Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the host of TLC’s “Shalom in the Home,” which airs every Sunday night at 7pm beginning March 4. His website is www.shmuley.com.
Every day I receive e-mails from people communicating their personal problems. They write of their broken marriages, their children who won’t speak to them, and their parents who have never shown them affection. The tone of anguish in these letters is excruciating and unmistakable. You can feel the pain pouring through the words. They write to me to figure out how to make the situation right so that the pain will go away.
For many years I tried to respond to the majority of these e-mails. But when the volume greatly increased, especially after “Shalom in the Home” began airing, I started responding to very few. But still they would come, in great number, and I would peruse them quickly and decide which two or three I would answer.
I noticed something happen as I quickly glanced at these anguished pleas for help. I was no longer feeling the pain of the writers. The personal nature of the e-mails was being lost to me. Indeed, many represented a nuisance, since they got in the way of the many responsibilities I had.
Then, one day, I had a fight with my wife. My wife and I love each other very deeply, and, thank God, rarely argue. But this was a notable exception as we wounded each other intensely, neither party being prepared to retreat from cutting and hurtful words.
I walked away from the fight numb with pain. I did not feel bad. Rather, I did not feel at all. My heart was in so much pain that it went into shock from the trauma and lost its ability to feel any emotion. It had become stone.
It was the loneliest feeling of my life. Here I was, wracked with grief, desperate for someone, anyone, to pity me, desperate for someone to know the depth of my wound. But since fighting with my principal comfort in life, my wife, was the actual source of my pain, I had no one to turn to for comfort.
I am blessed with many acquaintances but not a lot of friends. To be sure, I agree with the proclamation of the Talmud that without friendship death is better than life. But with eight children, many religious responsibilities, and a career that is an all-encompassing calling, something’s got to give, and it is mostly friendship and socializing that I have been forced to cut out. This only magnified the depth of my despair, as I felt dreadfully alone with no one to talk to. Indeed, the only thing to comfort me was wallowing in wretched self-pity, a counterfeit and toxic substitute for genuine human warmth.
It was at that moment that my mind turned back to all the e-mails I receive. All those desperate people who in their pain had turned to me because they had nowhere else to turn. They could not bear any more hurt, and neither could I. I tried to picture their faces. Did they have the same stony look that my own countenance now bore, the look of surrender betraying an individual no longer afraid of further pain because in his catatonic state he is anesthetized against any feeling?
I thought of these innocent people and how I had closed my heart to them. Each was God’s child, but I had not found the time to take away even a granule of their pain. And yet, the knowledge that they were out there, and that they, and they alone, understood the depth of my despair, was the only comfort I could find. Their existence was what sustained me. I vowed that when I came out of the all-enveloping gloom that consumed me, I would fight with my nature to always have an understanding and feeling heart and devote myself even more to those in crisis.
Even as I write these words, I cannot guarantee that I will fulfill my pledge. It is a poor excuse, I know, but I lack the discipline to necessarily carry it through. But of this I am certain: the memory of the pain I felt that day will never leave me and I will tap into its scar tissue to remind me of my obligation to my suffering fellow man.
Every day of our lives we come across acquaintances, family members, and friends who are in unspeakable emotional pain from domestic strife. But it’s a pain that often does not register with us, seeing as it does not involve the death of a spouse or extreme bodily injury. We trivialize their suffering even as they lose their sanity because they have no shalom in their homes.
Not wanting to be a nuisance to us, they wait for us to inquire as to their dejected state. We indulge them with a light sprinkling of interest by asking a perfunctory question or two, because we do care, just not enough to truly invest ourselves in helping them. And yet, alleviating their pain would be as simple as lending a sympathetic ear and an empathetic heart. The most passive effort, like simply nodding in acquiescence as they share their trauma, would often be enough to validate their pain and offer a horizon of hope.
They are not necessarily looking for answers. In many cases, people with significant personal problems already know what they must do to make the situation better. Rather, they are simply looking to jumpstart their heart, and for that they need to know that the world is not all pain – that there are people who care and strangers who see the depth of their anguish.
When I lived in Israel as a yeshiva student, I loved and was close to an uncle named David. He nurtured me like a father and loved me like a son. After my two years of study there were up, he lit up like a fireworks display whenever I would come to Israel to visit. But then a personal problem began to affect his life. He turned to me for support on my regular visits and but after a while, exposure to a problem I felt I could not help with became a terrible burden. Whenever he brought up the issue I changed the subject. I came to Israel for inspiration, not depression. So I pretended not to see his distress and I let him down.
A few years later, my beloved uncle passed away. He died without my comfort. When our son was born last year, I named him David in loving memory of my uncle. But it was second-tier compensation for one of a monumental omission of life. And all I had to do was listen.
In this current state of human development it remains unclear whether we will correct one of life’s greatest tragedies, namely, the inability to appreciate a blessing until it is lost.
Nevertheless, let us go forth as one human family to comfort each other and support one another through pain. It is not only bereaved parents who suffer. If you have a friend who is recently divorced, go and offer comfort. If you know a woman whose marriage ended and who is raising her kids alone, give her support and reassurance. And if you know a man who senselessly argues with his wife or she with him, endeavor to make peace between them.
You will make the world a brighter place and God will smile upon you.