Aryeh Gurewitz, Brooklyn, NY
MyLife Essay Contest 2018
One of the most fundamental requirements for a leader of the Jewish people is his sensitivity. From Moshe Rabbeinu until the Rebbe, our leaders have been renowned for this quality(1). While we may not find it likely that we could reach the level of sensitivity that they displayed, we can and should certainly try to emulate their ways. In this spirit, this essay will provide a practical approach to being more sensitive to other people based on a key insight into the nature of pain. This insight is explained by the Mitteler Rebbe in his discourse titled Podoh b’Shalom.(2)
I. Chassidus on the Source of All Pain
In one section of this lengthy discourse that is full of psychological insights, the Mitteler Rebbe explains the nature of pain and pleasure, two aspects of the human experience that he calls “the root and the source that include everything in the world.”(3)
He proceeds to explain that any time a person is drawn after something, it is because of a sense of pleasure or satisfaction (“oneg”) that is available in that thing. It is the availability of this pleasure or satisfaction that arouses one’s will (“ratzon”) and desire (“chafetz”) to access or interact with the item in question in a way that brings the person satisfaction.
The opposite of all of this is the phenomenon of pain. The trigger that causes a person to feel pain and suffering is that something happens that is against his will. In line with this, he explains why we find that not all painful situations are equally intense. Some pain can be resolved relatively easily through a conversation, some music, laughter, a pleasant stroll, or other forms of simple pleasure. Other pain can touch us much more deeply and be much harder—if not impossible—to remove from our hearts and minds. What is the underlying cause that makes one painful situation harder than another? It all goes back to a person’s will. The more deeply a given situation runs contrary to one’s will, the more intense the pain will be. The Mitteler Rebbe demonstrates this with a few examples:
- If one loses a significant sum of money, the amount of pain he feels over it will be correlated to the amount of pleasure and satisfaction he had from having that money in his possession.
- If one had been accustomed to receiving much honor and respect, but then he ceases to receive that for whatever reason, the amount of pain will depend on how much he had been enjoying that honor.
- The more desire one feels for physical pleasure,(4) the more pain and dissatisfaction he will feel if his desire is left unsatisfied.
If our goal is to become more sensitive to others—which is to say, more careful not to cause other people pain—then this insight already puts us well on our way.
II. Your Pain and Your Needs
Before thinking about how the above information affects our relationships with others, it is instructive to reflect more on the above definition of pain and how it plays out in your own life. If successful, this will allow you to come to a deeper understanding of what is happening “behind the scenes” of your own emotional pain. To put it simply, the goal is to learn to recognize what types of things you want, even on a subconscious level, for it is the contradiction of these “wants” that causes you pain.
From this point on, we will refer to these “wants” using the term “needs,” simply because it is the closest proper English term for the feelings under discussion. It should be noted, however, that we do not mean to say that a person is “locked” into every single thing that is labeled as a “need.” Chassidus maintains that people are capable of working on themselves in profound ways and learning to let go of these needs to a large extent, if not completely.(5) Still, for one who is still in the middle of that process, as practically all of us are, it seems fair to call these feelings needs, for if a person does not either (a) have his needs met, or (b) work on himself to let go of these needs, then he will end up feeling pain.
Now, based on the Mitteler Rebbe’s definition of pain, we can set up a relatively simple formula for discovering the needs that underlie your own emotional pain. Just think of a painful situation and realize that the pain is a sign that the situation contradicted one or more of your needs. That is the structure, but you have to do the introspection to actually come to recognize your needs. Here are a few examples that can help you see the type of thinking that is necessary:
- You work very hard on a project, and your father gives you some unsolicited constructive criticism. If this causes you to feel pain, perhaps in the form of feelings of inadequacy, this suggests that you have a need to feel successful, capable, talented, or the like, either with regard to that project or in life in general.
- In the middle of saying something important to your husband, you realize that he was actually distracted, reading something on his phone the whole time. If this causes you pain, perhaps in the form of anger, then you probably have a need to feel respected, or perhaps that your opinion is valued, or the like.
- You pass someone in the street that you consider a good friend, but after making eye contact, he just keeps walking instead of greeting you. If this caused you pain, it is safe to say that you have a need to feel liked by that person and, quite possibly, by people in general.
Of course, these examples are a drop in the bucket compared to the wide variety of scenarios and emotions that we all face, but hopefully they were sufficient to bring out the pattern in a way that helps you with your introspection.
It is also important to note that in the above examples, we are not judging these needs, only identifying them. Evaluating whether or not a particular need is normal, reasonable, or healthy is a separate step. Regardless of that evaluation, it is important to be able to identify your needs and, likewise, the needs of others without judgment. Afterward, you can decide what to do with that insight.
This brings us to another simple but key point. Suppose you start to become more aware of your needs. You might begin to wonder, from where did you get this need to feel capable, respected, loved, or whatever need it is? In the academic world, there’s a discussion of “nature” and “nurture”—how much our personality, which includes our needs, is formed by genetics and how much is formed by our life experience, but both are clearly involved. Chassidus, however, reminds us of G-d’s role in all of this. G-d is the one Who created the nature of every person and Who guides every detail of what happens to us in our lives, including the painful situations.(6) It seems most correct, then, to say that our core needs are really given to us by G-d, even if He delivered them to us through a combination of nature and nurture.(7)
The reader is encouraged to continue contemplating these topics after finishing this essay, but at this point, we are ready to do discuss how to become more sensitive on a practical level.
III. Practical Steps Toward Greater Sensitivity
The key to sensitivity lies in the following point. Just as G-d created you with certain core needs at birth and, since then, He guided your life in such a way that your needs have developed into their present state, He did the same exact thing for everyone else in the world. This means that everyone else out there has needs and pain, just like you. While each individual obviously has his own unique set of needs, the basic human struggle to live a pleasant life and avoid pain is the same for us all.(8)
It follows that the practical way to be sensitive to other people is by becoming as aware of their needs as you can and trying not to violate those needs (again, as much as you can). Now, how exactly you go about this for each person will vary greatly. With your spouse, parents, children, or close friends, you can hopefully feel comfortable enough to be proactive, open up, and discuss your respective needs, as well as times when you may have caused each other pain. With more casual acquaintances, students that you teach, co-workers, and the like, you may not get to have a heart-to-heart conversation right away, but you can be very focused when you interact with them and try to observe and remember what types of things make them happy or cause them pain. With people you only meet in passing, you won’t really have a chance to learn about them unless you’re an expert at reading people, but even if you’re not, you can still just be very careful to be polite, respectful, and kind. That usually doesn’t hurt anyone.
Once you have that insight into the people around you—and, of course, gaining that insight is an ongoing process—then the key becomes simply to keep each person’s needs in mind when you interact with them. This involves being fully present in every interaction, keeping your thoughts, speech, and action entirely focused(9) on treating that person properly so that you don’t hurt him or her by accident.
What comes out from all of this, I believe, is that it’s not so difficult to be sensitive to other people. Of course, it takes work, and most likely, we will not perfect the art until Moshiach comes. Major growth in this area, though, is definitely in reach. We just have to make the decision—or, Chassidim might call it a hachlotah—that we are willing to put in the necessary work in order not to hurt the people we love. As it happens, that’s exactly what Chassidus was all about from the very beginning—loving every Jew to the point of self-sacrifice.
1. A video on this subject can be found at: www.chabad.org/multimedia/media_cdo/aid/929769/jewish/Sensitivity.htm
2. Shaarei Teshuvah, vol. 1, pg. 49a and on.
3. The precise intent of the phrase “everything in the world” is not entirely clear, leaving some room for interpretation. Seemingly, it means something along the lines of, “everything that happens in a person’s inner world.” Alternatively, it could mean more literally that everything that happens in the world is ultimately driven by these two psychological forces.
4. This is an intentionally vague translation of “taivas ha-mishgal.”
5. See, for example, the Mitteler Rebbe’s discussion of hishtavus (equanimity) in Podoh B’Shalom. Other sources, such as Lo Sihyeh Mishakeilah 5712, discuss the idea of being a kli reikan, an empty vessel—meaning, empty of ratzonos (wills/needs). See also Hayom Yom, 24 Teves, regarding the need to know ourselves so that we can work on ourselves.
6. See Iggeres HaKodesh 25 and related sources.
7. People can also develop unhealthy needs based on mistaken life choices, such as a drug addiction, and in such a case, it is probably more appropriate to take responsibility for oneself than to “blame G-d,” so to speak. That said, even a person’s mistaken choices in life happen by Divine providence, and this is not a contradiction to free will, as explained in Chassidus. (See, for example, Mitzvas Ner Chanukah 5735; Toras Chaim Parshas Toldos quoted there.)
8. This is not, G-d forbid, to say that we should not be living for a higher purpose than just that. Obviously, Chassidus teaches us that we must. However, this does not mean we have to deny the fact that we also have this simpler, more survival-oriented side of us, at least in our less spiritual moments.
9. See the sicha of Parshas Pinchas 5751 and the sources quoted there about being a pnimi.