knowing things. Thus, we can be so irrational when we are triggered, because the very nature of being triggered means that a core value, identity or need is being challenged. And when our stories are confronted, we defend them – reason and reality be damned.
Pharaoh and De-Nile
The inability to recognize the obvious is never more evident than in the story of Ten Plagues. How can we understand Pharaoh’s refusal to concede that Egypt was being reduced to ruin? Even worse – how could Pharaoh reject the demand for freedom, when Moses warned of the most crushing plague of them all – the death of the firstborn? The text tells us repeatedly, that at each juncture when Pharaoh could relent, that God hardened his heart, implying that God caused Pharaoh to continue to make these bad choices. But that’s not the case; instead, God prevented Pharaoh from surrendering out of fear and expediency. When facing an imminent threat, people often promise to change their problematic behaviors, but as soon as they think the risk is over, they go right back to their dysfunctional ways. The promise isn’t real; it’s a disingenuous ruse for their convenience. As long as Pharaoh was unwilling to change his story, his worldview – namely that he was the deity in control, God was not going to let him play that game. Incredibly, it wasn’t until Egypt was destroyed, the death of firstborn, and his entire army perishing at sea, that Pharaoh was willing to cede to the truth – that there really is a God – and it ain’t him.
What About Us?
The point is not to look at Pharaoh as a deranged dictator from a bygone era, however, but to look within. Is this going on in our lives? Is there something we are not willing to face? The saying, “Love is blind,” is not just a saying – neuroscience has proven how infatuation causes us to lose the ability to think critically. Of course, when the chemicals wear off, we see people as if for the first time and wonder – who is this person? As a long-time divorce attorney, and now a coach, I cannot count how many times people admit that the problems destroying their marriages were there beforehand, and feel remorse for not listening to friends, family, or their own inner voice, that questioned the relationship.
In my experience, people tell us who they are – but often we refuse to see it, or if we do, we believe we can fix them. So, I am going to do something very unusual – I am going to provide some questions for you to consider and outline objective red flags and danger signals, that if present in your relationships, should make you question very seriously whether a relationship is right for you. And if you still choose the relationship, then at least you can open your eyes and come up with realistic strategies to make the relationship healthier and happier.
Projecting the Future
Would I want to spend the rest of my life with this person exactly as they are? Would I want this person to raise my child? Would I want my child to be exactly like this person?
Are You Talking Yourself into the Relationship?
Do I want to help them or rescue them because I “see” their potential? I love the way they look, or their status and it builds my self-esteem to be with them. We have some things in common so, I am avoiding looking at glaring differences. I’m focusing on one important quality, and ignoring unmet requirements. I notice myself trying to change this person to fit what I want rather than accepting them for who they are.
Reacts to frustration with anger, rage, and blame. Blames others or circumstances for life situation. Tries to control everything, including me. Is immature, impulsive and/or irresponsible. Is emotionally distant, avoidant and aloof. Is still pining for a past relationship. Wants me to make their sad life better. Is married or otherwise unavailable to commit to me. Has active addiction or addictive behavior, rationalized as, “not a problem.”
Common Red Flags
Is pessimistic and negative about things that matter to me. Lacks integrity in dealing with people, money, etc. Is judgmental towards themselves and others. Is unwilling to self-examine, take feedback, accept responsibility. Doesn’t keep agreements. What they say about themselves doesn’t match reality. Takes you on an emotional roller coaster, with regular or recurring emotional drama. This isn’t what I really want, but I don’t want to be alone. Shows changeable inconsistent behavior. Shows an inability to listen. Talks too much (especially about themselves), monopolizes conversations, or is overly withdrawn and quiet.
What We Resist Persists
If a number of these issues resonate with you, please get some objective help in evaluating the relationship. Unresolved problems don’t improve after marriage; they get worse. It’s distressing how many people refuse to see or downplay warning flags, and head into unsatisfactory marriages, where they may struggle for years to get clarity on why things aren’t working. De Havilland got it right when she realized that wishing desperately for something does not make it so. Watch the movie.
Sources: Conscious Dating – Red Flags Checklist.
© Relationship Coaching Institute | All rights reserved | Adapted with permission
“Our mistakes and regrets are not barriers to becoming who we can be; they are a necessary ingredient.” – David Schnarch
Thanks, But I’d Rather Own My Stuff
In the middle of writing this blog, I was solicited to purchase an expensive business development course, which promised to create a quantum leap in my coaching practice. When I admitted disappointment with certain aspects of coaching, the voice on the phone was quick to point out, “It’s not your fault.” No doubt, “the voice” was trained to say this, to establish a sympathetic connection, hoping I would be sobbing in grateful relief as I reached for my credit card. Instead, I bristled at the very idea. Buddy, I thought, of course, it’s my fault! Whose fault should it be? Should I blame my clients? My childhood? The universe? Because if it’s not my fault, then how in the world can I ever fix it? When we outsource the blame for a problem, then we are outsourcing the solution as well. And when we give up agency, the ability to make choices and see the causal relationship between our actions and outcomes, we undermine one of the highest faculties of being a human being.
The Jewish Journey – Leaving Home
The first directive God gave Abraham was an eviction notice: “Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Abraham’s journey was not merely physical but spiritual, where he had to transcend his external and internal influences and limitations, to awaken to a higher level of spirituality. In going from Haran, he left a place of constriction, but also everything that was known and familiar to him, to brave the unknown to journey to the Promised Land, where he would fulfill his destiny and relationship with God in a whole new way.
God also tells Abraham that in the future, the Jewish people will be oppressed as slaves for hundreds of years in an alien land, but that ultimately we would leave that land with great wealth. Ironically, Abraham’s first footstep of freedom set in motion events that would eventually cause the Jewish nation to become enslaved.
In Va’eira, we begin the process the most celebrated eviction in history, the Exodus from Egypt. Just like Abraham’s journey occurred in stages, God tells Moses that He will redeem the Jewish people in four steps: “I shall take you out from under the burdens. I shall rescue you. I shall redeem you. I shall take you to Me for a people.” The Hebrew word for Egypt, “Mitzrayim” means “narrowness” and “constriction.” Thus, the formula for growth is the willingness to leave a mindset or place of limitation to which you are attached. So here, on a national level, the Jewish people had to leave the place of bondage, which was all they knew, to brave the unknown in their journey towards the Promised Land, where they would awaken to their collective spiritual mission of establishing a loving relationship with God connected through Torah.
What We can’t Control – God’s Business
When God took us out of Egypt, the Jewish people were at the penultimate depth of spirituality. Any further descent and redemption would have been untenable. If the endgame here was for us to become “God’s people,” then God intervened at the last possible moment before that kind of connection would no longer be feasible. The matter was urgent, and God wasn’t waiting for the Jewish people to work on themselves. If that was “The Plan” all along, however, both in becoming slaves and then being freed on God’s cosmic timetable, then we were passive entities on both ends of the stick. Where does that leave the Jewish people regarding personal responsibility and agency?
What We Can Control – Our Business
Many Jews have the daily custom of reciting the “Six Remembrances,” one of which is to remember for the rest of our days, the day that we left Egypt. And tradition tells us that in the future, the Final Redemption will be similar to the story of the Exodus. In the meantime, however, don’t count on God to airlift you out of your mess. In our daily morning blessings, we specifically thank God for not having created us a slave. And so every day is an invitation to look at our lives right now. If I am attached to my bad habits, if I refuse to admit that my behavior is problematic, and I defend my unexamined stories, then my relationships are going to suffer. Since my wellbeing depends primarily on the quality of my relationships, then my life as a whole is compromised. God didn’t create me this way; I enslaved myself. But that’s OK; if I created my mess, then I can fix it.
Relationships – People Growing Machines
In the beginning, God said that it was not good for man to be alone; thus we are created to exist in relationship. As a matter of fact, without connection, we don’t even exist, as all existence is contingent on there being a second something. Only God is a unity; we live in the space of relationship that exists between us and everything and everyone else. And so it’s more than just the quality of your life that depends on the quality of your relationships – you are the quality of your relationships.
The Journey of the Heart
The willingness to break free of what enslaves us and to brave the wilderness of new possibility is to undertake the most magnificent journey of them all – the journey of the heart. Redemption is a process – a difficult and challenging one. Most of us are more comfortable with the devil that we know, and so even if we are suffering, we are surprisingly resistant to change. The challenges and tests we face in our relationships are nothing more than a reflection of who we are. When we stop defending positions, we can start to open our hearts, and by owing our stuff, we can let it go. Before we can leave Egypt, we have to be willing to go. But it’s so worth it. The Promised Land is love. You can go home.
You have a decision to make. Before you, lies a conflict you haven’t been able to resolve, or a new reality that is causing anxiety and stress. Or maybe something in your life is asking you to take a leap of faith, change your perspective, or become a bigger version of yourself. Are you willing to open up to new possibilities? Or will you shut down and stick with what you know? Are you searching for truth, or defending an agenda? That choice may depend on how you define yourself, your mission in life – and what you are willing to see.
In the second book of the Torah, Shemot, we read about two polar opposite personalities – Moses and the Pharaoh – one who committed one of the most transcendent actions recorded in the Torah, and the other, who committed one of the most heinous. One was a servant of God, who brought redemption and light; the other a “god” who served his own agenda and brought destruction and darkness. Yet, they shared something in common, the word, “Behold!” Each of them had a paradigm shift and then set into motion world events consistent with their respective visions.
What Have You Done For Me Lately?
In Shemot, we see in Pharaoh words, the blueprint for anti-Semitism. In fact, it is said that Hitler modeled his propaganda machine after Pharaoh’s strategy. The Torah introduces us to Pharaoh as a “new king who did not know Joseph.” It is patently impossible that any Egyptian ruler would not have known the “Joseph Story,” that the Jewish people were invited to settle in Egypt appreciation for Joseph having them from famine, and enriching Egyptian coffers beyond imagination, as the entire civilized world showed up on Egypt’s doorstep in need of grain. For someone like the Pharaoh, who considered himself all-powerful and divine, it was mortifying to feel indebted to the Jewish people – and their God. With the death of Jacob, Joseph, and all his brothers, Pharaoh shirked off any vestige of gratitude. It was, therefore, not a case of “not knowing;” but rather, creating a new historical/political narrative, which recast people who had been meaningful contributors to society, into a so-called threat to that very society. As any despot knows, the shortest road to power is to create an enemy and then dedicate yourself to its destruction.
Relationship Tip: This is an important point – we cannot simultaneously hold two divergent views of a person. If we are in touch with a sense of gratitude and appreciation for someone, we cannot at the same time see them through the lens of a negativity bias. To maintain a state of complaint or anger, we have to shut our minds to what is good. So, if you find yourself trapped in a negativity spiral with a loved one, you can stop it in its tracks. Consciously recalling the times that person has been there for you, or the many ways that person has demonstrated love, kindness, and consideration will switch you back into a positive mindset. The “what have you done for me lately” mentality, or turning a blind eye to the good kills relationships.
The Process of Dehumanization
“Behold! The people, the Children of Israel are more numerous and stronger than we. Come, let us outsmart it lest it become numerous and it may be that if a war will occur, it, too may join our enemies, and wage war against us and go up from the land.” To refer to the Jewish people as an “it,” is to dehumanize them.
Brené Brown defines dehumanization as “the psychological process of demonizing the enemy, making them seem less than human and hence not worthy of humane treatment. Once we see people on ‘the other side’ of a conflict as morally inferior and even dangerous, the conflict starts being framed as good versus evil.” Thus, we are free to “behold” any perception or narrative we want to create, and nothing is off the table – oppression, subjugation, slavery, genocide, etc.
My Way or the Highway
What this can look like in a relationship is the “my way or the highway” attitude, an ultimatum to “take it or leave it” where the other person must conform or suffer the consequences. In asserting our absolute autonomy, if we come home late without a heads up we may blow away our upset partner for being “controlling.” Our sense of time prevails; the thermostat is set at our comfort level, we make unilateral decisions, etc., since we don’t see other people’s opinions or feelings as worthy of consideration. In marriage, this is a divorce waiting to happen.
The Moses Way
While tending the flock of his father-in-law, Moses noticed one of the sheep was missing. Concerned for its safety, he was in hot pursuit when he came upon an unusual sight: “Behold! The bush was burning in the fire but the bush was not consumed.” That in itself required a level of awareness, for Moses could easily have been too preoccupied with looking for the sheep to notice that there was something very peculiar about a common brush fire. But Moses had a history of “noticing.”
The first time we meet him as an adult, Moses is the “Prince of Egypt.” Removed from the confines of the palace, he witnessed the suffering all around him, and when he observed a taskmaster viciously beating a Jewish slave, he took action and killed the man. Fleeing Egypt, Moses arrived in Midian, and when he saw a group of women being tormented by shepherds, he came to their rescue. While we’re usually in touch with our suffering, seeing it in others is not so common. God did not call out to Moses until Moses made a point of showing his willingness to enter this unknown territory – “to turn aside and look.” Then, God summoned him, “Moses, Moses!” to which Moses replied, “Hineini, Here I am.” This pivotal moment was built on a lifelong pursuit of truth, no matter where it led.
Behold! For everything in life asks for our attention. That’s the challenge. It is a struggle to remain open and not grow numb when negative news pounds our psyche daily, but there is a price to pay for not seeing the suffering of others. Says neuroscientist Rick Hanson, “You miss information about the nature of life, miss chances to have your heart opened, miss learning what your impact on others might be.” And closer to home, “Small issues that could have been resolved early on grow until they blow up. People don’t like having their pain overlooked.”
As a servant of God, Moses was always ready to serve the moment, whether saving a lost sheep or an entire nation. “Here I am.” By being selfless, he had everything! In contrast, Pharaoh served only himself – and he wound up with nothing. Behold! The moments of life ask for your response. Says Anaïs Nin, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” What will you see?
Shemot/Exodus 1:8-10, 3:2-3
“We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.” – Gwendolyn Brooks
It’s All in the Family
Shy to begin with, I found it a little embarrassing when I first started going to Orthodox Jewish weddings; right off the bat, people mistook me for being related to the bride or groom. As soon as I would walk into the room, strangers would approach and genuinely wish me, “Mazel tov!” “Um, thanks,” I would mumble, “but um, I’m not related to the families. I’m just a guest.” If anything, I am underdressed for posh affairs; I own no formal clothes and, nothing in my closet remotely passes for glamorous. I would have to upgrade my attire if I were a close relative. So why did this case of mistaken identity persist?
Some of you may be laughing, as you understand the cause of my “newbie confusion.” You see, in Orthodox weddings, and celebrations of any kind, everyone wishes everyone else, “Mazel tov,” because the Jewish people are considered to be one big extended family. In my younger years, I experienced a sense of liberation and even personal power when I coined my definition of “family,” as those who felt pain if I were suffering, and joy if I were happy. At celebrations, we remind each other – and ourselves – of this reality; your happiness is my happiness, and we share this collectively.
Whether it’s the solemn witnessing of the mystical transformation of two souls seeking to merge as one or the happiness we feel dancing hand in hand in packed circles that form and re-form like a pulsing gyroscope, for a moment, an hour or even a few, the many become as one. Rabbi Tzvi Freeman explains that there are many ways for the “many to become one” – such as marching to war or for a cause, going crazy at a concert, throwing rocks at a protest, or wildly cheering one’s team to victory. On these occasions, we are united by something external; We are going somewhere, protesting someone or something, or we lose identity through an extrinsic force. In contrast, says Freeman, “In the circle, there is no cause, no reason, no enemy and nowhere we are going. We are just one. Because we are.”
This week was one particularly saturated with funerals, shiva calls, and their polar opposite – a wedding celebration and a bris. At one of the houses of mourning, I heard a story about two students, who are studying in Israel. Upon hearing the news of their grandfather’s death, they became distraught and started to cry. A stranger came up to them and, when he found out what was distressing them, he brought them cups of tea and proceeded to talk to them about birth and death and spent time with them offering words of comfort. In her book, “Braving the Wilderness,” Brené Brown writes: “We need to hold hands with strangers. We need reminders – collective joy and pain – reminders that we are inextricably connected to each other.”
The term “Klal Yisroel” literally means “all of Israel” and as such it refers to the Jewish people as a whole; however, its deeper meaning is that despite individual and group diversity, we share a communal identity and destiny, where we celebrate and mourn as one. In Israel, weddings are often open affairs. Here, we call them wedding crashers, but over there, it’s more like an open tent policy. At the same time, it’s just as common for “strangers” to show up at funerals and to offer condolences at houses of mourning. When my daughter spent a gap year studying in Israel, it was not unusual for large groups of girls from her school to go in groups to pay their respects. “Mom,” my daughter simply said. “you just go.”
When I was visiting another family in mourning this week, one of the sons acknowledged that while the four siblings had their share of squabbles and issues over the years, at the time of their mother’s death, they were all united as one, gathered around her bedside, escorting her in song and prayers to the next world. After he spoke, his sister tearfully begged the family to stay as one – to comfort and support each in the weeks and months to come as they had to come to grips with the loss of the matriarch of the family who held them as one.
When Unity is Not the Real Deal
I have seen and experienced families, communities and the Jewish people rise to the occasion in solidarity, only to fall back into divisive and polarized factions. How can we hold onto the lofty ideals of unity and connection as operative principles in our daily lives? Just as peak emotional moments are not sustainable, the solidarity we may feel in times of crisis, disasters, terror attacks, etc., is situational and temporary. During calamities, we instinctively help our fellow man – without asking who he or she voted for. Afterwards, we go back to life as usual – the neighbor becomes the stranger, and we retreat into the proverbial “us and them.” Unity based on fear of hatred of a common enemy is not genuine, and when it’s situational (for good or bad), it is not sustainable. How, then, does unity endure?
When It Is
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayehi, Jacob dies. Surrounding him at his deathbed, are his sons – all of them, whom as we know, had some serious baggage. Jacob had received a prophetic vision in which he was how the future would unfold, including the “end of days.” When Jacob wanted to relay revelation to his sons, however, the vision was no longer accessible to him. Somewhat frightened, Jacob asked his sons whether there was any negativity within them, which was blocking the signal, so to speak, to which the sons replied in unison, “Shema Yisroel, Hashem, Elokeinu, Hashem Ehad – Hear O’Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” And Jacob answered, “Boruch Shem kavod malchuso, l’olam voed – Blessed is the Name of His glorious kingdom for all eternity.” This is the exact moment where the Torah teaches us the Shema, the “Jewish mantra,” which we recite daily and, if we able, right before we die.
God is One, the ultimate Unity. Created in God’s image, our mission in life is to emulate our Creator, and it’s the struggle of a lifetime to unify ourselves – in the service of God. Just as Jacob gave each of his sons distinct and individual blessings, we are unique and we are to serve God in our singular capacities. That’s a tall order, but it’s not enough. The next time we read the words of the Shema in the Torah is when Moses teaches them to the second generation shortly before his death and their crossing over into the Land of Israel. As the Jewish people were about to leave the cocoon of the desert and spread out over the land, Moses was exhorting them to remember that God is One and therefore, they must also strive to be as one – within themselves and within the nation, Klal Yisroel, as a whole. Like the slogan Three Musketeers, the nature of the Jewish people is covenantal: All for one and one for all. United we stand, divided we fall.” This requires a deep awareness of the unity and connection that at times requires self-sacrifice, displacing one’s ego, and the openhearted generosity of unconditional love. Brené Brown brings this idea home with these words: “Spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion. Practicing spirituality brings a sense of perspective, meaning and purpose to our lives.”
When I was at the bris this week, a friend of mine introduced her adult son to me, a newbie unfamiliar with Orthodox Jewish customs. For fun, I greeted him with a hearty, “Mazel tov!” Unlike the way I used to respond, he did not correct me, perhaps as he knew that I did not think he related to the family celebrating this birth. But I could read in his “deer in the headlight” eyes and the thought bubble above his head that was probably something like: “Seriously? What is it with this lady?” “It’s OK, kid,” I beamed back telepathically, “You’ll find out soon enough. Welcome to the family.”
“Grudges are for those who insist that they are owed something; forgiveness, however, is for those who are substantial enough to move on.” – Chris Jami
A good friend solicited me for a donation to a Jewish educational institution that teaches kids with learning differences. My standard response would be to write a check. Instead, I snapped at her that I needed to “get over my anger” as I regaled her with the story of an old grievance I had against the director, for what I thought were her limiting beliefs that did not promote, but thwarted the potentials of children. Looking back, I know that many well-meaning educators and parents want children to “be happy,” and rather than encouraging striving and developing resilience, they think that keeping children within the zone of “no possibility of failure” will ensure that happiness. But that’s another schmooze for another time.
Why Am I Still Angry?
According to my VIA (Values in Action) Assessment of the 24 Character Strengths, “Forgiveness” is in my bottom twenty. I am upfront about it, though and I try to warn people: “I’m letting you know that I’ve been scientifically identified as someone who holds onto a grudge, so think hard before you say that snarky thing I know you’re thinking, or do something to piss me off, because I’m not going to forgive you for a very long time – if ever – and this won’t be good for our relationship.” That’s fair – right? It’s amusing that people think I’m kidding about this– I’m not.
But then I bump up against an “inconvenient truth,” where the weekly Torah portion is addressing me personally, and the message is: “Stop it, already.” In Vayigash, when Joseph unmasked himself as Viceroy of Egypt and revealed his identity to his brothers, he acknowledged the elephant in the room, recounting their intention to do him harm when they sold him into slavery. Incredibly, Joseph bore them no ill will; instead, he acknowledged that they were players in God’s plan, which was to set the very story into motion whereby Joseph would be in a position – not to exact vengeance – but to “do good” to them. This would have been an opportune time for the brothers to fall at Joseph’s feet sobbing heart-felt apologies and unite in a newfound experience of brotherly love. But that never happened. As I struggle to raise the attribute of “forgiveness” up a few notches in my psychological profile, it pays for me to examine how Joseph responded as he did in this epic encounter.
Forgiveness Demands No Apology
While I am certainly not advocating that apologies are unnecessary (you can verify that with my husband), we don’t always get the emotional satisfaction of someone admitting their wrongdoing or at least expressing regret over causing us pain. Sometimes the offender is dead, or estranged from us, or refuses to acknowledge their part of a conflict; other times the person may be clueless, not even knowing we are carrying a grudge. When we realize that forgiveness is not about the other person, but an act that brings healing to ourselves, then we don’t tie our emotional wellbeing to their apologetic confessions or admissions.
You Don’t Have to Agree on the Story
One of the reasons we get hung up on apologies is that we want the other person to validate our reality, and soothe our need to be “right” while they were “wrong.” How well does that go? We craft our stories are based on our interpretations of the facts – our reading of the motives and intentions of other people, and how identify ourselves in the situation. Sometimes a conversation can get to the bottom of things and clear the air, but just as often there is no consensus on the story. Even if there were agreement on the objective “facts,” the “wrong-doer” can always rationalize and justify their behavior and perpetuate the conflict. Joseph never “gets into it” with his brothers. Sometimes, the best thing for an intimate relationship is to just to let things.
To Forgive is Not to Forget – or Trust Again
Other times, however, we drop the story precisely because we aren’t interested in restoring intimacy, or because there never was a real connection to begin with. Forgiveness is not synonymous with a heart-to-heart connection. Forgiveness is in our control; a decision we make about our behavior. Trust, on the other hand, is about theirs. Some people are too damaged or toxic to allow back into our inner circle. When we realize that forgiveness does not require us to engage in dysfunction, we can wish them well – from afar.
The Bigger Plan
When I was first becoming observant, I asked someone about the paradox between “everything being decreed by God who runs the world,” and punishment for behavior that seems predestined. I never forgot the answer: “If someone punches you in the nose, then yes, it was decreed that you suffer that injury. However, the person who punched you exercised his free will to cause you harm and needs to be held accountable.” In a cosmic matrix of unimaginable magnitude, the people who use their free will to bestow good are the people that God wants to reward, and conversely, those who inflict harm have it coming. This worldview acknowledges that nothing happens by accident, and the stories of our lives unfold as they do for a reason. As Oprah Winfrey said, “True forgiveness is when you can say, ‘Thank you for that experience.’”
But when it comes to the behavior of others, however, they are also acting out their karma of reward and punishment. Thus, the story is bigger than us; it’s bigger than everybody.
Who’s In Charge of Payback?
Joseph never retaliated against his brothers. On the other hand, he did put them through a test to see if they would give up another brother to save themselves. One of the biggest relationship mistakes we can make is to punish people over and over for the same “punch on the nose.” When Joseph realized his brothers had evolved, it would have been counterproductive to exact vengeance for an old wound. Or perhaps Joseph realized that they had already suffered the consequences of their behavior. Sometimes the powerful approach is to be the observer and not the avenger and let the universe be in charge.
The highest and hardest level of forgiveness is to respond with love. When we don’t hold onto anger and resentment, we can act from a new reality entirely. Joseph treated his brothers kindly, assuring them that he would provide for them. This response is not being a martyr, a denial of history, or the abnegation of the self, but a conscious choice about who Joseph wanted to be and how he wanted to show up in that situation. It’s the ultimate control. The English writer, Alexander Pope famously said, “To err is human; to forgive divine.” Joseph proves him wrong – it is very much within the human experience and it is perhaps one of our highest aspirations.
“Our stories are the source of our suffering and the springboard to our liberation.” – David Drake
Victim or Hero?
With the human psyche so wired for connection, it’s understandable that some inmates on death row will forego lengthy appeals and choose death over remaining indefinitely in solitary confinement. About the only thing prisoners can do in interminable isolation is to go mad, and the damage is usually permanent. Put them back in any social interaction, and they are just bat-crazy.
And then there are those movies – we’ve all seen them – where the world needs to be saved through a top-secret mission, and only one man is fit for the job, but he happens to have been railroaded in a cover-up, and shipped off to a prison that doesn’t exist, a captive in solitary confinement. In goes the secret government official, winding through a series of massive steel doors, to a dark subterranean hidey-hole, and with weapon drawn, warily faces the opening door. Inside, a shadowy figure emerges, hair and beard wildly feral and long, but sporting a six-pack that would make any gym rat jealous. Grinning with a sense of irony, he knows the balance of power has just shifted, and that he will have the upper hand in navigating whatever conversation is about to take place.
I love those movies! In a way, these plots resemble the story of Joseph. After twelve years in an Egyptian dungeon, the balance of power abruptly swung in Joseph’s favor as he was appointed Viceroy of Egypt on the spot. While the entire Joseph story is captivating, I am fascinated by pivotal moments where a story line can go either way. What is it, I wonder, that makes one person emerge from a painful prison experience bitter and hardened, or wild-eyed and incoherent, while another uses the moment to self-actualize and, by the way, masterfully save the entire ancient world?
There’s a Bigger Picture Here
Maybe it has to do with the stories they tell themselves about who they are and why they are here. In the dreams of his youth, Joseph fully understood that he was destined to be major player in a Divine plan. And so no matter what he experienced, he never lost sight of a vision that he trusted would unfold. That attitude requires taking the long–game view of life. And so Joseph knew when to be proactive and “make it happen,” and when to be surrendered and “let it happen.” To do this, however, one needs a high degree of self-regulation, a coming back to center, which allows our best selves to naturally show up and make optimal choices that create a positive outcome. Even in prison.
We find a modern-day Joseph in the story of the famous refusenik, Anatoly Sharansky, who was sentenced to 13 years in a Soviet labor camp, for the crime of wanting to immigrate to Israel. After serving nine years, most of which was spent in solitary confinement, Sharansky was released; and after immigrating to Israel, he founded a political party and became a member of the Israeli parliament. Sharansky recounts how he used to tell anti-Soviet jokes to his interrogators, where they had to exercise tremendous restraint to contain their laughter. “And I said to them, ‘You cannot even laugh when you want to laugh, and you want to tell me that I’m in prison and you’re free?’”
Sharansky defines freedom as the moment when he claimed his autonomy, when he realized that only he could humiliate himself, and only he could be ashamed of his actions. “If I’m not ashamed of what I’m doing, if I feel myself part of this great historic process, and I am true to the image of God in which we are created — I am a free person.”
When we allow other people to define us and write our stories, we imprison ourselves. When we are on autopilot, we lose track of our vision, the who of who we are and why we are here. On the other hand, when we trust that the narrative arc of our lives is part of the unfolding of a divine destiny, then we can bear suffering as part of the hero’s journey – even if there is no “happy ending.”
As Sharansky said, even if were to have died in that prison, he knows he would have died a free man. Tormentors and oppressors are bit actors performing a role in the cosmic play of our lives. It is we, however, who can define our character and write our lines. And if we can navigate terminal illnesses, personal tragedy and heartbreak, and yet remain unbroken, and maintain our faith, then we are free.
How You Do Anything is How You Do Everything.
We don’t exist in a vacuum, but within a context, the context of relationship. Look at your life close to home. In every relationship we have, there are pivotal moments, where it can go either way. Whether it is a family member, spouse, child, co-worker, neighbor, etc., whenever we get triggered, or whenever that hot button is making our blood start to boil, that is the exact instant, the pivotal moment when the story line we create in our head will drive one of two outcomes. Ask yourself: “How do I want this to go?” We can act with compassion or criticism, curiosity or control, unconditional love or judgment. Instead of resisting life, let life be your teacher. You may be in prison – but that doesn’t mean you have to be anyone’s prisoner.
“Most misunderstandings in the world could be avoided if people would simply take the time to ask, ‘What else could this mean?”” – Shannon Adler
“Silence is never more golden than when a quarrel is brewing.”
Me. At my worst. Kinda looks like this. I was driving from Philly to Kripalu, a holistic retreat center in the Berkshires, where I was taking a week-long training to teach a specific positive psychology course. Typically, it’s a 4-½ hour ride, most of it through beautiful scenery. Having made this trip several times before, I was looking forward to tearing up the road in my Mini Cooper Roadster, blasting music without concern for anyone else’s eardrums or musical taste, while taking in the beauty of the dazzling New England fall foliage.
I didn’t know it at the time, but a hurricane was unleashing hell all along the northeastern corridor. I could not listen to music because to add sound on top of the noise of the rain hitting my windshield like machine gun fire would have made the din unbearable. I could not see the fall scenery because I couldn’t see any trees. The cold rain hitting the warm air created a fog so thick I could barely even see the road, and I drove by following the taillights of the car in front of me. To make matters worse, each gust of wind and wave of water created from the passing trucks and SUV’s shook and rattled my little toy car.
I couldn’t help but think about two members of my family who had died in tragic vehicular accidents. There is a saying that things that are wired together fire together, and I started to panic. OMG, I thought, I’m going to die. On my way to a course – in happiness! This is not funny!!
Trip to Crazy Town
After a grueling six-hour drive, all the while pumping stress and fear hormones, my hands aching from gripping the steering wheel and my neck muscles clenched in knots, I couldn’t emotionally transition to the reality of being OK. Even though I arrived at my destination safely, my brain didn’t catch up with this fact and was still processing reality as if I were still in danger mode. And so nothing seemed right, people seemed weird and annoying, and I was seriously questioning why I had even come. Until my sympathetic nervous system (flight or fight) could calm down, my cognition was distorted, even conjuring paranoid and absurd dangers. Was it OK for my room to be so near ground level in case some unhinged maniac who may have been rebuffed by a yoga instructor had finally snapped and wanted revenge? I was in crazy town.
Who Was That Lizard?
By the morning, the rain had stopped. I opened the window to breathe in the pristine mountain air and saw awe-inspiring natural beauty. I was fine. No, I was more than fine. No longer hijacked by stress, my rational brain was back online. I was calm, happy, and appreciative to be there. I felt a kindred connection to everyone I saw, a sense of belonging, and I was open and eager to participate in the training.
A Tale of Two Brothers
In Vayishlach, we read of the famous account of Jacob wrestling with the angel through the night, before encountering his brother, Esau. The one saving grace about Esau was his supposed devotion to his father, Isaac. Yet, when he learned of the deception surrounding the blessings, he openly yearned for his father’s death, so that he would be free to kill his brother. In short, Esau was in crazy town, and no one can function well or process reality benevolently from that place.
Whatever the nature of a conflict, it is not the objective facts that drive it, but our thoughts that create the story around it. When we get emotionally triggered, when our hot buttons are pushed, when we feel threatened, unsafe and get hooked by drama – bam – we become flooded, and our thinking process emanates from our primitive reptilian brain.
In that state, even loved ones can become “the enemy,” as we objectify and demonize them. We interpret their behavior in the most negative light, imputing the worst motives at every turn. We magnify threats, turning barbs into ballistic missiles, or we misperceive innocent remarks as attempts to cut us to the quick. Our inner lizard fears becoming someone’s lunch; and so as a protective measure, it becomes a destructive fire-breathing dragon.
Most of us don’t recognize this process for what it is. We believe the stories we spin, and then we perpetuate it. We live from that reality, and we attempt to rope in others to our way of seeing things – sometimes to the point of creating loyalty tests. This wreaks havoc, sometimes permanently on our relationships, and to our psyche.
Getting Out of Crazy Town – Time Out
So first, you need to recognize the signs of being emotionally flooded. We have telltale signs in our bodies (shallow breathing, muscular tension, and pain) our emotions (anger, fear, feeling unsafe, overwhelmed) and our thoughts (blame projected outward, negativity bias, magnifying faults, linking prior events and other people to the present). It is crucial to know when you – or someone else is in this state – because there is no one rationally at home. Therefore, a constructive conversation cannot happen. There needs to be some space and distance to allow things to normalize, for the hot buttons to cool down and goodwill to return.
It is critical to use this period of cooling down with the intention to allow things to heal. If we use time apart to ruminate, obsesses self-righteously about the perceived faults of others, vent to others, and escalate the tension, it will only cause further polarization. Instead, use the time to turn things around to the positive by cultivating gratitude for the person, consider the validity of other viewpoints, acknowledge your part in creating the conflict, be receptive to any bids for reconnection, and don’t hold onto who you think should make the first move
While Jacob and Esau reconciled, it took twenty years for it to occur, and it was only temporary. Allow yourself enough time to calm down – but don’t wait unnecessarily long to get your relationships back on track. It may be too late.