It was a lecture by Rabbi and author Joseph Telushkin, introducing his book Words That
Hurt; Words That Heal, that got me started writing this one. Telushkin described his subject matter as “the ethics,
not the psychology” of human communication. He called for the creation of a national day on which everyone would refrain
from uttering even a single harsh or hurtful word.
While my view of this has moderated in the intervening years, I still question the efficacy of a skin-deep, verbal
ethic that would kosher our words without addressing our animus. Like the odorant added to natural gas, harsh words can be
the warning smell of our more potent toxicity. And with all due respect to the Rabbi, I believe it’s the toxic message
(not the presentation) that should concern us.
In all events, Telushkin’s focus on our verbal output, rather than the more elusive psychology and spirit of
the interaction, was just the opposite of what we were shooting for in the community. For we believed the fundamental integrity
of our communication, certainly in the husband and wife context, turned on the emotional authenticity with which we expressed
ourselves. This made the internal conflicts and relational issues animating the hurtful speech more germane than
the words themselves.
though anticipating the above, the Rabbi reminded his audience that our first duty is to behave decently, however
we may be feeling on the inside. Better to feed the hungry, even with resentment, than to hold out at their expense for some
psychospiritual epiphany. The fundamental precept of tzedaka (righteousness) thus commands us to relieve what suffering
we can and strive for a more loving spirit (kavana) as we go along.
Judaism thus assigns a higher value to tikun olam (“repair of the world”)
than to personal salvation. One’s speech, Telushkin argues, is no less subject to this behavioral mandate. So until
we can rise above our hurtful sentiments, we should find the self-control to muzzle them, at least for one day out
of the year.
Of course true
tzaddikim (righteous ones) have managed to combine the letter with the spirit of the law. These great souls
are exalted in Jewish literature and storytelling. In Tales of the Chasidim, Buber recounts a student of one such
tzaddik proclaiming, “I didn’t go [to the master] in order to hear Torah from him but to see how he unlaces
his felt shoes and laces them up again.” This reminds me of a statement attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson: “I
and mine do not teach by argument but by our presence.”
In the psychological world, a similar debate rages between
the behaviorists and the psychoanalysts. The former say, “Enough plumbing of the subconscious depths; let’s clean
up this patient’s act!” The latter say, “Give us a few more years of treatment and we will surely get to
the root of the problem. We can then effect a cure instead of just masking the symptoms.”
It wasn’t until I arrived at Tanya and Sherman’s
community that I glimpsed the possibility of integrating, in a single framework, the behavioral aspect (words and deeds) with
the psychospiritual processes from which our conduct emanates. That would address a concern Diane had raised at the beginning
of my spiritual search: that “spirituality” was no substitute for basic, psychological (behavioral) health. But
going well beyond Telushkin’s prescription, our goal was to become more fully conscious and take responsibility not
just for our choice of words but for our unspoken attitudes and agendas.
It was on this level that Tanya and Sherman perceived the real spiritual and communicative
challenges to lie. They had a remarkable gift for seeing the energetic forest through the verbal or behavioral trees. To the
less perceptive, this sometimes made their own behavior seem inappropriate or disproportionate.
For example, on a visit to Normal before we had decided
to move there, we walked in on a heated argument between Tanya and another member of the group. Tanya became self-conscious,
conflicted over whether to sweep the altercation under the rug in deference to the social expectations of the out-of-town
guests. She was well aware that to us, her remonstrations looked unseemly if not hysterical.
But Tanya’s vehemence reflected her
and the community’s commitment to “call the energy,” i.e., not to sit on unexpressed emotionality. They
saw disrespect not in the direct exchange of angry words but in disingenuous chatter between people who were energetically
pummeling one another. (That kind of socially appropriate non-communication was as offensive to them as a torrent of cuss
words would have been to us.) So she asked us to reserve our judgment about the intensity with which they were expressing
themselves. And I professed great cool about the chaos we had intruded upon (though of course, I was politely lying through
When things eventually
calmed down, Tanya elaborated that the community’s way was to respond “cleanly” but otherwise uninhibitedly
to the energy of the moment. Just as soon as that energy “shifted,” it would be as though the conflict had never
existed. For once the energy (not just the rhetoric) had truly changed, there would literally be no grudge left to hold.
As I acclimated myself to this no-holds-barred
way of interacting, I found it much more alive and honest than what passes for communication in the more polite company to
which we were accustomed. I also came to agree with Tanya that the energy of conflict truly does dissipate just as soon as
it’s been fully and cleanly addressed – and not a moment before. The devil, of course, is in the details. But
developing our attunement to energy so as to recognize when it was “off” (in conflict) and when it had shifted
(resolution) would be a large part of our work over the next three years in Normal.
I’m sure many psychically gifted people can actually “see”
this energy shift, perhaps as a change in the person’s aura. Any good therapist uses his own intuitive faculties to
recognize when a moment of emotional reality breaks through the chatter of ordinary defensive banter; when the defenses have
been sufficiently penetrated to allow both the consciousness and the behavior to truly change. Whether we speak in psychological
or psychic terms, the process is the same. The person finally “gets” (realizes) that small piece of his life’s
puzzle, and the air is somehow, almost miraculously, cleared.
This differentiation between words and their underlying energy did not come easy to me, however.
Indeed, I dismissed it at first as so much New-Age psychobabble. Not surprisingly, this soon created tension between me and
the group. They accused me of concealing my own hostility behind lawyer-like words and convincing arguments. And for an excruciating
time, I really had no clue what these people were talking about.
An early incident will illustrate just how out of touch I was. Just a few days after
moving to Normal, I found myself in a room with Sherman and two of the men, engaged in some rather lively if egotistical banter
about the great spiritual things we were going to do together. I made some comment I no longer recall that evoked from Sherman
an affectionate if slightly teasing response: “Oh, am I such a heavy burden to you?” And without the
slightest conscious awareness of any hostility toward Sherman, I retorted, “Not a heavy burden … just FAT.”
Sherman seemed genuinely stunned. Slowly,
he stood up and walked out of the room. A hush fell over the three of us who remained, but was quickly broken when Tanya came
flying in … and ordered me to leave the house!
I left, shaken, apologetic and profoundly confused. An emissary soon came to inform me that
I was now unwelcome in Sherman’s household until my energy “shifted.” In the meantime, I was to communicate
with him and Tanya only through third parties!
I’ll not address here the disproportionality of this response to my teasing quip (or the kind of communal power
structure it revealed). What I want to focus on for the present is the reality of the energetic body blow I had in fact delivered
to Sherman; and what he and Tanya had to teach me about energy.
I was told my offense was particularly heinous because it came as such a “sneak attack,”
at a time we appeared to be just relaxing and enjoying each other’s company. For days, I insisted it was an innocent
kibbitz. Unfortunately, these people only viewed “I’m sorry if what I said hurt you” as
rubbing salt in Sherman’s wound. The energy remained to be dealt with until I not only admitted but “got”
the intentionality (even if unconscious) of my snide remark.
This notion of “unconscious intentionality” may seem an oxymoron. But
I will always be indebted to Tanya and Sherman for their awareness (and my eventual realization) that our behavior is no less
intentional when it is unconscious.
How often do we experience well-meaning apologies that fail to inspire any confidence the offending behavior won’t
soon be repeated? This isn’t necessarily because the apology is insincere. It’s because the energy, as distinguished
from the behavior, hasn’t been identified, much less corrected. Thus, until I could get in touch with (i.e., actually
feel) my hostility toward Sherman, any regret I might express could only be for the adverse consequence
I was now suffering as a result. (Meanwhile, the energy would lie in wait for another opportunity to ambush him or
Now even as
thick as I was in the spring of 1983, I could not long deny that my sarcastic remark about Sherman’s weight was tactless.
After some soul searching, I “got” that it was a tad provocative. But the entire fabric of my self-image balked
at any notion of actual malice. (Had my mother been there, she’d have spoken up for me: “Oh, Sherman,
you’re making a mountain out of a molehill. You’re too sensitive!”)
But something Sherman had said, just before walking out of the
room, stayed with me. Giving no hint of the ax that was about to fall, he had muttered something about a “feminine energy.”
Then, standing and with more conviction, he declared: “That was a woman!” Which utterance somehow evoked
for me not my mother’s, but my sister’s inflection, each time I replayed the tape of what had just slipped
out of me.
Now a therapist,
looking back with me on this incident, might have probed his way to the association between my behavior on this occasion and
my sister. The sudden verbal jab, it turns out, was her personal trademark in our nightly skirmishes with our alcoholic father.
But Sherman’s insight was spontaneous, not deductive. He didn’t probe his way to my sister’s influence on
me; he felt (intuited) it.
It was of course my energy (not my sister’s) that had taken this potshot at him. But his linkage of the behavior
he had just witnessed to “a woman” (and my linkage of that remark to the cutting sarcasm with which my sister
routinely fended off our father) soon brought me around to the more pertinent question: What was I now lashing
out against (or fending off)?
all this seems too complicated, paranormal or farfetched, we could say that I had learned from my sister a style of fighting
that I had just unleashed on Sherman for reasons yet to be identified. We all borrow in this way from our siblings and parents
to perpetuate our distinctive family brands of what Rabbi Telushkin calls “hurtful speech.” But to the extent
I might have attempted to pass the responsibility off to my sister (or my mother), they (or their therapists) could just as
easily have referred us farther up the ancestral chain. For every such familial legacy awaits a generation with the fortitude
to say, “Enough is enough. The neurotic buck stops here. My children and I shall be free of this.”
I do believe my personal growth was thus
accelerated because Tanya and Sherman did for me what no proper therapist would or could have done. Through the interactive
rough and tumble of this “spiritual community,” they subjected themselves (and their kids) to the unfiltered
onslaught of my displacement, along with everyone else’s.
Experienced therapists know that such displacement (or “transference,” in the
clinical setting) can and will exploit any weakness in their professional armor. That’s another reason they don’t
invite the patient home for tea (much less move him into the spare bedroom, as Tanya and Sherman were doing). They don’t
share their own hopes, fears and frustrations, lest the patient find a way to use that information against them or to otherwise
sabotage the treatment.
Tanya eventually explained that only moments before my quip about Sherman’s weight, he had confided to her
his increasing self-consciousness on that very score. Now Sherman wasn’t obese, and it had not entered my conscious
mind that he might be sensitive about his weight. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t intuit the sensitivity.
Sherman and I, in short,
were equally psychic: I, by knowing where he was vulnerable; he, by sensing my cheap shot had something to do with how the
women in my life had influenced me. I doubt any therapist could have gotten the ball rolling more quickly.
In a nutshell, the concept of energy, as taught by Tanya
and Sherman, meant we owed a duty – at least to those we claimed to love – to become more fully
conscious. To take responsibility not just for our words and behavior but for the effect our very presence is having
on those around us.
Based on this high standard, the community served as an extension of the eternal soulmate relationship. Indeed, we
began to speak less of “community” and more of “spiritual family.” The idea, or ideal, was to extend
the same high level of responsibility for our spoken and unspoken communication outward, from the nuclear family
to the larger spiritual one; and from there, on out to the stranger on the street.
For that, I still believe, is what real tikun olam looks like.