So many of my mentors suggest that it is important to take stock of the things one is grateful for that I figure it's about time I share some of mine:
Less than complementary comments on things a person can't change at the moment should be avoided.
However, they occur, and all too often from those close to us. This comment is about how we react, and comes with a suggestion that we should not let another's words subvert our own intentions.
When I was teaching, I used to ask my students to choose my class. This is an incredibly grown up concept. I gave them this example:
You wake up one morning and you look about you and decide that your room is a mess. Not only that, today is the day you are going to do something about it.
So you spend the whole day thinking about how you are going to reorganize your room, what you are going to keep, what can go to your younger siblings, what boxes you are going to put stuff in, how you are going to make the space in your closet, where you are finally going to hang up that poster you just had to have.
You start wonderinig about all the stuff you have under the bed, what you seem to have lost that you might find again. Maybe you even figure on cleaning the window. While you are at it, you think about how much you'd really like to paint your room, but first things first.
School ends and the plan is in place. You're already thinking how nice it will be to get to your bed without tripping over stuff. Maybe you'll even figure out where that trail of ants is leading or that funny smell is coming from. The thought "Won't my mother be surprised" even crosses your mind.
You get home, grab a snack from the kitchen and run into your mother.
"How was your day?" she asks.
"Fine." (You're a teenager after all.)
"None to speak of."
"You seem happy with yourself today. What's up?"
"Not too much really. How was your day?"
"Well, I'll tell you how my day was. I needed a phone. The portable that was supposed to end up on the charger last night was dead on the coffee table in front of the TV. So I paged the other one, and after searching for I don't know how long, I finally heard a faint beeping when I opened the door to your room. I almost killed myself trying to get to your bed."
You: "It's funny you should mention that, I was going to . . . "
"Going to what? There was one bar left on the phone. Do you have any idea how important that call was? Do you know that there is a trail of ants in your rooom eating who knows what from I don't know what rotting food that must be."
"But mom, I was just telling you . . . "
"What? No, I'll tell you. Give me your phone. I don't want to see you again until your room is spic and span, and no more of this shoving stuff under your bed. No TV, no dinner, I don't want to see you. Do you know how much junk you have in there?
So what? What was it you wanted to tell me? You've wasted enough of my time. Out with it. WHAT?!!!"
"Come on, out with it already."
"It's nothing really."
"Yeah, that's what I figured."
Here is this kid who wanted to make his own world, and even his mother's, a better place, and who's now sitting in his room thinking "How f@$%ing unfair." So he gets on the computer to tell his friends, only to find he's been locked out. "What a b$%^&."
He clears a path, and half way through stuffing all the stuff from under his bed into his closet, he gives up. The prospect of the satisfaction he anticipated from having his room as he wanted has evaporated. While before he had anticipated surprising his mother, now he can't give her the f-ing satisfaction.
With my students, I ended this with a request to choose my class in spite of all the idiots telling them they had better be there, and creating all sorts of coercive mechanisms to try to force them to learn. How much different a class could be if all of the students chose to be there instead of making rational decisions about how much they needed to do to get the result that would serve their purposes.
So, I told a friend (we're well into our forties now) to stop making her father wrong and let him love her. Our parents know how to push our buttons. They put most of them there, but we can choose how to react.
"My, you've gotten fat" came up as an example. There is no knowing all that is behind a comment like this, but boy are we good at coming up with evil motives. My friend's context is a conversation called "My father treats me (and my sisters) as lesser human beings." Perhaps the comment is taken as evidence of his objectification of women, or of him judging them on a basis other than intrinsic values. Perhaps he is simply and irredeemably stuck in the dark ages. He is a little bit more conservative than they.
But I wonder if we can be a little more honest with our reactions. What's his sin? He said out loud that which she might have said to herself in front of the mirror that morning. Her response - likely unverbalized - was probably something like: "Oh shit, why do you always do that. Why can't you just accept me as I am?" and her reactions from there on out might have come from "Well, if that's all you can think to say, I'll show you!"
What if her sister, best friend, husband, or even I - a distant friend from many years past - had said such a thing? The response might have been, "Dammit I know. My weight's been creeping up and I really don't know what I've been doing differently. Got any ideas?"
I can't imagine anyone who could be more committed to her than her father. That said, I am a guy, and I know we can do and say some pretty stupid things. Some of us missed the training on tact and sensitivity. We say things like "My, you've gotten fat" when we mean "Where is that bubbly happy girl I used to know? I hope she's not depressed," and somewhere under that is "I don't know what the f- to say. I wish she'd friggin' talk to me. If she'd only tell me what I did so I can apologize," or "Doesn't she get I only want the best for her? I wish I could find the words," or "I give up, she won't let me in anyway."
So first, I am here to apologize on behalf of my sex. I am sorry, we should know better and be more sensitive. We should get that our comments can hurt and distance. We should admit our own pain in realizing the distance that has come between us, acknowledge that and take responsibility for it. We are slowly becoming aware of this, and ask your forgiveness and patience as we work through this.
In the meantime, know that we love you with all our hearts and only want the best for you. Sometimes our ideas and yours of what is best differ. Our ideas come from our experiences. We get that they differ from yours. We ask again your forbearance, but also that you take on that there might be some wisdom there. We have learned things too, and are still learning, we are a little slower than we used to be.
Second, please get that the people who raised us are just as screwed up as we are. They are still someone else's hurt little child who never heard the stuff we wish they'd say to us, and just don't know how to say it. And now here are we - presumably as adults - and demand that they grow up so that we can complete our childhood. Perhaps instead we should grow up so our parents can complete theirs.
I publish this one for my boy Yaakov (see below). I really ought to put up a picture of him. You see last week, his school took his class to Tel Chai for Shabbat. He rolled in after ten o'clock in at night. He was tired, so he asked us if he could stay home the next day. We said sure. He's a great young man, responsible about school, caring and all that, and if he says he'd like a day off, we generally have no problem with it. So he slept in and took it easy. The next day he went back to school. Apparently, a third of his class saw fit to take Sunday off, and his teacher got pissed, so he gave them all detention. When Yaakov called me at three on Monday to let me know he'd be home late, I was livid. I told him to get on the damned bus and disregard the detention and told him, "we've got his back."
His response was that they would then make him stay the next day. I told him we would not stand it if he chose not to. He stayed anyway. I guess sometimes it seems easier to go with the flow. There are any number of my friends who will tell you I don't necessarily choose the easy way, and I suppose I was asking Yakov to choose the path of greater resistance, but I think there is an important lesson to be learned in standing up against even these small injustices, and too much of this kind of shtick goes on in his school.
I share the following as an object lesson. My friend Gunther lives in southern Germany, and has made a bit of noise fighting against his and the Swiss governments' plans and agreements to let the Zurich airport use southern German airspace for planes in holding patterns, this in large part to meet more stringent noise pollution rules in Switzerland. But whether it is an airport doing regularly what is only supposed to be done in limited circumstances, or a school imposing unjust and arbitrary punishments for students taking care of themselves, the principal is the same, Sometimes You Just Ought to Make Some Noise. As uncomfortable as it may look from the outset, your quality of life, and perhaps the quality of all human life, is at stake.
In Support of My Friend and Fellow Rabble-Rouser, Gunther Volk
David R. HerzApril 16, 2012
I write because my friend and fellow noise-maker, Gunther Volk, and I recently had a discussion. Mr. Volk lamented that Germans are too quick to submit to authority and to believe that that authority has the best interests of the populace at heart. Indeed, my friend Mr. Volk has his own issues with those who hold positions of public trust because he does not keep his mouth shut when he has something to contribute. Not only does he think, but he exercises the freedom to express those thoughts.
I think this is good, but it apparently rubs against a certain German sense of order. The more I have thought about this, the more I have concluded that Germany, Europe, and the world have failed to learn the lessons of the last great war, and indeed all of human history. These lessons are quite simple:
People seem to have an incredible lack of imagination, or historic memory. It is very difficult for them to see from another’s viewpoint. The dominant view of Western thought is “live and let live.” We believe in individual rights and freedoms, coupled with varying degrees of responsibility and mutual assistance on a broad spectrum from the libertarian out to the limits of the socialist democracy. We argue vociferously about every nuance within this spectrum, but are not generally offended by any balance chosen within it.
Our problem is that we want to believe that the world falls within this spectrum, and that flashes of violence represent transient and limited aberrations, that we have grown and are somehow unlike the generations that came and pursued war before us. We see the tenderness with which an evil person can treat his child, or the tear that person sheds, and want to believe that person is no different than we are. We can not fathom that a person could see our tears and our own dead and hand out candies to celebrate.
We do not wish to admit that people hate, that they would sacrifice their cousins, their brothers and sisters, and even their children to serve their hate, to prove they are right, and to force the world into their belief system. We especially do not like to admit to that kernel of evil that is resident within ourselves. We would rather attribute the atrocities of our forebears - the colonization, exploitation, slavery, acts of genocide, or standing idle witness thereto - to their particular circumstances or the Weltanschauung dominant in their time, than to admit that it was their nature, our nature, and the nature of humankind that made it possible. We justify our our own hate and prejudice by finding fault in the other. It is difficult to imagine that we could have perpetrated and tolerated the evil we have if there weren’t some underlying reason for it. So we stand by and let it grow again, and again, and again.
So what does this have to do with my friend Mr. Volk. Fortunately, his mother impressed upon him quite early on that one does not stand idly by and watch when injustice occurs. Recently, he has taken on what some may see as a small injustice. Zurich airport wants planes to fly their holding patterns over his part of Germany, meeting noise and pollution requirements in their own country by exporting their pollution to Germany. He related a comment that was made to him. A woman sympathetic to his cause said “I could never do what you are doing.” She could not take a stand against the figurative dumping of another country’s garbage in her own back yard, which I can not imagine to have been a particularly divisive issue on her home turf. I had to wonder who then would have taken it on if Mr. Volk had not?
We have a tolerance for a certain amount of injustice. But what level of injustice would have been enough to exercise this lady? Or would increased injustice just bring increased oppression that only the most courageous and heroic of us would fight against? Life gains purpose and meaning when we stand up to injustice, big or small. Mr. Volk has learned this and has a better life for it. Indeed, everyone in the fly-over zone has had a better life because of his big mouth. Moreover, knowing he has nothing to fear from opening his mouth gives him the strength to stand up when the issues are bigger.
My invitation to the German people - and the rest of the world for that matter - is to take in this an object lesson. Stand up to authority. It is not always on your side. For the sake of our collective future, open your mouths about the little things. If you do, you will be ready when the bigger ones come along. Confront the injustice that is in front of you today and you will not again fall prey to the hate and prejudice that consumes whole societies. If you fail to do so, the way is open for evil to flourish again.
Evil can not be appeased.