When a person goes through hard times words of encouragement can be a big lift. However, these well-intended words can backfire if they are seen as too unrealistic by the recipient and do not connect to what the person is going through.
Often it’s the context of what’s being said. If a boy grows up having difficulty walking and needs a wheelchair to go more than 50 feet, it may not make him feel so good to hear that he’s going to make the little league baseball team in a month. It’s unrealistic, and it will only unnecessarily remind him of what he can’t do.
However, there’s nothing wrong with dreaming of a brighter future, especially if you’re starting to make progress with some challenge you have. I was very moved when I was at the Baseball Hall of Fame to read a letter written by Babe Ruth to a young boy. By the context of the letter it was clear that the boy had great difficulty walking when he was growing up. But it was also clear that he was making steady progress as the Babe expressed great happiness at the picture the boy sent of him riding a horse.
The Babe concluded the letter by saying that he hoped that one day the public address announcer at Yankee Stadium would say, “Now replacing Babe Ruth in right field…” and then he wrote in the boy’s name. I would think the boy was thrilled to receive that letter of hope.
In general it can be very positive to have someone think brightly of your future. It can give a different perspective to someone who’s going through a cycle of despair. After all, the giver of these positive words knows it is what he is thinking about the person in need. In general, it is less helpful when a person purports that he or she knows what the other person is thinking, feeling or going through.
To be sure, it can be helpful if someone has a broken leg to tell what it was like when you had a broken leg. But a line is crossed when you say to that person, “I know exactly what you’re going through. I had the same thing.” No two people have the same exact injury and no two people relate to it the same way.
I know of a man who was grief-stricken when his father was killed in an automobile accident. On the day he went back to work after shivah he felt numb and was just going through the motions. What he needed was a friend to draw him out and get him to relate what was going on. A well-meaning person walked up to him soon after he walked into the office and explained that she, too, had lost her father under tragic circumstances, and she knew exactly what he was going through. Then she walked away. Rather than feeling comforted, the man felt that the woman hadn’t connected one iota to what he was going through.
“I’m sorry with what you’re going through” gives a person an opening to express what’s on his or her mind. Sometimes it’s not so important what you tell persons in need, but rather, it’s what they tell you that can be so beneficial to them.
There is a man who has great difficulty speaking. I’ll call him Reuven. He lies in bed all day and all night. To his credit, he is able to do a lot of religious learning by memory and that gives him something stimulating and meaningful to occupy significant stretches of time. It’s wonderful when people compliment him for the great learning he does. Positive reinforcement is very important.
However, there is one man who I think went too far in his compliments. He would say, “Reuven, you’re luckier than the rest of us. We have our bodies that get in the way of our spiritual needs. But you, you can focus day and night on the spiritual. You’re at a much better place than the rest of us.”
And while I’m hearing this I’m thinking that maybe Reuven would love to have better use of his body, would love to have better use of his arms where he could hold his grandchildren. Better use of his legs, where he could go on outings with his family and walk to shul. If Reuven wants to think he’s in a good place, that’s great. But is it really helpful to tell an ill person, in effect, that they’re better off having an infirmity? I think not.
When going to see a person in great need, it can be very challenging to know what to say. This probably keeps a number of people from visiting in the first place. But if you go and it’s a big mitzvah to do so, especially if it’s very difficult, you can just keep things nice and simple.
“How are you?” could lead to a conversation that will take on it’s own natural flow. And if you know there’s something he is trying to accomplish, you can let him know you’re rooting for him and that you think he will succeed.
Realistic hope, given in a caring tone of voice, with body language that says, “I’m there for you,” can go a long way.
Bikur Cholim of Boro Park has organized a program that deals with the specific needs of men who are Holocaust survivors. “The Afternoon Chevra” is for retired men and meets on Monday afternoons at 1:30 p.m. at Sarah Schenirer Hall, 4622 14th Avenue. For more information contact Rabbi Baruch Krupnik at 718/249-3515.
A Daf Yomi shiur open to the community is given by Rabbi Chaskel Scharf at Scharf’s Ateret Avot Senior Residence, 1410 E. 10th Street, Midwood, Brooklyn. It meets at 2:30 p.m. from Sunday to Thursday and 11:15 a.m. on Friday. Call 718/998-5400 for more information.