Elul 7 – Understand
It’s hard to understand the kids. They use different words to mean different things (like “sauce” to mean pass – really?) They present things in different ways. They don’t share my goals or my dreams. Things that I strongly dislike or that make me uncomfortable are perfect for them. And each different too! I can’t even say “kids these days” because all 3 of my big “I left home and I’m grown up now” kids are so different. Frankly, my small kids aren’t that small any more. With one already Bar Mitzvah and one about to hit the double digits, all my kids are “grown up” in their own very different ways.
And so my relationship with them must change – I hate change, but this year, it seems to have shown up as a theme. I need to listen more carefully than ever to them. I can’t assume anything except that I’m often wrong.
In particular I have to think the best of the kids. I must replace “they are lazy” with “they are taking the time they need” and “they are shiftless” with “their ambitions are different.” It’s easy for me to see very little things – a mess left in a room, a brusque comment, a delay in texting back – as a sign that their differences are wrong, that they’re careless and self-focused, that they need to be corrected and taught and advised.
It’s what I did for so many years! I tried hard to give good advise, set useful rules, teach correct lessons. Now, they don’t need that. They just want to be understood and accepted and loved. It’s confusing! How can I be there for them when sometimes that means giving them a great deal of space?
I know part of it is to keep reaching out, keep communicating, keep connecting. Building a bridge with my kids – I can’t imagine a more important activity. It’s also very rewarding. They are infinitely interesting, intelligent and successful young people. They are excelling in ways I never could (and making mistakes I never made, but that’s growth, right?)
Part of it is letting them set the timing, the content and everything else about our conversations. I need to be there for them – but just in the way they need me. If I push, I lose that connection. That’s a bridge I treasure – the fact that my kids can confide in me is what I feel one of my biggest successes is.
Most of it though is about understanding. I listen to them, I work to understand them, and I recognize the divine shining through them. It’s hard work – but it’s the work that I have before me. I may as well enjoy trying to understand.
Barukh ata Adonay, Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al sfirat ha-omer.
Blessed are You, Adonay our God, ruler of the universe, who makes us holy with mitzvot and gives us this opportunity to count the Omer.
Today is the first day of the Omer!
Today is the day of khesed be khesed love within love, kindness within kindness.
I’m almost always kind and I certainly try. I’m always available to spend time with the people who need me, and I like that a lot, so that’s kind and so, I’m kind. After all, isn’t loving someone treating them the way I want to be treated? Love your neighbour as yourself and all that? Not like those cruel, unavailable people who do it just to annoy me. Except, they like space. And so they’re being kind by offering lots of space and not bothering me and think I’m cruel because I’m always there and never leave them alone. So, being kind? Who knows! Maybe being kind within kindness is just listening carefully enough to know what kindness would be for the person I’m with.
Today, I try to care for others the way they wish to be cared for, however odd that may seem to me.
Things end. Good things, beautiful things, things I really enjoy. Things that are good. Relationships, people, places to live in, all of it ends. It’s part of the changing nature of the universe. But it is hard on us. It makes the work we do seem so meaningless. What is the point of all the dishes? They just get dirty again. It’s all futile. In Kohelet, (Ecclesiastes) everything is described as hevel – a breath, a bit of air, nothingness, nonsense. It is the name of the first man murdered, according to the bible, since Abel has the same root. What’s the point of life, his name asks, if you can just be murdered at any point?
Things end, and I hate it. I clutch on to them with both hands, both feet and anything else. It can’t end! This can be salvaged, repaired, resuscitated. The problem is that refusing to accept an end – that’s one way to make a mistake according to the Jewish faith. That’s a way to do it wrong, or, if one accepts the Jewish definition of sin, to miss the target. It’s good to care for the way things are, if you’re Jewish. It’s good to love that and hold on to that, to cherish it and protect it. We are a religion of tradition and continuity, of preservation and safe-guarding. So, holding on is good – it’s an excellent target. However, if it is overdone – if one refuses to acknowledge the hevel, one can find oneself shooting a bit off-target, missing the mark and so, sinning.
Because it’s easy to get stuck. There’s a story about a boy that I read to my students last year – all he wanted to do was to build a snowman. It wasn’t effective, however, because that year was unseasonably warm and there was no snow where he was, month after month. He hadn’t been OK with there being no snow – with that particular end of a pattern of snow in winter. So, he tried to make snowmen out of inappropriate materials – like covering his sister with icing sugar or dumping hundreds of Styrofoam packing peanuts on the lawn and attempting to build with them. He got in trouble, not because there’s anything wrong with wanting to build a snowman but because it was impossible to do so right then and there and he had gotten so stuck that he was missing the mark.
The results can get ugly. This particular kid, when praised for the beautiful snowman he drew got so frustrated that it wasn’t the real thing that he tore his artwork into a bunch of tiny pieces. He didn’t even hear or recognize the praise he had gotten, because his head was full of the impossible, of something that had ended.
What I noticed, however, wasn’t these obvious ways he was missing the mark but the fact that the illustrator had carefully put in another problem with refusing to accept endings into the pictures that wasn’t in the story. Somewhere in the background, there were always kids having fun in other ways, from playing with fall leaves, to baking together, from playing board games to enjoying art. He could see none of that, he could participate in none of it because he was too busy holding on to the snowman he wanted. It ruined his snowman-making of the past, too. Those memories began to be filled with frustration and bitterness, instead of happy thoughts and positive nostalgia.
Endings are needed, much as I hate them, because they make way for beginnings. The year ends so a new one begins. My time in one place ends, so I can learn to live in a new place. An idea, a way of functioning must end so we can have space for a new thought or idea. This is not easy or fun – or always clear: is this a time to hold on to tradition, to be stubborn and persist, to repair? Or is this a time to let go and move on? Because while Kohelet is right and there’s a time for everything, he doesn’t necessarily say how to know what that time is.
So far, for me, there are no obvious answers. I’m a holder-on. I err on the side of tradition, if I can. I know I sometimes miss the mark when I do so. I think that the key is awareness – paying attention to the hints that the world is presenting. The reason I liked the snowman story is because the hint was nice and simple and obvious – there was no snow. One should not be focusing on snowmen when there is no snow. Simple. Most of the time, the hints are more subtle, and it’s harder to know whether this is an obstacle one can jump or a reason to turn back.
I am trying to listen to God – in whatever shape She chooses to tell me – for when it’s time to allow an ending. Through nature, through people, through my feelings, God (or intuition or whatever you will) communicates ending and I know I need to accept. The trick is to do so gracefully. Mostly, the best I can manage this Elul is to acknowledge how often I miss the mark, and try to turn away from those behaviours, to do teshuvah towards a path that includes paying attention to forks in the road and letting go of the ones that I pass and can’t take.
I’m a little bit crazy; I hear voices. Sometimes, I even talk back to them. According to the Jewish faith, we all hear voices. The yetzer ha-tov (good inclination) and yetzer ha-ra (evil inclination) speak to us constantly, suggesting courses of action and activities. They’re a bit like the angel and devil characters in those cartoon shows that sit on your shoulder and tell you what to do. They’re both necessary, even. The yetzer ha-ra is the source of passion and drive. The yetzer ha-tov however is the one we’re supposed to listen to. As a kid, I used to wonder what the big deal was. Clearly, you listen to the nice looking angel, avoid the scary looking devil character and all is good. Why would anyone have trouble once those two appeared? In fact, I deeply wished that they would appear and sit on my shoulders and make it obvious because I had a very hard time figuring out what to do and clear, out-loud directions would have been nice.
It was only years later that I realized that my problem was exactly the same as that of the cartoon character’s. I was having trouble deciding which of the voices in my head to listen to. And just like in the cartoons, the voices themselves make it more difficult. The angel voice is often very quiet. Sometimes, it’s a little whiny or naggy, interfering with a good time. Sometimes, it’s slow, pedantic and boring. Sometimes, it sounds desperate – and desperation is never pretty.
The devil voice, on the other hand, that one is pretty on the ball. It tells me that it’s perfectly OK to ignore my work, to indulge in habits and behaviours that I know to be unhealthy, to be selfish, to lie, to do the things that I know are comfortable and easy and wrong. It often sounds like a friend, like someone who would make my life happier. Occasionally, it is loud – so loud that the choice seems obvious – whatever will shut up the screaming is a good thing. No? You’ve never done that? Never given something to a screaming kid just to make the noise stop? Now, imagine that same noise in your head. How good would you be at saying no?
I’m not, very. Often I give in. I have to be pretty clear with myself to not listen to that voice of desire that masquerades as need. If I do tell the screaming to stop, it switches to persuasion. It can be pretty deceptive, too. It promises that this time, it’s going to be OK. This time, doing the dangerous thing will lead to success, not disaster. This time, I’ll be able to stop after only one cookie. It claims that this activity is something I deserve. After all, I’ve worked so hard (at ignoring this voice) and done so well (at not hearing it) that it’s OK to take a break. It slips in, suggesting, cajoling, and of course, if that doesn’t work, screaming when I least expect it. It waits until I’m exhausted, or frustrated, angry or depressed, overwhelmed or hurried. That’s when it comes up and promises relief.
I am rarely as strong as I need to be to make that yetzer ha-ra shut up. I, in particular, can’t win an argument with it. It’s a heck of a lot smarter than me from what I can tell, and it sabotages my arguments because that voice is part of me, and can use my arguments and ideas, intellect and wisdom against myself. And the yetzer ha-tov? What on earth is the angel voice doing? It’s a polite voice. If you don’t request its opinion, it won’t give it to you. It will talk quietly, and only when there’s space, and it won’t interrupt. It doesn’t win arguments because it doesn’t argue.
It seems like a ghastly, unfair battle. Of course the yetzer ha-ra is going to win. Every time. I’m shocked when it doesn’t, even. The battle steals a ton of resources. I could be doing dishes or sending out resumes, writing friends or learning something new. Instead, I’m just writing, praying, walking, or even just sitting there trying to get the yetzer ha-ra to shut up before it convinces me again. It’s a worthwhile battle though. Winning, however temporarily is fantastic. If I can manage to hear the right voice – if I listen with sufficient care to make the right choices – I win.
I can accomplish more. My mood is better. I, only for a moment, feel good about the choices I’m making. My confidence increases. And the yetzer ha-ra is less loud, just a little less, just for a bit. It comes back – mostly I succeed for only moments at a time – but for a while there was a space of actual quiet in my head. Then, the yetzer ha-ra goes on to scream even louder and the battle begins again.
It’s all I question of which of the voices in my head I hear. And so, I continue with the battle, knowing that I will hear better the one I listen to more.
Listening is a skill. It’s essential in relationships, and it’s one of the ones I fail to use over and over again. Why? Because as soon as there’s something said, my mind goes elsewhere. There’s defending myself after all. “What? Broken? I didn’t do it. I wasn’t there and if I was, I didn’t touch it, and if I did, it wasn’t a bad thing.” There’s relating and empathising. It’s good to relate and empathise, but it can totally take over.” You have a new pair of black shoes? Me too! Only mine are brown and I bought them last winter. What a coincidence!” There’s fixing. “If you feel sad, I know just what you need – cookies and a bubble bath. That cures anything, right?” Then, there’s judging – meaner but it’s there. “What do you mean you are having trouble with this task? Two year olds can take care of this task. What on earth is your problem?!” Meanwhile, who knows what the person is actually saying?
Of course, the skill to be able to quickly absorb what another person is saying, process it, and respond appropriately is important. It doesn’t do to be standing there going ‘um’ for half an hour while one tries to figure out what a person really meant. Leaving a space to truly listen in, however – that’s its own skill. If I don’t hear what another is saying, I will respond in a way that leaves him sad. He might have wanted a hug, and I offered a solution. Maybe he wanted me to celebrate his new shoes, not share in the fact that we both have them. Hearing not just the words but the meaning and more, the need behind the words, is something that I do way too rarely. It requires a pause, a deliberate lowering of defences, a willed focus and attention, and some patience. It requires interest in things that I’m not actually always interested in. (This will come as a shock to those who think you know me, but I actually have very little interest in shoes.)
It is an area for me to work in. Now, there are those who feel that this is something that I should have mastered long ago and that you have no problem in this area. You might be right. You might be an excellent listener and hear pretty much everything that a person is saying. What if the person isn’t all that good at saying things, though? What if she has trouble finding the words, speaks slowly, has a funny accent, isn’t always clear about her feelings or, heck, has no idea what her feelings are? Can you still hear her? Can you still understand her? This is an area where we can all improve – you know that. You’ve gotten judgement when you wanted understanding, and hugs when you needed solutions. I know I have.
This is an area where I can do t’shuva whole-heartedly. I know I need to listen better, to truly hear what the other is saying, to be able to understand what’s behind the words. I know that by taking time to focus on the people I’m talking to and to show an interest in what they say, I can improve my ability to hear them. I hope to improve on this skill this year, and thus, to be able to say, ‘wow, I was having trouble with that last year. I’m glad I worked on it’ when the topic comes up next. Maybe, if I listen carefully, I’ll hear something worth knowing.