Sunday, April 18, 2010

Getting Sensitive

The fickleness of perception and memory have been a recurring theme to which I return often in my mind. I have been generally surprised to find out how someone who lived through the same approximate experience as I, in the same space-time as I, can come away with a radically different version of events, or their meaning. This holds especially so for interpersonal relations, rocked as they are by emotions, attention spans, prejudices, proclivities and so on. What frightens me is that I make choices based on what I perceive and know to be true, and what I believe others know to be true. Yet, often, others make choices for which I have no explanation, and may never know the basis for.

There was a time when I was young and stupid. It hasn't passed. There was a time when I was even younger and more stupid, however, when I simply couldn't let a situation go when the basis for another person's actions seemed unreasonable, given the circumstances. How could such negativity be born of good will? Surely, if only I could explain myself, my experience, I thought, they would understand. I needed to know what they saw that so drastically diverged their conclusions from mine. What began as a simple exercise in perception management ended in disaster. Since then, I've been content to not be content on the matter. It's painful, to resign oneself that another will not know your truth, without recourse, ever.

An old friend recently told me how I had hurt them deeply, long ago. To me, it had been a non-event. To them, the pain I inflicted had shaped our relationship irreconcilably. I apologized. What I grieved for most were the years of distance, irretrievable. It was there, my biting, crude remark; I see it now, but I did not then. How many more remain, silent abusers, murderers of time and affection.

Hillel, the often quoted Jewish sage, teaches us to "love your fellowman as yourselves". This is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary, we are taught, and then instructed to go learn that commentary. (Incidentally, many of those who most often quote this lesson of Hillel, then choose not to go learn that commentary.) Many have colloquialized this lesson as a kindergarten axiom: treat others the way you want to be treated.

In Chapter 32 of Tanya, a masterpiece of Chabad Chassidism, the Alter Rebbe expounds on the verse, rejecting this common interpretation. The verse isn't about treating others the way we want to be treated - that's logically reciprocal, pragmatic, civilized even, but wrong. The Torah's great jewel isn't "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours". That's obscene - a morality of atheists, or pagans, maybe.

No, what Hillel was driving at is that, on a spiritual level, there is no "you" and "me" - the separation is a mirage, a necessary concealment, a curtain that enables our physical world to exist as one where things appear distinct and independent of one another. In truth, there is no separation, we are one. Our many individualities are like rays of sunlight, entering a home through many different windows, yet the source is one. To love someone as ourselves doesn't mean we love them so that they love us back; we love them because, at our essence, they ARE us, and we are they. By loving them we love ourselves. By caring for their needs and wounds as if they were our own, we care for ourselves; we see the truth for what it is.

It is through deepening our sensitivity to this truth, by being attentive and purposeful in our thought, speech and actions and understanding their effects on others, that one begins to see the world through another person's eyes, to resolve the divergence in perception that can wreck havoc on a relationship.

Have you ever met a carpet installer? I haven't, as far as I know, but my Rabbi has, some years back. The man's hands were huge, I was told, heavily calloused from the rough work and repeated abuse of a cutting blade. So thick were the protective layers of skin that the man professed to not even notice anymore when a blade ran off the carpet and hit a finger!

Why would our souls, encased as they are in our physical form, weathering years of spiritual abuse, coarseness and insensitivity be any different? From a place of perfect unity, our souls are plunged into a world of bitter pain and separation. Blood is drawn again and again, until one learns to cope and to dish out even more, ever more furiously. This is not a process without a price. The coarse hands of a carpet installer are all his wife and children know. How much more severe must be the damage to our souls, calloused and numbed, barely feeling their way through the spiritual obstructions, caked on year after year. How much sensitivity have we lost in interactions with one another as a consequence?

Sensitivity is something you work for - a life's effort to peel away layer after layer of obstructions, like articles of clothing, undressing slowly, with great effort and while doing one's best not to do more damage. We have tools to peel away layers - the study of Torah, Chassidus (mystical learning which goes beyond the letter of the law) was created for this task, performing mitzvot (literally, a connection to G-d), prayer, immersing in a mikveh.

That's right, a mikveh, that pool of water, or lake or stream more commonly used by menstrual women and men after seminal emissions, has the power to strip layers of coarseness from a person's soul, or at least to wash away the damage added in the recent past. Diligent yeshiva students make the mikveh their first act upon rising, prioritizing it even before morning prayers, and it is obvious why - that their prayers should commence at a peak of spiritual sensitivity. Many, many hassidim have a custom of immersing in a mikveh before the Shabbos, a day spiritually set aside, elevated, above the others.

To cleanse the week's depravity from my soul before we greet the Shabbos bride; This is why I went to mikveh, Sruli. This is why you go with your father now, too.

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