Most people assume that if they “get it right” most of the time, they’ll succeed in life. Getting it right may refer to how they interact with friends, spouses, and children. However, it also refers to their performance of Mitzvohs. Their logic is that since no one is perfect, people should be judged by others and Hashem, based on whether they do more good than bad. Most people assume that they’ll be liked and respected based on the sum total of their actions. If most of their actions are in accordance with social norms they’ll be accepted and appreciated for who they are. They believe that Hashem will also react kindly to them if they do more good than bad.
In many cases this is correct. People generally overlook and forgive isolated incidents, but there are exceptions to this rule.
1) For instance, there’s a spouse, usually a husband, who’s a wonderful, caring, person, and generally helps his wife when he’s able. However, he has one fault, an explosive temper. He doesn’t hit or throw things, but he has a tantrum and “loses it”.
In his mind, these outbursts take place once a month and only last for minutes. He thinks these outbreaks shouldn’t affect how his spouse, and children, treat him. However, he often finds himself alienated from them. They seem uncomfortable around him, and never seem to let him in their “inner circle”. He’s often unaware of this reaction, and believes that they’re mean and dislike him for no reason. His family assumes that he’s aware of how they affect them emotionally and therefore, they never tell him how much they affect their ability to have a warm relationship with him. In many cases, even they’re unaware of how much his outbursts taint their relationship and feeling towards him.
Why do these infrequent outbursts affect the relationships so strongly? Although they may only last 10 minutes, the family who’re affected go through many emotions, including frightened, hurt, and angry. More importantly, they become distanced from him. They don’t want to be emotionally involved with someone who’s directing such a strong, negative, emotion, towards them. They feel a need to distance themselves in order to protect themselves from being hurt again. Being mistreated by someone about whom they care, hurts more than being mistreated by someone about whom they don’t care. The need to protect themselves is so strong, that it lasts for days and weeks.
After a few weeks the need to distance themselves begins to wane, and they again feel comfortable being close to him. However, a few days later they experience another outburst. After several such cycles, the relationship becomes permanently damaged. Those around the volatile husband/father are tired of his “on off” personality, and will keep themselves distanced until they sense real change.
What makes this illustration complicated is the multiple unspoken thoughts of all the parties involved (husband, wife, children). The husband, having the outbursts, believes that, even if they’re extreme, they should be quickly forgotten. They happened, he felt badly about them, and apologized, either directly, or by being nice for the next few days. However, those around him feel very differently. The volatile husband can’t even imagine how badly scarred they’ve become. When they tell him that they’re scarred, his inability to believe them convinces him that they’re stubborn, and that it’s they, not he, who must improve on their character. What he can’t imagine is that they can “work” on forgiving, but they can’t forget.
Volatile people believe that their legitimate grievances cause the outbursts. They would like others to see them, as they see themselves, as victims of circumstances, and not as volatile. However, the victims feel helpless and abused. They become resentful of his invoking the victim label for himself, when it is they who’re clearly the victims.
2) Other people may not have outbursts, but when they’re under extreme pressure, they’ll make shocking comments. These are comments that they don’t really believe to be true, but offer enough emotion, to anger, embarrass, or reject, someone. Examples include: “If we didn’t have children, I’d divorce you”. “When I become 18 I’m leaving Frumkeit”. They’re only concerned with angering or scarring the ones to whom they’re talking. They don’t actually believe what they’re saying. The comments are often joined by some action, such as throwing away their wedding ring, or Yarmulka, as they make their proclamations.
Once they calm down, they believe that their victims will appreciate that their actions were a personal need to let off steam, and had nothing to do with anyone else. For personal reasons, they were in a bad mood. Nevertheless, others were greatly affected by their comments and, depending on the circumstances, the word traumatized may be applicable. They remain unaware of how the rest of the family feels, and are in shock at how alienated they’ve become from the rest of the family.
3) Still others may act in a manner that challenges their loyalty to their spouse or children. They may not speak to their spouse for days because of some argument. The spouse feels more than hurt. Not speaking, may be so hurtful that it’s interpreted as an act of betrayal. In marriage there are many unspoken rules. One of them is that spouses will always be “fair” to each other, even during extreme arguments. Many spouses combine this silent treatment with the claim that they’re not upset or ignoring their spouse. This is construed as “lying” and is interpreted as another act of betrayal.
Breaking unspoken rules is not treated as isolated incidents. They define the relationships. The spouse that’s hurt will not forget even a small incident. Although the incident may not be repeated for weeks, the hurt spouse will see this new incident as a constant act of betrayal.
4) There are individual actions which have much broader and longer effects. People who’re trying to grow in Avodas (serving) Hashem may find that a single Aveiroh (sin) can set them back for days or weeks, and overturn all the good they did during the previous time.
An awareness of how others perceive their actions or, in the case of Avodas Hashem, how people perceive their own actions, will help them avoid many problems. An awareness that those 10 minutes will weigh heavily on their lives and will last for weeks, or months, may be an effective deterrent. However, this requires them to go beyond their resentment against others who may hold an “unfair grudge”, and appreciate that their own actions may have significant effects on others.
Rabbi Shmuel Gluck is director of Areivim, a teen crisis intervention center. R. Gluck’s articles are widely published in the Torah Chinuch world. For previous articles or for speaking engagements you can contact R. Gluck at Areivim: www.areivim.com 845-371-2760 E-mail: [email protected].
(Rabbi Shmuel Gluck – YWN)