Monday, May 10, 2021

The Power of the Hour Facing the Bully

45-COLOR-Power-of-the-Hour_02She was on the way home from shopping with two friends and several children. Her navy blue station wagon, a Chevy Caprice, symbolic of that decade, housed passengers facing forward and multiple children in the back seat. The young ones, facing the rear of the car, waved to the flow of traffic and to its drivers.

The mood was light, the atmosphere was upbeat, even though their expedition yielded minimal purchases. They had all been looking for good buys, but the sale items were not necessarily looking for them. A pleasant outing with friends was a great idea on a wintery day, though.
Mrs. Shaindy Werner was driving on Route 9 toward Lakewood on a cold, blustery afternoon.
As Shaindy approached Second Street and Madison Avenue, she signaled, preparing to make a left turn. Oncoming traffic was steady as she patiently waited. When the road cleared, she pressed on the gas. Through the tiniest corner of her eye she noticed an oncoming car, a block away, accelerate and speed towards her. As soon as realization set in, she instinctively pressed hard on the brake, but it was already too late. The two cars collided and smashed, and her Chevy careened on to the sidewalk. Shaindy closed her eyes in the horror of the moment and the sounds of shattered glass.

There was an eerie silence for a few seconds and then pandemonium broke loose. Bystanders ran to the vehicle to help. Medics were called and zoomed in to take the injured to the appropriate facilities. Police arrived to assess the scene and ticket the guilty parties. Miraculously, every passenger picked up their head without a single injury. They all stepped out of the car to certify that they were, unbelievably, unharmed. The spectators were incredulous. Both drivers even remained unticketed.

Though the front of the car was smashed and the windshield completely gone, two competing tow trucks arrived and reassured Mrs. Werner that her Caprice still had a robust future ahead. Stunned by the enormity of the miracle and the gravity of a near tragedy, she just nodded and walked home slowly with her family.

As Shaindy described the crash to her husband later that evening, she was surprised at her lack of emotion. While Rabbi Shimon Werner kept expounding on the miracle they had merited, she remained calm, almost detached. She brushed aside any show of concern from him and from their neighbors, reassuring all of them that she was completely fine. But she was not.

During the night, Shaindy woke up multiple times from the sounds of shattering glass. Disoriented, she tried to imagine where the noise was coming from, until she realized it was echoing in her mind.

“What is wrong with me? I was so relaxed after the accident, why am I having a delayed reaction?” Shaindy asked her husband the next morning in dismay, eyes bleary from fatigue. Rabbi Werner replied, “Well, maybe you were not as calm and collected as you thought. You definitely had a traumatic experience and you’re trying to diffuse it by pushing it aside. But the shock and near tragedy has remained in your mind.” Hurriedly, he put on his coat, wished his wife well, and rushed to yeshiva.

Shaindy sipped her coffee and mulled over these words. The left turn, the impending crash, shattering glass, the fear, the relief – all these thoughts and emotions replayed itself relentlessly. The next few nights’ attempt at sleep were exercises in futility. “How am I going to manage home, family and school with such weariness?” Shaindy thought.

The following week the repair shop called that the station wagon was fixed and ready to be delivered. “Ma’am, most of the work was done on the body of the car; its exterior was damaged. Luckily the engine was not touched. Hope to get you next time,” the mechanic chuckled. Shaindy froze. “Next time,” she thought. “Did he mean next accident? Relax,” she soothed herself, “he meant next tune-up. Just relax.”

The car remained in front of the Werner apartment, untouched, the entire week. Mrs. Werner walked to school, strolled to the grocery, and took her children to the local playground nearby. Every time Shaindy held the car keys, she convinced herself that walking was healthier, parking was difficult and home-centered activities were optimal.

After several days, Shimon Werner noticed that the car had remained motionless, and he decided to take action. “Shaindy, we are going for a drive,” insisted her husband as he handed her the car keys. Shaindy patiently explained that, with the weather being relatively mild, she would prefer an evening stroll. “We are going to take a few minute drive in the car, Shaindy. If you like, we can walk afterwards.”

Shaindy knew finality in the tone when she heard it. But, as she put the keys in the ignition, she again envisioned the left turn, the oncoming car and the shattering glass. Her hands froze. “Shaindy,” said her husband, “let’s talk. Both of us are teachers. We have both heard or met bullies. In order to overcome the bully, you have to acknowledge that he’s there and face him. Trauma and fear can also be bullies. But, you have to acknowledge the emotion and only then can you face it. You thought you could demolish it by denying it, so there is no opportunity to face it.”

Every day for the next two weeks, Shaindy drove around Lakewood with Shimon in the passenger seat, facing oncoming traffic, making left turns, and most importantly, facing her fear.

What a victorious feeling it was driving her family to her parents in New York for Shabbos. The Werners savored this very potent moment: the paralysis caused by fear had been removed.

A few months later, this very theme presented itself again. The Werners rented out their walk-in apartment to a wonderful family, the Steins. Chaim and Rochel Leah Stein were dream tenants, with sterling middos, unassuming and soft-spoken. Late one evening Rochel Leah knocked hesitantly at the door.

Shaindy opened the door, mentally calculating which appliance in the rented apartment needed repair. Rochel Leah, though, had other things on her mind. Apologizing profusely for the lateness of the hour, she explained that she did not have any idea how to remedy a situation that she faced on a daily basis.

“A few women wait each morning at the corner for our children’s buses. I am a reserved person by nature,” explained Rochel Leah, “so I don’t offer opinions easily, even though I have what to say.” Nodding in understanding, Shaindy waited for Rochel Leah to continue. “But the situation has become intolerable for me. There’s one strong-minded woman who steadily intimidates me. She will comment publicly each morning about my children’s behavior, clothing, choices of snack. She even started to criticize my husband’s intense schedule and his inability to help me more at home.” Rochel Leah started to sob and in a choked voice said, “I started to doubt myself and everyone in my home. I’ve become a prisoner in my own neighborhood.”

Shaindy could easily see how Rochel Leah, with her sterling character, could have become prey to such intimidation. Rochel Leah was blessed with strength of character but no strength of verbal skills to confront thoughtless behavior. Shaindy shared with Rochel Leah her own battle with facing a bully called fear. She had to acknowledge it first, before confronting it. Bullies come in all forms. “Rochel Leah, your neighbor is acting like a bully. She may not even know it, because she has become accustomed to speaking that way. She may even have righteous intentions of helping and guiding you. But she has slowly evolved into a bully.”

With a burst of energy, Rochel Leah protested. “I often heard you advising your own children to look aside, give in, take the high road. Why are you now telling me to confront the person head-on?”46-COLOR-Power-of-the-Hour_03

“Rochel Leah, when we face isolated incidents of clashes of wills, insults, and thoughtlessness, of course we look for a less confrontational approach. It builds character for eternity so we accept and overlook. But if it’s daily and intense, it inhibits your ability to function. It is also causing you to lose trust in the people you care for the most. It’s not only important to address it. It’s vital!”

Shaindy then rehearsed with Rochel Leah different responses, various options, and role-played them with her tenant. They laughed heartily as they upgraded the tones of these dramatic scenes. Mrs. Werner wished Rochel Leah good night after the crash course, noticing Rochel Leah’s more optimistic and confident stride.

Two weeks later, Rochel Leah came to visit again. “I came to tell you that this prisoner has been released. I had the conversation that we rehearsed the next morning, before I lost my courage. The lady was so taken aback that for the very first time since we met, she was absolutely speechless! I spoke to her briefly but very clearly, and described my feelings. I did not want to demolish her as a person, only her power over me. I explained that even if she meant well, her intrusive comments were unacceptable to me. It was the hardest thing I ever had to do in my whole life. It was also the most productive thing I ever had to do in my whole life. I waited two weeks to make sure the situation stabilized. It did. I just wanted to thank you.”

Left turns, careening car, shattered glass – these scenes resurfaced in Shaindy’s mind at that moment, not to haunt her, but to solidify her own progress.

Years later, this theme took an interesting twist. Mrs. Werner’s parents were not alive anymore, but her husband, Shimon Werner, was still fortunate to have elderly parents, healthy and alert. They were frail, but all mental faculties were very intact. They lived out-of-town, so their visits to their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren in New York and Lakewood, were very infrequent. The trip taxed their strength to such a degree that even the anticipation of a trip was daunting. They reserved their energy for simchos alone. The problem became more complex because zeidy and bubby Werner did not want to impose on anyone, so they didn’t allow visits to their city, either. No matter how much all the children pleaded with them, their response was that visits were unnecessary. When the children repeatedly explained that it was not an imposition, but a privilege, they were waved away.

Finally, Rabbi Werner’s parents agreed for Shimon and Shaindy to come for an extended weekend. Not wanting to lose the opportunity, they immediately booked airline tickets. They so looked forward to a slot of time that they could physically perform the exalted mitzvah of kibbud horim.

Several days before departure, Rabbi Werner was walking to yeshiva and felt a spasm of pain and a snap in his leg. He limped there and back in obvious pain. The next day he was ushered into the orthopedist’s office and diagnosed with a complex tear by the side of the knee, the cartilage that enables movement. Walking was difficult, and descending steps was very challenging. Rabbi and Mrs. Werner looked at each other with helpless expressions. They had waited so long to travel to their parents, and now this tear had made their trip very complex.

After tossing out different possibilities, they were both silent. Then Shaindy spoke up. “Shimon, I can’t ask you to travel in such obvious pain, but if it eases somewhat in the next three days, let’s see if it’s possible. The last time your parents let us come visit, I fell on ice, broke my shoulder and scheduled surgery for the day of departure, so we cancelled. This time you had a rough tear and you’re in pain. I feel like there is a tangible force out there that is not allowing us to have this privilege. You taught me about facing the bully after acknowledging his presence. I feel like we are being intimidated by the greatest bully of all – the Sotton himself. He will do anything to prevent us from meriting this privilege. If the pain and discomfort eases, let’s see if we can beat him on his own turf.”

Rabbi Werner looked startled for a minute, but to his ultimate credit, agreed to the idea. The pain eased somewhat, they reserved wheelchair assistance before the flight, and flew off to a joyous Shabbos to spend with his elderly parents, savoring every minute of the privilege. En route home, they disembarked at Kennedy Airport where an American Airlines assistant placed Rabbi Werner in the wheelchair. Noticing people’s sidelong glances, Shaindy asked Shimon if he felt any shame being wheeled through the massive walkways. Smiling, he replied, “Humiliation is just one component of the battle plan.” A past memory resurfaced as she walked past the baggage claim area – left turn, shattered glass. Bullies come in all shapes and sizes. They even come as heavenly emissaries.

As Shimon and Shaindy Werner maneuvered their way home, they welcomed their familiar surroundings. Rabbi Werner limped to his study and Mrs. Werner rushed to the kitchen. There, she turned on the answering machine, and while she checked her cabinets and formed a grocery list, she listened distractedly to the messages. Suddenly, she stopped short, when she heard one brief message. “Hello, Mrs. Werner. This is Suri calling. My husband and I met with you several weeks ago. I decided we don’t need any further help. We’ll work it out on our own. Thanks for your time.”

Shaindy sat down at the kitchen table, mentally scrolling through her memory. She vividly recalled Suri, a former student, who had called for assistance in shalom bayis. It was actually Suri’s husband who called and asked if both of them could come and speak to her. She scheduled a time and warmly welcomed both husband and wife inside her home. As they both spoke to her, individually and then together, it was obvious that they had major character development to work on. But while Suri’s husband was open and honest about his highly sensitive and vulnerable nature, Suri herself was in a state of denial. She did not view herself as negative, or critical, or angry much of the time.

“If Suri would be amenable to make changes as is her husband, there would be room for growth. But, this sustained state of denial is just headed towards collision,” thought Mrs. Werner sadly.

“Why can’t he just accept me the way I am and change his expectations, and we’ll all be happy?”’ Suri demanded in a petulant way. Mrs. Werner tried to diffuse the tense atmosphere by getting drinks and serving them in delicate stemware. “Maybe if she’s slowly sipping her drink, she’ll minimize her anger and negativity,” thought Mrs. Werner.

The heated conversation continued for a little while, but Mrs. Werner knew where this was headed. She was averse to such total self-absorption, such total lack of concern for others that Suri displayed, so she ended the talk and directed them to the door, pleading with Suri to seek additional help. As Suri’s husband stood up quickly, his long-stemmed glass fell, and he helplessly watched as the delicate glass shattered into hundreds of fragments. Suri rolled her eyes in obvious disdain and asked for a broom to sweep the pieces aside. Waving aside any assistance, Mrs. Werner ushered the couple outside.

“Shattered glass can’t just be swept aside,” Shaindy thought to herself. “You have to face it and deal with it.

As she listened to Suri’s message by the kitchen table, refusing any assistance and sealing her own fate, Shaindy Werner recalled a grammar lesson from decades ago concerning the definition of a noun: a person, a place, or a thing.

Bullies can be similarly defined. They take on various shapes and forms. It could be an emotion called fear, it could be an intrusive neighbor, it could be the greatest force of all – the Sotton himself. They have to be acknowledged and faced down until they are no longer a threat. Otherwise, bullies can cause limitations, excuses, even paralysis.

Yes, sometimes, we have to face our own flaws, our own shortcomings, our own character deficiencies. Because the hardest bully to face and overcome, is our own selves.

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