Sensitivity training – Putting ourselves in the shoes of others

Father and son

By: Shmuel Horwitz

“Nu…so when is it gonna be your turn?” asks an elderly cousin. “Come on already, time is moving on”, comments your best friend’s grandmother. Sound familiar? Or how about this one: a new mother is talking to her friend in the queue at the grocery store and complains, “I was up until 4 am with my baby. I’m so exhausted. It’s just so difficult sometimes.” Sounds relatively innocent, right? Not when it’s overheard by a woman standing behind them in the queue who has been struggling to fall pregnant for many years and only wishes she could be waking up in the early hours of the morning to take care of a child. Or this one: young David is distraught that his family has decided not to go on their annual upmarket summer holiday to Cape Town, and will have to settle instead for a visit to Durban. David complains to his friend Ariel about how unfair it is, but what David doesn’t know is that Ariel’s family struggles to make ends meet and hasn’t been on a family holiday in the last five years. Ariel is left feeling wretched and heartbroken.

A few years ago, I heard a shiur from Rabbi Yissachar Frand[1] on the topic of increasing our sensitivity to the situations of others. He spoke about how offhand comments like those above, although not laden with any sort of malicious intent, can profoundly hurt the people who hear them.

The Torah says that when the angels of Hashem conveyed the message to Sarah that she was going to be blessed with a child, she laughed and asked how it could be that she and her husband, Avraham, could be blessed with a child when they were both so old. When Hashem spoke to Avraham regarding the matter, however, He only mentioned Sarah’s reference to her own age, leaving out her comment about Avraham’s age. Rashi explains that the reason Hashem omitted this information was to spare Avraham’s feelings. Avraham was 99 years old and it was a huge miracle that he and Sarah would be blessed with a child. What could have been so wrong in conveying the truth to him? And yet Hashem was extremely sensitive to his feelings and avoided causing him any pain.[2]

It’s a mitzvah to emulate Hashem, who has taught us by His example to be sensitive and compassionate to the feelings of other people at all times. Hashem shares the burden and the pain of his people; He is with us in our times of need. Likewise, we need to commiserate, to empathise, and to share the burden of others. Hashem visits the sick, comforts the bereaved, buries the dead, and so on, and so must we. We need to feel the pain of others. So how do we feel someone’s pain? Rabbi Frand explains that we must use the gift of our imagination to imagine what it is like to be in someone else’s position. We have to imagine how we would want to be spoken to and how we would wish things were handled if we were in such a position.

To illustrate his point, Rabbi Frand tells the story of the incredible sensitivity demonstrated by a holocaust survivor who would intentionally make a point of saying goodbye to his grandchildren and kissing them in the stairwell of his apartment building, rather than doing so outside on the street, because he realised the pain it might cause other survivors who did not have children or grandchildren to speak of, and might witness this and become upset. So, to spare them the possibility of such pain, he kept his own joy private. This is what it means to feel someone else’s pain and put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.

He tells another story of a yeshiva where, on a Thursday night, a vender would come to sell flowers so the boys could bring them home for their mothers in honour of Shabbos. One young man started to approach the vender a couple of times, but then proceeded on each occasion to turn and walk suddenly away, until finally, on his third pass, he approached the vender and purchased some flowers. The vender, whose curiosity had been piqued, naturally asked the young man, “Why didn’t you just come over the first couple of times that you passed by?” The young man answered, “There’s a boy in the yeshiva who just lost his mother, so he has no mother to buy flowers for. I didn’t want to buy flowers in front of him and remind him that he doesn’t have a mother.”

Like these examples, we need to work on putting others at the forefront of our minds and be more sensitive to and aware of what they may be feeling and going through at any given moment. Rabbi Frand offers a list of don’ts and dos, noting that although some of them may seem rather obvious, they still need to be said: Don’t speak about your children in front of people who don’t yet have children. Don’t ask an older single when he’s going to get married. Don’t complain about the stress of making a marriage in front of a mother struggling to marry off her child. Don’t try to explain to someone why his loved one died.

So, what should we be doing? Feel the pain of others and make it our own. It’s not necessarily about finding the right words, as just sitting with someone who is lonely, without speaking at all, can be a comfort to a person. We can also make a point of listening to others. Not every situation has simple solutions, and sometimes suggesting a solution can even do more harm than good. Just listening and letting someone know that we care, showing sensitivity to the difficulties that someone else is facing, and “being there” for him, can do wonders. Moreover, a simple caring action, like sending a meal to someone, can also express the sentiment: you are not alone. Finally, we can daven for people – for a job, or a shidduch, or a baby, or to be healed from an illness, or whatever else they may need.

Please G-d, may all of the difficulties that we face, both individually and collectively, come to a speedy resolution and may we know only simchas.

Mazel tov to Sara Gila Margulies and her family on the birth of a baby. She is presently on maternity leave.

  1. “Choosing to Care”, which can be viewed at: goo.gl/VkJhUF
  2. Based on Chofetz Chaim – A Daily Companion arranged by Rav Yehudah Zev Segal, ztl (Manchester Rosh Yeshiva)

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