The Cost Of Love

love lostPeople who know me well, know I tend to be a loving person.  I am also a sensitive person, at times, too sensitive.  It’s both a blessing and a curse.  It’s a blessing in that I find it easy to show and express my love for people.  A curse, in that I get my feelings hurt too easily.

I have tried to shield myself from getting hurt by expressing lack of concern or caring, but it isn’t really true. I do care, very deeply, about the people I love, and the things that matter to me.  I have spent my life caring about people, and about doing the things I believe matter.  The result has been that I have gotten hurt many times.

I often wonder what I can do about it.  I can’t just stop caring.  It isn’t in me not to care.  It isn’t other people’s fault.  They are who and what they are.  If I stop caring, it would change who I am into a person I don’t wish to be.  I have taught that what other people do is not what matters, but how we respond to what others do or say is what matters, because, after all, that involves our actions and choices.

I have tried to not care, but that doesn’t work.  I know from long experience that arguing doesn’t work either.  What I have come to, is to accept the cost.  If I want love, I have to be willing to pay the cost of love. People I don’t care about really can’t hurt me.  You have to open yourself to people if you want to experience love.  If you don’t open yourself to them, you will never experience love.  It means the people whom you love the most have the potential for hurting you the most. It means being willing to get your feelings hurt from time to time.  Those feelings will eventually subside.  If you don’t pay the price, you cheat yourself out of relationships with the ones you love.  

Love is a risk. Not loving involves no risk, but it means loneliness.  I would rather take the risk, and have the relationships.  In my life, I’ve endured pain and disappointments. They are part of life.  Its like the old adage by Lord Alfred Tennyson, “It’s better to have loved and lost, than to have never loved at all.”

So what can you do about your feelings? The feelings we experience come and go.  We eventually get over them if we are willing to let go of them.  Remember that your love for others is what matters.  Love is a rare commodity in the world.  People are not so quick to throw it away.  Even when they do, we have a choice about how to respond. If someone hurts my feelings, I can dwell on them and get defensive, or I can try to comply with their wishes, to make them happy, and in so doing, perform an even greater act of love for them.  Real love does not seek its own.  It comes down to forgiving them for the hurt, and continuing to love them.

Some people mistake kindness for weakness.  That is a big mistake.  It takes a strong person to ignore their own hurt and bless the ones who hurt them.  This is what it means to turn the other cheek.  It’s something we want everyone else to do, but it’s not easy to do ourselves.  Real love is blessing the other person, not seeking your own way, letting yourself be hurt for the sake of those you love.  The cost of not doing it is too high.

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Compassion is a Humanizing Virtue

Compassion is one of the most important of character traits, yet its an attribute that comes from learning, mostly in the school of hard knocks. People who have compassion reflect the face of God, because He Himself is compassionate to all.

Compassion is what we feel when we identify with the pain, and suffering of others.  It’s the  ability to emotionally put yourself in someone else’s skin and feel what they feel.  Its having empathy and sympathy for the suffering of others.  Its one of the most important of the middot, yet its an attribute that comes from learning through our own experiences instead of by reading.

It’s hard to feel  the pain of others, if you have felt no pain.  Unless you have felt it, you have no idea what other people go through.  This reminds me of the passage in “The Chosen,” by Chaim Potok, where Reb Saunders says,

One learns of the pain of others by suffering one’s own pain, … by turning inside oneself, by finding one’s own soul. And it is important to know of pain, It destroys our self-pride, our arrogance, our indifference toward others. It makes us aware of how frail and tiny we are and of how much we must depend upon the Master of the Universe. . . . ” Better I should have had no son at all than to have a brilliant son who had no soul. . . . And I had to make certain his soul would be the soul of a tzaddik no matter what he did with his life.” (The Chosen, P.278ff).

People say I am a fairly compassionate person.  Being compassionate came at a high price.  I identify with the suffering of others because of the intensity of emotional pain I’ve been through. There is an emotional pain that is far worse than any physical pain, a pain almost unsurvivable.   I can imagine the pain of others and I hurt for them.  Given the choice, I would rather have  never had pain, but if you develop compassion after going through pain, it makes the painful experience somewhat redemptive.  Feeling for other people, helps them.  It aids in their healing and dealing with their own pain.

Not everyone who goes through painful experiences develop compassion. Some become bitter.  Some become self-centered.  How many times have you met someone embittered by their experiences and seem to take it out on everyone around them? They don’t give a damn about anyone else.

People with a propensity for compassion will feel for others and have mercy. They give a damn about the suffering of others.  What kind of person looks with indifference on the suffering of others?  People who have no heart and no soul.  That’s what the Nazi’s did.  Without compassion we turn into something frightening, capable of great evil, because we just don’t care that other’s suffer.  Having compassion makes us more “human,” or in other words, what we consider the best of humanity.  Without it, we aren’t very different from machines; cold and unfeeling, disconnected from the lives of others.

Why is it that some people become kind and compassionate when they have experienced pain and suffering, while others become bitter, cold and indifferent toward the suffering of others even though they have had their own painful experiences?  It is because compassion is ultimately a heart issue.  .If you take butter and put it in the sun, it melts.  If you take clay, and put it in the sun, it gets hard and dry.  Same sun.  Different substances.  If a person’s desire is to be compassionate, his response to pain will be to grow in compassion.  If their choice is to be angry or bitter, it will make them hard-hearted.  It’s not a genetic thing.  It’s a choice we make.  How do we respond to the pain life brings?  It will determine what kind of people we become.

In Silence There Is Healing

Silence is something we try to avoid. If there is silence in a conversation, we feel awkward, and say something just to fill the void in the conversation. The problem is, when people say something just to fill the silence, often the quality of what is said lacks substance. A good example of this is at funerals. Most people, with the exception of undertakers feel awkward at funerals. We just don’t know what to say. I have heard some of the most thoughtless comments come out of people’s mouths while trying to be comforting.

Thoughtless comments are nothing new. They are a dime a dozen. What bothers me is that when they are blurted out to grieving people, they only add to their pain, and that’s something I find grossly obscene. When my grandmother passed away, we were sitting “Shiva” (traditional mourning period in Judaism) at my parent’s house. One of my grandparent’s neighbors came to “cheer up” my grandfather. She sat with him and told him he was very lucky to have had my grandmother for so long and that she was not in pain anymore and in a better place. My dad and I were in the kitchen listening in, and I was relating to my dad what our “visitor” was saying. I told him she was making my grandfather cry. My father asked what we should do. I suggested throwing her off the balcony, but my dad shook his head. I went in and said we had to get ready for something and told our visitor she needed to go. She left feeling like she did a mitzvah, and my grandfather pulled me aside and thanked me. It wasn’t that she said anything bad. They were things we all thought ourselves. The problem was that she was having the effect of pouring salt into an open wound. It would have been better if she came and just said she was sorry and that she loved us. It would have been comforting without being painful.

When Job lost all he had, all his children died, and he was afflicted with open sores all over his body, his friends came and sat with him a full week and said nothing. The rest of the time they were there, they offered their personal wisdom and insights, and made Job even more miserable. In the end, they were rebuked by God Himself. The best thing they did was to sit with him saying nothing. When we visit grieving people in pain, it ministers and comforts just to be there. They don’t need our words of wisdom. They need to know we cared enough to come. It’s a ministry of presence.

A number of years ago, I had an emotional breakdown after the most traumatic event of my life. I sat for several months in self isolation, talking to no one but my shrink and a few others who knew what was going on, but I spent many hours not talking to anyone, and in the silence, I healed. Some might say I still have a way to go, but don’t we all?

In the story, “The Chosen,” by Chaim Potok, the Hasidic young man, Danny Saunders, is a mental prodigy, who has been raised by his father, the Rebbe, in silence. It seemed harsh and cruel, but at the end of the story, Reb Saunders explains,

“”My father … taught me with silence. . . . One learns of the pain of others by suffering one’s own pain, by turning inside oneself, by finding one’s own soul. And it is important to know of pain, It destroys our self-pride, our arrogance, our indifference toward others. It makes us aware of how frail and tiny we are and of how much we must depend upon the Master of the Universe. . . . I did not want my Daniel to become like my brother, may he rest in peace. Better I should have had no son at all than to have a brilliant son who had no soul. . . . And I had to make certain his soul would be the soul of a tzaddik no matter what he did with his life.”

Silence can be healing, but it also can be painful. My father had Spinal Meningitis when he was 16, and lost his hearing. I always thought of him as normal, because that is how I always knew him. He has never heard my voice or my mother’s, but he is a lip reader, so we have had normal conversations. When the Cochlear implant procedure was perfected, everyone urged him to have the surgery. He was sitting out by the pool at his condo and Sam, one of the men kept nudgering him to have the implant. Finally, my dad asked Sam if he knew how much the surgery would cost. Sam said about $25,000.00. He asked Sam if he thought my dad had the money. Sam said yes. My dad commented that Sam sits around the pool every day. Sam nodded his head. My dad asked Sam if he would pay $25,000.00 to listen to the crap everyone says around the pool. Later, my dad explained that he gets by without sound to talk with people just fine. He wanted to be able to hear music. For him the trauma of his deafness gave way to a peaceful, quiet world. He had become accustomed to it. Years later, he had the surgery, but it failed. All he heard was noise.

We are exhorted to let our deeds be many and our words few. Words can comfort and heal, but words can also be no more than noise. We need to be intentional about how we use words, and make sure we aren’t just creating noise. We are intended to have a healing effect on the world. Much of that healing is done in silence.

Also posted in Riverton Mussar: A Wellspring for Ethical Change