Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
“When the reception goes down, the volume goes up.” These were the sage words of one of my honored teachers some years ago in a lesson about communicating with loved ones. I imagine it’s easy for most of us to resonate with the message that when we don’t feel heard, we might become frustrated, raise our voices and even act out. Then, even though the flow of words might continue – even with increasing force – pretty much all communication ceases. How much better we can communicate when instead of raising the volume, we choose to “tune in.” But that’s pretty difficult to do in the moment of passion and hurt feelings.
Why in the world can it be so difficult to learn a more loving approach so we can be better understood, or better understand others? Maybe it’s because in the moment of miscommunication we can misunderstand ourselves and why we react the way we do.
It really seems ironic that in an age that ostensibly values the expression of emotions, we can still have little grasp on what we are really feeling. We might, in a lucid moment, know that some “button” is being pushed, but which one – and why? We may even be aware that we are pushing on someone else’s tender spots, and have no inkling why we are doing so. Are we feeling anxious? Fearful? Isolated? Frustrated? Angry? Do we “simply” want to be understood – or do we sometimes want others to feel as badly as we do?
Can we fully express love when in that state of being? Maybe. Or maybe not. Much of it come down to the iconic teaching: “love your neighbor as yourself.” And our sages teach us that, of course, we have to love ourselves in order to fulfill this emotionally and spiritually demanding mitzvah. Perhaps even more demanding is the meta-message. The Chasidic Master, the Ba’al Shem Tov, relates:
“Your fellow is your mirror. If your own face is clean, so will be the image you perceive. But should you look upon your fellow and see a blemish, it is your own imperfection that you are encountering — you are being shown what it is that you must correct within yourself.”
This may not be very comforting advice when we are feeling put-upon by someone who has inspired us to raise our hackles… yet, it is the very inspiration for healing – because the object of our attention may be feeling just as unheard and misunderstood as we are.
There is a wonderful technique for breaking the cycle of misunderstanding, and that is to stop – and listen and reflect on what is being said. Not what we want to think the other person is saying, but to what is really being expressed without the overlay of our personal baggage. This is no mean feat when we feel unheard, yet, if we can pause to listen to the other person, we may also hear more clearly our own hearts revealing what we are feeling – and why. Then, we can determine how we can love ourselves well enough that we will not need to find fault in our neighbors.