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November 1, 2014 / 8 Heshvan, 5775
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Nishmah Vena’aseh: Think Before Speaking

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Dear Dr. Yael:

My husband and I are married for three years and want to have children. Thus I’m undergoing fertility treatment, and gaining weight as a result.

At a wedding I recently attended, everyone was looking at my stomach. Someone actually approached me and said, smiling, “I see that you put on some weight, so when is the baby due?” I cringed and thought I would fall through the floor. I muttered under my breath that I was not pregnant and left the person standing there. Then I ran to the bathroom and could not stop crying.

Dr. Respler, this happens all the time; everywhere I go everyone looks at my stomach. And since I am naturally thin people immediately assume that if I gain some weight, I am pregnant. Why are people so insensitive?

Here’s a second story: Unfortunately, my friend lost a brother in a car accident. He was a good driver, but was suddenly hit by a truck. Someone came to the shiva house and actually told his mother that he should not have been driving at such a young age. (This was not the case, as he was an experienced driver who had never had a road accident.) My friend relayed to me how some people were so insensitive while paying a shiva call.

It can be so painful to have to listen to people who don’t think before they speak.

Please urge people to practice greater sensitivity toward others by carefully weighing their words.

Anonymous

Dear Anonymous:

I feel for your and your friend’s pain, along with that of your friend’s mother (during both the shiva period and afterward). You are all experiencing onas devarim from people who act thoughtlessly when speaking.

Many of my clients have repeated painful things that have been said to them. Often, the experience is with someone who is just not thinking before she or he speaks. I urge my readers, and all others, to please think before possibly saying something painful. And remember that if you do not know what to say, it is better not to say anything.

If you know someone who is going through a difficult time, speak with him or her about a subject that you would talk about with one of your other friends. Avoid the painful subject, unless your friend chooses to bring it up.

Undergoing fertility treatments can be exhausting and emotionally draining. In the frum community, most people expect couples to have children right away. This expectation can be thorny for the many couples not having immediate success. So even though it is senseless to assume that someone is pregnant, this happens often in our community. Instead of letting this insensitivity consume you, consider responding to the thoughtless person in a way that is less emotionally taxing. Find the inner strength to smile while saying, “I just put on a little weight, and I hope that Hashem will bless me soon with a child.” Saying this will give you a triumphant feeling and will make the other person feel a bit uncomfortable. Perhaps in the future, this individual will think before speaking.

My advice to those paying a shiva call: listen to the aveil and only talk positively about the niftar. It is traditional for the visitor to not begin a discussion with the aveil, only to listen with a sympathetic ear to the his or her needs.

Additionally, discussions about unrelated matters like household help or other issues are inappropriate. Socializing at shiva houses is also out of place. When you pay a shiva call, focus on making the other person feel better instead of focusing on your feelings of discomfort. This will help you be a better listener without the need to make idle conversation in order to offset your discomfort.

This issue was eloquently addressed in the book, Positive Word Power, by the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation. Here is a synopsis of a story in the book: One day a man noticed a 13-year-old boy standing outside the shul smoking a cigarette. The man felt that he could not observe this behavior without doing something to discourage it. “Does your father smoke?” he asked him pointedly. “No, he doesn’t,” the boy responded.

A moment later there was an announcement that Minchah was about to begin. The man followed the boy inside and was astounded and ashamed that the boy was approaching the bimah to lead the services. It was the boy’s obligation to do so, for he had recently lost his father. The man felt terrible about what he had said, though he could not have known [about this] unless he inquired about the boy before speaking to him.

The lesson: If one knows a person well, he must think about that person’s sensitivities regarding general issues before making any comment to him. If, on the other hand, one does not know someone, he should not say anything without first finding out more about that person.

Hence, before you speak to someone about something of a personal nature, ask yourself if the topic you plan to address is an appropriate one and whether you know the person well enough to have the impending discussion. If the answer to either question is “no,” it would be prudent to err on the side of caution and say nothing. Don’t forget that one never knows what someone else is going through unless he or she has been in the same position.

It is imperative to judge others favorably since you do not know what another person is experiencing at the time in question – and thus why the person is acting in a certain way.

I hope your letter serves as a wake-up call to others to think carefully before they speak. While most people who speak wrongfully do not mean to be hurtful, they are far less likely to offend others if they first put serious thought into what they’re planning to say before saying it.

Thank you for your heartfelt letter. May Hashem grant you the strength to deal with all of your nisyonos, and may He bless you with children soon. Hatzlachah!

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