Sensitivity Training

May 9, 2009

7 min read


How to give others comfort in their time of need.

Sensitivity to the circumstances and feelings of others is the cornerstone of human relationships. The seasons of sunshine and joy and alternatively the seasons of cold and suffering spare no mortal the desperate need for caring and understanding from his fellow human beings.

Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsh, commentator and biblical linguist, notes that the Hebrew word for compassion -- "rachamim" -- shares the same root as the Hebrew word "rechem" which means womb. Compassion and sensitivity to others flows from the awareness that all of us share the same spiritual womb, the same history and fate -- indeed, that our destinies are intertwined. Whatever happens to one of us must affect the other. Understanding this reality mandates not only participation and empathy in times of hardship, but gives rise to a sense of joy and delight in the good fortune of our fellow travelers in life's journey.

"How can you claim to love a God you can't see if you fail to love the brother and sister right in front of you?"

My father, of blessed memory, often encouraged us to become card-carrying members of the "farginners club" -- the non-begrudgers -- a group dedicated to acknowledging and expressing our feelings of delight when others are blessed with good fortune in life, i.e. finding a spouse, birth of a child, building or expanding a home, marrying off a child, winning the lottery, etc.

It is important to note that sensitivity is not just an emotion; it must express itself in actions as well, especially when people we know are experiencing pain and difficulties.

The first task in sensitivity training is to climb out of ourselves and notice others. In describing the Egyptian bondage which is the prototype of all Jewish diasporas, our sages inform us that it began when the "eyes and hearts of Israel were plugged up" (Genesis 47:28, Rashi). When Jews can't notice, see or feel for each other, darkness ensues. Conversely, the redemption was launched when "Moses grew up and saw their suffering" (Exodus 2:11). Despite his privileged status as a palace child, Moses became aware and noticed the suffering of his brethren.

The next level is to respond which can take many forms. One size does not fit all and often the same situation at different times requires different approaches.

1. The first step in any interaction, especially in delicate situations, is
to press the internal "pause button"; i.e., not to shoot from the hip but to stop and think if what we are about to say is advisable.

2. Refrain from asking too many questions. Take your cue from the person in pain. People who are suffering find it especially offensive for someone who has not previously shown much interest in them to grill them on all of the gory details of their situation. It makes them feel like they are the object of curiosity and gossip.

3. The Mishna advises that one "should not try to console a bereaved person while the remains of the deceased are still before them." When pain is so new and fresh, a person is not in a position where they can hear moralizing comments such as "they lived a good, long life" or "left good children behind" etc. At this time these pronouncements are often premature. This is the time when the afflicted needs validation and affirmation. They will ask for perspective when they are ready.

A woman called me to speak on behalf of an organization of families with special needs children. I asked her what she wanted the thrust of my remarks to be. She answered, "Just don't tell us how special we are and how much God must love us to give us so much pain. We need validation and help in coping."

I find that a good rule of thumb is that what works for me generally works for others. If the opportunity presents itself, it is helpful to gently remind the sufferer of the need to take charge of their life. No matter what the circumstances of a person's life the Torah's message of "choosing life" is extremely relevant. The Torah is, in fact, cautioning us against the inclination to postpone living until life chooses us, i.e. until a suitable match comes along, have a baby, get well, resurrect the dead, regain our fortune, etc. Practically speaking, choosing life means that we have to have a plan for every day -- what we are going to do, whom we are going to meet, what we are going to learn, etc. Life has to be productive and justifiable on its own terms, each day, one day at a time.

A cancer patient's most painful moments were when people who she knew would cross the street to avoid having to talk to her.

4. I have counseled many who confided in me that people shunned them during their hour of suffering. One woman who was undergoing chemotherapy recalled that her most painful moments were when people who knew her would cross the street to avoid having to greet or talk to her. She understood that it was not a malicious act. She knew that they were at a loss of what to say or fearful that they might say the wrong thing. Nonetheless, it hurt her to the core. She felt like a pariah, alone and rejected. In those situations, one can simply say, "It's so good to see you," or "I've been thinking about you," or "I've been praying for you" etc. -- without prying or asking for medical report unless it's offered.

5. People cope differently. Some are "attenders" and others are "distracters." The "attenders" get comfort from discussing and sharing their issues. The "distracters" prefer to talk about other things to get space and relief from their woes. We need to take our cue from the person and not impose our preference.

The Mishna wisely warns us "don't judge your friend until you find yourself in his place." Michelle, a woman who had multiple miscarriages, told me that after many months in bed, she tried to find something that would motivate her to get out of her rut. A department store's advertisement for a free makeover caught her eye. Unfortunately, she refrained for fear of being seen and judged for indulging in so petty and inappropriate a pursuit. Thinking we can judge another person is terribly misguided. Every human being copes and deals with pain differently. We know nothing of another person's life and can never be in another person's shoes. Both externally and internally the worlds of two distinct individuals can never totally match.

6. Be specific in offers to help. Patty, recently widowed, shared that she immediately dismissed the offers of "call me when you need something." She felt they were totally unhelpful, if not insincere. A call asking her if today was a good time to take her shopping or to baby sit or to pick up something for her rang truer and more sincere.

7. Replacement strategies can be helpful. It is important to include those who have suffered losses into our lives, giving them space and letting them know they are welcome.

Carey lost her mother at a very young age when she could barely remember her. When contemporaries commemorated the memory of their own loved ones, the pain of her deprivation would surface. Her therapist suggested that she keep a notebook specifically for communication with her mother, so that when anything significant would happen, i.e. when her baby took her first step, when she would celebrate an anniversary, or any other achievement that was a milestone-that she write and share it as a connection to her mother. The gist of it would be to tell her mother how proud she would be and probably is, in the achievements and nachas of her family. Carey found it tremendously helpful and therapeutic.

We would all like to see that final light at the end of the very dark tunnel of the last thousand years, to see the long awaited millennium that signals the end to both collective and individual pain and suffering. Every act of reaching out with sensitivity, of sharing the joy and pain of a fellow traveler, brings us close to that time of ultimate redemption.

For more practical advice on being there for others, see
"If There's Anything I can Do…"

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