Imagine working in a place where the staff changes so frequently that you literally never know whom you’re going to have to deal with that day. The uniforms are the same but the people inside them are different. You feel constantly off-balance as you try to suit your interactions with team members who are not who they were the day before.
Or, to move into the realm of fantasy or science fiction: imagine a situation where those around you are constantly undergoing hidden alterations to their personalities, so that while the faces may be familiar, you struggle to pinpoint and keep up with the changes. It would be a mighty challenge to interact appropriately with this kind of ever-evolving individual at any given moment.
Well, I have news for you: this is something that each of us has to contend with every single day. And there’s not a bit of fantasy involved!
People may appear fairly static on the outside, but their inner words are continually changing and evolving. For children, this is part of the growing-up process. But make no mistake: those of us who are already all grown-up experience plenty of inner change as well. Day by day, even minute by minute, we are fashioned by our experiences. Each impactful encounter, each inspirational eye-opener, everything that touches or teaches or traumatizes us, are tools that chisel our characters like statues under a master sculptor’s hand.
The inner changes are not always visible to strangers or even, it must be said, to those closest to us. In fact, it may take a while before we ourselves become cognizant of a change or growth process that’s been brewing inside, sometimes for quite a long time.
Those nearest and dearest to us, the people living under the very same roof, are constantly changing in small or not-so-small ways. And it’s our job to somehow keep up with it all… just as they have to learn to do with us. This is not always so easy. And yet, every relationship stands or falls on the ability of its members to do so. On our ability to recognize the changes as they occur, and to adapt to them.
To keep our balance, we need to keep our eyes open to see which way the prevailing winds are blowing and do our best not to flounder in the ever-changing seas of the relationship. Go with the flow might be a suitable motto.
Or, more accurately: Go with myriad surprising new flows, just about every day of the week.
Let’s start with the parent-child relationship.
Anyone who’s ever had to tend to a baby or young child on a daily basis knows how similar the days can feel. You have a sense that the child has been and will always be exactly the way he or she is today. The same ongoing need to be dressed, changed, fed, and entertained. The same childish jokes and whims and tantrums.
But that feeling is misleading. Because, from day to day and from week to week, that child is changing. Growing. Becoming a new person, right before our very eyes!
It’s a parent’s job to recognize and keep up with those changes… or else.
For example, a young child needs plenty of protecting, cuddling and displays of affection. But suppose you somehow miss the signs that your kid is growing up. Suddenly, you’re embarrassing your son by trying to kiss him goodbye in front of his friends at the school bus, or offering your protection to a teenager who doesn’t need it. Such outmoded behaviors not only don’t work, but because they are symptoms of a parent who is not in tune with her child, they can be taken by the child as a sign of disrespect. Or, worse, of not caring enough to notice who he is and who he is becoming.
I think it fair to assume that, in most cases, the parent does care. But maybe she’s caring for a child who no longer exists. And therein lies the problem.
In raising children, who are, by definition, growing machines, a parent must be alert enough to notice when things are in flux and flexible enough to change along with them. The child whose pain you so successfully comforted yesterday with kisses and lollipops may need something else today. The trouble is, your teenager’s not likely to spell it out. At least, not in so many words. She may take to “acting out” to make her point. A point that feels as vital as life and death to her.
She’s wearing a different face now, to reflect a different inner world. And it’s up to you, the parent, to recognize that all-important fact. Whenever it happens. As often as it happens.
These skills also come in handy when dealing with those in our lives who are no longer children.
An adult’s inner landscape, while more stable than that of a child, is also susceptible to change. In fact, if the goal of living is growing, and growing by definition is changing, then the person you married back then is hopefully not the same person that you live with today.
He’s responded to the events and demands, the troubles and rewards of his life, which in turn have altered the way he thinks and feels. Subtle changes, perhaps, but ones which move him gradually away from the man he was yesterday and color the way he says and does things today. You, meanwhile, have undergone a similar process.
Life throws out its challenges, and you are both engaged in the process of responding to them. Those responses, in any sort of thinking person, give rise to inner change. You are engaged in a delicate dance in which each of you is paired with a partner whose style and pacing is evolving practically from one moment to the next. The trick is to make it work anyway.
If the spouse is a good communicator, he’ll be open about his inner landscape with the woman with whom he’s chosen to share his life. He will share what he’s experiencing, and he’ll accept input that’s offered the right way. If he’s not a good communicator, it becomes his wife’s job to figure it out on her own. One way or another, she needs to keep up. She has to realize (as does he) that the person they married is long gone, replaced by a more updated version. Those versions just keep on coming. And we just keep on adapting.
Sometimes, the changes are not so subtle. Perhaps your spouse has gone the whole route and made a major life change, such as becoming a ba’al teshuvah, turning from Litvish to Chassidish or vice-versa, expressing a wish to leave behind the city lights for the joys of rural living or vice versa. The possibilities are endless, because man’s capacity for change is endless. And so, therefore, must be the flexibility of the spouse who’s along for the ride.
This is not an option; it’s imperative. Because, if we don’t adapt to each new reality as it surfaces in our partner, the day will come when we’ll have to face the fact that we’re married to a stranger.
At times, as in a real dance, we can lose our footing. It takes constant, loving vigilance to remain attuned to the ever-changing inner worlds of those we care about. But when we succeed, that attunement is the best way we can show them how much they mean to us. Even if they’re different than they were yesterday. Even if we know that things will be different in another way tomorrow. We’re prepared to accept that. We’re prepared to accept them.
The people closest to us are not static. In ways large and small, they are constantly evolving. And every new stage, visible or concealed, must elicit a change in the way we view, think about, and treat them. As our loved ones evolve, the way we conduct ourselves toward them evolves accordingly. Each dance step brings on a matching one. That’s how we demonstrate that we not only care for them, but that we see them.
Tricky? Yes. Difficult at times? Absolutely.
But when you stop and think about it, could there be anything more beautiful?