I Am a Wall
The magic formula to giving others the support they need.
I sat in the car, parked at the end of the trail, nervously waiting for my children. We usually did family hikes, but the Yehudiya, Israel’s most popular hike, is “for experienced hikers only,” with several steep ascents. That disqualified me. Our 19-year-old daughter Pliyah and 13-year-old son Yisrael were anxious to do the hike, so my husband and I decided to let them go by themselves. My husband had dropped the kids off at the trailhead at 10 that morning. Now, at 4 PM, allowing extra time for a hike that was supposed to take five hours, I started to worry.
I couldn’t phone them because they had purposely not taken their cell phones. The trail cuts off at the top of an 8-meter waterfall. The hiker has to jump into the large, deep pool below, swim across, and resume the trail on the other side. Only water-friendly devices survive.
I recited Psalms, trying to remain calm, but after 40 minutes of waiting, I left the car by the locked roadblock and started to walk along the trail from the end. I had been walking less than five minutes when I spotted a figure coming toward me. It was my son Yisrael. He was alone.
My daughter was stuck on the side of the cliff.
My heart clutched in fear. What had happened to Pliyah? I ran toward Yisrael, frantically shouting, “Where’s Pliyah? What happened to Pliyah!?”
Yisrael assured me that Pliyah was okay, then quickly amended his statement. “She’s not injured. She’s stuck on the trail. We were climbing the last, steep part of the trail, and we got to this place where you have to go straight up, even more than straight up, like the rock comes out toward you, and Pliyah was too scared to keep going. I tried to help her, I showed her exactly where to put her foot, I begged her to try, but she refused. We spent a long time on that narrow ledge. She finally told me to go ahead without her and get help.”
I raced back to the car and found the National Park brochure. At the bottom, in large print, was the EMERGENCY TELEPHONE NUMBER. I dialed and tried to explain to the park ranger, who was obviously used to panicked calls from desperate mothers, that my daughter was marooned on the side of a cliff. He noted our location and told us he would send help right away.
I sat there nervously trying to figure out how they were going to get a 5’10” girl weighing 135 pounds up the side of a rather sheer cliff. Five minutes later two uniformed men in a pickup truck pulled up. In the back of the pickup were a stretcher, a huge coil of thick rope, and some metal hooks. Apparently they were going to put my daughter into the stretcher and somehow pull it up the cliff, an operation fraught with its own dangers.
As one of the rangers unlocked the roadblock, he asked me if my daughter was injured.
“No, just scared.” I asked if I could go with them.
“No, you and your son stay here,” the ranger replied. “We’ll take care of your daughter. Don’t worry.” Then, looking at the Book of Psalms I was clutching, he added, “You just pray.”
Having the rescue personnel tell me to pray was less than reassuring, but pray I did. An eternity later, the pickup returned, with my daughter smiling in the back.
Amidst hugs, tears, and thanks to the rangers, I got my children into our car. On the way back to our Golan cabin, I asked Pliyah how they had managed to get her in the stretcher up the cliff.
“They didn’t use the stretcher,” she replied. “I climbed up myself.”
“Y-y-you climbed up yourself?” I was stunned. “But I thought you were too scared?”
'I am a wall. Go up.’ I realized that if I fell back, I'd fall on him. So I wasn’t scared any more.
“I was,” Pliyah explained. “But the two guys came to where I was, and the taller guy stood right behind me and said, ‘Ani homa. Ta'ali. I am a wall. Go up.’ And I realized that if I fell back, I would fall on him. So I wasn’t scared any more, and I just climbed up. No problem.”
“I am a wall. Go up.” What was this magic formula that had turned my daughter’s fear into confidence and propelled her upward?
Times of Paralysis
Life is a trail. When a person has undergone a devastating divorce, or given birth to a special-needs child, or received a dreaded diagnosis, or gone bankrupt, or suffered a death in the family, that person may be too paralyzed to move forward.
We, the friends or relatives, want to be helpful. But the person’s predicament is so complicated or the loss so severe, that pulling the person up the cliff would require far more rope and much more strength than we possess. So, despairing of our own ability to rescue him or her, we slither away.
I have a friend whose 21-year-old daughter was killed in a terror attack. In the wake of the murder, our community responded with an outpouring of love and support. Three months later, however, my friend mentioned to me that one of her oldest, dearest friends was avoiding her. This friend, who lives far away, visited every year on the holiday of Sukkot, but the past Sukkot she had neither come nor called. I was sure this bereaved mother was misreading the situation. Then she told me that as she walked through the narrow lanes of our Old City neighborhood, she often saw neighbors in the distance coming toward her, and then she’d see them abruptly duck into an intersecting lane in order to avoid meeting her.
This phenomenon is, in fact, widespread, and is discussed in the psychological literature. People are at a loss for what to say, or are so afraid of saying the wrong thing and making matters worse, that they avoid the victim of tragedy exactly when their support is most needed. They labor under the fallacy that their job is to pull the person up the cliff, and since this is humanly impossible, their sense of helplessness drives them to cruel avoidance.
Stand firmly behind the person and say, "I am a wall. I’m here for you. You are capable of going up."
From the Israeli Park Ranger I learned a different way: To stand firmly behind the person and say, in words or even with silence, "I am a wall. I’m here for you. You are capable of going up." That may give them the courage to take the next step whenever they are ready.
This means relinquishing the role of the Great Rescuer. It means not philosophizing, not offering unsolicited advice, and not questioning the choices they have made. (“Why did you choose chemo without even trying alternative therapy? “ “I wish you had seen Dr. Miracle the Marriage Counselor before going for a divorce.”) It means not patronizing with pity. (“I’m so sorry your baby is impaired.” “I’m so sorry your financial reverses mean you can’t send your son to the same school this year.”)
For those afraid of saying the wrong thing, here’s a four-word formula that never goes wrong: “I’m here for you.” And mean it.
My friend Shoshana Leibman is an exemplar of the I Am a Wall approach. When everyone in our community was reeling because a mother of many children had been diagnosed with a serious illness, Shoshana walked into their house and announced. “I’m here. Give me laundry to fold.”
Of course, to be a wall for another person, you yourself have to be strong, not in muscles but in faith. You must absolutely believe the foundations of Judaism:
- That everything (including what is painful and challenging) comes from God.
- That everything (including what is painful and challenging) is for our ultimate benefit.
- That everything (especially what is painful or challenging) is an opportunity for spiritual growth.
In addition to faith in God, you must also have faith in the other person’s ability to go up. Tamar was 51 years old when her husband walked out on her and their four children. Suddenly, she had to support the family, but she had not worked in her field for the last 20 years that she was raising children. Recently she called her friend Cookie and told her, “You were the only one who had faith in me that I could go back to school and catch up with the changes in my profession. Now I’m almost ready to rejoin the workforce. I couldn’t have done it without your faith in me.”
Barbara and her husband Josh are baseball enthusiasts. After six years of fertility treatments, they gave birth to a baby with Down’s syndrome. Barbara was shattered with disappointment and, yes, embarrassment. The next day, her sister Hannah arrived at the hospital bearing a large bouquet with a note reading: “I thought you two were good Little League players, but apparently God thinks you’re ready for the Major Leagues.” Then Hannah sat next to Barbara’s bed for four hours. The first two hours, Barbara cried, while Hannah held the newborn and said nothing at all. Slowly, gradually, Barbara and Josh started to move forward, searching for websites of organizations that deal with babies with Down’s and talking about the bris.
When Hannah left, Josh said, “Thanks for coming. You helped us a lot.”
Hannah protested, “I barely said anything.”
Walls specialize in silent support.
Sara Yoheved Rigler is planning her next American tour for Nov. 1-22. If you are interested in her giving a workshop or lecture in your community, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.