Seeing the other side
By: Paula Levin
“It starts with the realisation that certain things are either someone else’s business or G-d’s business. And there’s not one thing we can do about that.”
The Jewish New Year starts with the month of Tishrei, symbolised by the Zodiac sign of the scales of justice and the first day of the new year is known as Yom Hadin, Judgement Day for all humanity. On Rosh Hashanah, Hashem weighs our deeds and determines what resources we need for the coming year, based on myriad factors only He knows. Why then do so many of us spend our time judging each other?
American author and healer Byron Katie teaches that she’s searched high and low but she’s only ever been able to find three kinds of business in this life: “Your business, their business, and G-d’s business.” We tend to get very involved in other people’s business – what they should or should not be doing, thinking and feeling, and we also have strong opinions about G-d’s business, disagreeing with how He runs the universe. The last place we think we need to focus on is ourselves. As we stand before G-d at the start of the new Jewish year, let’s explore how to let go of everyone else’s business, including G-d’s, and get busy with our own purpose.
One of the most radical sentences I’ve ever come across in my life was when Dr Edith Eger, Auschwitz survivor, wrote in her book The Choice that she forgives Hitler, (may his name be erased). I’m sure I’m not the only reader who felt bewildered, outraged, and disapproving. How dare she? How could she forgive the unforgivable? Was she condoning what he did? Was she excusing it? Was she letting him off the hook for the consequences of his actions? She was doing none of those things. None of those things were her business to do. She was, however, letting go of a decades-long war with reality. The reality that Hitler orchestrated the murder of 6 million, including her parents. She realised the futility of wrestling with what had already happened. That’s G-d’s business. Edie let go of the need for the past to change. So that she could truly live. And if she can do it, in the most extreme of situations, aren’t we all capable of letting go of everything that’s not ours to carry?
All suffering is a result of resisting what is; arguing with reality. It’s trying to change the unchangeable. We expend our energy fighting reality, when that energy could be channelled into the choices that actually are available to us. It starts with letting go of the imaginary hold we have over things out of our control. It starts with the realisation that certain things are either someone else’s business or G-d’s business. And there’s not one thing we can do about that.
Changing our Minds
So, what can we do? We can examine our own thinking, question our own reality, and try out different ways of thinking like we might try on different clothing. “It’s impossible to create a solution with the same brain that created the problem,” says clinical psychologist Judy Alter. “We have to be able to move into a new headspace, without denying the emotions and experience that we feel. Acknowledging all the emotions we feel is how we move past them. But acknowledging our pain, hurt, anger is not the same as expressing every emotion or thought we have! Words are powerful, and they can never be taken back,” she warns. “We have to constantly work on regulating our emotions so that we don’t lash out in pain, causing more pain to ourselves and someone else.”
“Wars should be fought on paper,” says Byron Katie. So feel free to feel all the ugly, petty, vindictive, unkind, unfair emotions you really do feel – in your own journal. Katie recommends asking yourself four questions to fully process all these emotions and then move to a higher, deeper truth, one that sets you free from all the negativity and toxicity that your own thinking about the situation produced. The process is called ‘The Work’, and a detailed description is freely available on Katie’s website. It’s a process employed by millions of people worldwide, as a way to access new, fresh thinking that liberates them from conflict.
Start by noticing who or what is upsetting you, recalling a specific situation. Capture your stressful thoughts about the person in short sentences, on paper, using Katie’s ‘Judge your Neighbour’ worksheet. Now tackle each thought with the following four questions, listening quietly and intently to your own deepest truth when answering. “Is it true? Can you absolutely know this is true? How do you react, what happens when you believe that thought? Who would you be without that thought? Now turn the thought around. Can the opposite thought and other variations be true and bring you peace instead of pain?
“We all have triggers, a button that, when pushed, unleashes the stuff that has been simmering underneath the surface,” says Judi. “Triggers evoke old traumas and memories we may not even be aware of or remember, but that we feel deeply on a sensory level. The traumatic experiences they trigger are generally not small, and that’s why we are suddenly flooded with emotion. It takes awareness to know what is likely to trigger us, and to be mindful of when we are triggered. But it’s critical that we don’t try to have difficult conversations when we’re not thinking clearly. My friend recommends the three S’s. Have a sandwich, take a shower, go to sleep – before attempting to confront someone. This gives our brains time to move out of fight or flight mode and access the wisdom we need to see the other person’s perspective, and to share ours respectfully.” The funny thing is that most of us secretly think we are better and know better than the next person! “This is called the Dunning-Kruger effect. It’s a cognitive bias we have that leads us to overestimate our own ability and knowledge, while underestimating others,” Judy says. “It helps to know that this might be the reason we are not giving someone the benefit of the doubt – that their actions make perfect sense within their reality. Just as yours do.”
Chazal say that not since Korach’s dispute with Moshe has anyone been 100% right – as Moshe was – nor 100% wrong – as was Korach. This is helpful to remember in order to adopt a position that allows us to see a situation through another’s eyes. “We are guaranteed to see things totally differently to other people, and that’s a good thing!” says Judi. “That’s what makes relationships so enriching and stimulating. Healthy conflict is normal and good. Conflict resolution can strengthen relationships, allowing us to be aware of what we care about, where our boundaries lie. Suppressing our truth creates co-dependency and health problems. But fighting is destructive – whoever punches hardest wins. Healthy conflict aims at a mutual best interest resolution for both people.”
If this all feels too abstract, it doesn’t get more concrete than the disputes attorney Riva Lange helps mediate, where parties move from anger and belligerence to acceptance and a sense of peace and fairness. “Mediation is not just helpful for money matters,” she says. “It’s useful any time there is a dispute; between parents, spouses, co-workers, siblings, or anyone. Mediation is a process where both parties are willing to give up some of their ‘rights’, to gain something that helps them to move forward. It’s not about rights, it’s about solutions and compromise.” This means it’s not how something should be, it’s how it is. Embracing the messy reality that is life!
“Often parties in a dispute start out with a fixed position, unable to see anything but what they believe they are entitled to get out. This, however, doesn’t leave room for considering the nuances in the dispute and the law. “I draw on my training as a certified but non-practicing life coach as well as my mediation training to try and assist the parties to reach an outcome they can both accept. One of the tools in my toolbox is to ask open ended questions to help parties challenge their own assumptions and beliefs. There are always alternative ways of looking at something that are just as, or even sometimes more true,” she shares. “The parties need to consider the bigger picture, the wider impact of their dispute, and to remember that often there’s more at stake than their own individual happiness. The parties have to extend themselves to meet the other party halfway.”
The process of mediation requires flexible thinking, opening the door a tiny crack to allow for new possibilities. “I am an attorney, but I believe firmly that litigation should generally be the last resort. In litigation, on the surface, one party wins and the other loses. The reality is though that both parties lose in the grander scheme of life. In mediation, neither party is “the winner”; they both give up something in order to reach a fair settlement, but in the losing they gain a sense of fairness, a feeling of having resolved the matter in a way where neither got exactly what they wanted, which means they can both live with the outcome free from bitterness. Litigation can take years to finalise, enough time for the dispute to become the defining factor of the parties’ entire life and identity! It rarely leaves anyone happy, not even the winners, or the lawyers collecting the fees.” Whilst you don’t have to go to a professional mediator, the advantage to doing so is that a professional can guarantee confidentiality which gives the negotiation a sense of safety and is specifically trained in mediation. As long as both parties trust that the mediator is non-partisan and has both parties’ interests at heart, it is possible for parties to appoint a rabbi, a counsellor, or anyone else whom both parties respect. It is not recommended to ask a friend to mediate as one of the core principles in mediation is that the mediator is non-partisan…”
We have a tradition that the Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred, an example of which was “they established their rulings on the basis of Torah law and did not go beyond the letter of the law”. The commentators ask, how can this be something negative? After all, a judge cannot rule or force a litigant to go beyond the letter of the law. One explanation is that it’s up to the litigants to be willing to find a compromise and go beyond the letter of the law. Baseless hatred is the reason for unwillingness to extend oneself. Rabbi Dovi Rabin spoke recently about how to navigate a conflict with another person, drawing on the template of Moshe and Korach’s dispute. “The pasuk clearly says that Moshe listened, ‘vayishma’. Even though Korach was wrong and Moshe was the greatest person alive, he still listened. Moshe was renowned for his humility, and it is this quality that we need to cultivate to truly make a space to hear someone else. If Moshe could take the time to listen to someone like Korach, we all can give others the space to speak!” says Rabbi Dovi.
When it comes to completely non-judgemental acceptance of people on their own terms, I think many Chabad shluchim truly set the bar, somehow able to keep on giving and investing with no expectations. How do they do it? How do they leave the judgement to G-d, when year after year they may see no results from their efforts – if ever? I decided to ask Rabbi Shlomo Wainer, Chabad Shaliach to Umhlanga, who has travelled up and down the coast for over 30 years, just to be there for strangers or community members in need. “If the phone rings and someone is in crisis, I need to be there for them straight away. I can’t be an aeroplane ride away,” says Rabbi Wainer. This commitment means living far from his family and separated from them every Shabbos. Rabbi Wainer has seen first-hand the power of love, tolerance, and respect to create miracles no one expects. “I used to visit a couple who lived in Munster. The lady was married to a non-Jewish spouse and I would go there and chat to them, blow shofar, bring matzos, and put up mezuzas without judging the fact that he was not Jewish. For 15 years I treated both of them with kindness, tolerance, and respect. When she passed away, she was supposed to be cremated. Her husband told me that even though he knew it meant that he would never be able to be buried next to her in a Jewish cemetery, he wanted her to have a full Jewish burial in Johannesburg. This showed enormous self-sacrifice. He respected that her Judaism had become important to her.”
Rabbi Wainer believes that the ability to treat everyone with tolerance, empathy, and respect is universal. It’s built into us, but sometimes we have to peel back the layers. “Goodness is always there beneath the surface, and as Chabadniks, we go looking for it. My kids know, whether we’re on the boardwalk, in the mall, or wherever, we are always looking to help someone out. And to give them the chance to do a mitzvah and access their own essence. The Ari’s siddur opens with a declaration of intention we say before we daven. ‘I accept the positive commandment to love my fellow as I love myself.’ That’s the way to start each day, whether conflict comes up or not.”
“I’m inspired by what the Torah says about Aharon Hakohen. He loved all creatures, and brought them closer to Torah. This means that he loved, because he recognised everything and everyone as a creation of Hashem. Loving people is how we learn to love Hashem unconditionally, and vice versa. It’s something we can all do. And we have to make sure that our relationship with Hashem makes us more loving of other people. If it creates distance – that’s how you know you’re off course. Our love of Hashem should compel us to relate better to the next person. Chapter 32 of the Alter Rebbe’s book, Tanya, teaches we need to love our fellows like Aharon did. Not because of their stature or for any reason, but because they are created by Hashem. This doesn’t mean we must let people take advantage of us or be a doormat. My Rosh Yeshiva told me that Africa is a place where the energy of Chesed is particularly strong. We naturally want to do kindness for someone else. But kindness has to be channelled in one of two ways. Either to “him”, which is the word “lo”, spelled lamed vav, or “lo”, spelled lamed alef – which means no. Alef has the numerical value of one, and represents Hashem who is one. Sometimes kindness means we have to say no, when this is the right thing to do.”
I asked Rabbi Wainer how he personally navigates conflict and he said that he heard the Lubavitcher Rebbe say that it is more important to be kind than to be right – words by which he tries to live. “After the holocaust, the Rebbe said that if Hitler could search for every last Jew out of hatred, we must do it out of love. That means leaving all judgement behind. A story is told about the 6th Rebbe. He was at a seder in 1949 and suddenly there was a commotion. Some people were dipping their matzas in beetroot, which is contrary to the Chabad custom not to wet the matzos. The Rebbe said, “Rather red matzos than red faces.”
Rabbi Wainer is concerned that people have become more suspicious and judgemental of each other in recent times. “This is not our natural position. There is so much goodness out there. You just have to open your eyes. We had a story of a non-Jew who saw two of our bochrim stranded at the airport having missed their flight. He not only bought them new tickets, he also gave them the keys to his car parked at the airport, so they could get to shul by Yom Tov. And after Yom Tov, he refused to be reimbursed!” So, as we enter 5784, let’s leave the judgement and faribles behind us, and stop looking for solutions in the past. In this new year where we can be anything – let’s be kind.
[In a box]
How to tell if you’re triggered
A trigger is an experience in the present that puts us in touch with a previous trauma. When triggered we are hostage to our emotions. Wait till the dust settles before engaging!
I feel flooded with emotion, anger, sadness, pain, rage, etc.
I feel hot and flushed
I feel nauseous
My heart is pounding
My hands are shaking
I can’t think straight
I am thinking in a loop
I’m caught up in self righteousness
I can’t see the other person’s point of view
My survival feels threatened
My thinking is catastrophic
I’m thinking in absolute terms like he always, she never…