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August 30, 2015 / 15 Elul, 5775
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Getting Out Of The Driver’s Seat In Someone Else’s Car

I was at a recent fundraiser on behalf of Israel’s Beit Halochem institutions. In Hebrew, beit halochem means the house of the warrior and that is what these centers are – a home away from home for disabled Israeli soldiers and wounded victims of Islamic terror and violence. These rehabilitation centers provide the disabled with a user-friendly environment where they can socialize and participate in sports and related activities designed to increase physical fitness and enhance mental well-being and self-esteem.

One of the beneficiary’s of Beit Halochem’s state-of-the-art facilities was a young man in his early 20’s who heroically attempted to rescue his commander while under attack four years ago. He was paralyzed from the waist down. I was struck by the sadness that never left his eyes, even when he smiled on occasion. I was tempted to go up to him and tell him to stop feeling sorry for himself, that yes he could no longer walk but should appreciate what he could do – move his arms and feed and groom himself and see and hear and think. “Get over it, I thought and move forward.”

And then it hit me that I was acting in a manner that I find offensive in others – being a “backseat driver” – making judgments and decisions on a person’s actions and behavior without having any clue as to what it was like to be in his shoes. Who was I to tell this young man who could not play tennis with his friends, or dance at a simcha, or even get up and help himself to a snack from the fridge – to lighten up and be happy? I have no experience whatsoever with his predicament and I had already formed an opinion about how he should deal with it.

Unfortunately, there are too many ‘back-seat’ drivers in our lives, know-it-alls who feel they are doing you a favor micromanaging your life, negatively evaluating your feelings, your reactions and your actions and telling you how you should think, act or feel. They have no idea what it’s like to be in the situation you’re in, but they insist that they know what is best for you. A friend going through a nasty divorce from an emotionally immature spouse shared with me how another friend, happily married, asked her why she just didn’t sit down with her husband and discuss their issues instead of running to a divorce court. She and her husband also had their disagreements but would talk about them and come to a compromise. Being married to a mentsch, she had no idea what life was like with a close-minded, controlling individual and that sitting down and “talking” was not an available option in this case. It was “his way or the highway.” In another instance, another woman opined that a friend was grieving too much and for too long over a stillborn baby. After all she had other children and could still have more. This self-appointed “feelings police” was making a judgment, as I almost did, on a person’s state of mind without having an inkling of what they were living through.

They say that the road to hell is paved with the best of intentions. There are many people who truely believe that they know better than you how to live your life. As a result of their constant meddling and the imposition of their ‘superior’ advice – almost always accompanied by belittling and criticism – even those with healthy self-esteem can begin questioning their competence and become flooded with self-doubt. They are at risk of becoming insecure, afraid to take the initiative because of diminishing confidence, often allowing themselves to become controlled and dominated. It’s crucial for ones future emotional and even physical well-being to stand up and be assertive and basically tell these people – if they are chronic “back seat drivers” to “get out of your car.” If they continue their demoralizing antics, if they refuse to respect and validate your feelings, if they make you feel guilty or inferior or weak, then it may be time for you to press the “eject button” and remove them from your life. In most cases, these individuals feel small themselves, they have deep feelings of inadequacy which they try to shore up by imposing their opinions. Hence you may have a man with low self-esteem being a very controlling, dictator-like husband and father, or a mother-in-law making herself feel important by wanting to teach her daughter-in-law how to cook and clean the ‘right’ way. Advice and chizuk, even opinions, are good things – but only when they are offered in a manner that will make a person feel better about themselves.

We are all guilty of judging people. That is human nature and often we mean well. But isn’t it rather arrogant to think that you belong in the driver’s seat in a car that isn’t yours?

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