Tuesday, Apr 23, 2024

Look And Listen

In a Perfect World

The recent ArtScroll biography about Rav Chaim Kanievsky, features a humorous story about how some people simply refuse to hear what’s being said to them. A man came to the Chazon Ish to inquire about a certain bochur who’d been frequenting the Chazon Ish’s apartment. Although the Chazon Ish kept urging him to make better use of his time, the bochur insisted on hanging around the place day after day, watching the action.

One day, a man came to the Chazon Ish to inquire about that bochur as a shidduch prospect for his daughter. The man asked several questions about the prospective son-in-law. He wanted to know whether the bochur was a masmid, whether he davened well, and how his bein adam lachaveiro was. To each question, the Chazon Ish answered, “Could be better.”

You’d think that any father would get the message. Instead, the man exclaimed, “You know something? I could be better, too! We can all use some improvement!” Whereupon he went ahead with the shidduch and soon became the bochur’s father-in-law.

What are we to take from such a story? On a mystical level, it seems clear that Hakadosh Boruch Hu wanted this match to take place. In purely human terms, however, the man in question displayed an almost ludicrous ability to tune out what he didn’t want to hear. If the whole point of investigating the bochur was to discover what he could about his piety and middos, why didn’t he pick up on what the Chazon was telling him?

For that matter, why do we sometimes turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to certain things? When it comes to seeing what we want to see and hearing what we want to hear, none of us is absolved. That’s because selective seeing and hearing seems to be a very human trait. In fact, when done unwittingly, I’d have to call it a very human failing. Used with deliberation, however, it can be used to foster peace and harmony. Let’s see how this works.

First: why? Why would a person refuse to see something that’s right in front of his eyes? Chazal offer one reason when they tell us that “ahavah mekalkeles es hashura”—love has the power to distort a person’s good sense. In other words, love makes us blind.

The Torah tells us that Sara Imeinu insisted her husband send Yishmoel away because he posed a spiritual danger to their son, Yitzchok. This begs the question: did Avrohom Avinu himself not notice Yishmoel’s negative behavior? Did he witness it, but refuse to lend it weight? Perhaps, in his love for his son, even such a figure of towering intelligence and commitment to reality did not see what his wife saw with such clarity.

Mothers are by no means exempt from this tendency. I’m sure we all know women, possibly including ourselves, who simply refuse to see the slightest flaw in their kidlets. There’s a loving excuse for every bad behavior, an indignant repudiation of every negative report. Our love for our children can render our vision considerably less than 20-20 when it comes to confronting their flaws.

Our ears can be guilty of selective hearing, too. Have you ever tried to debate some issue with a person who has already made up his mind? There’s simply no one to talk to. You can present all sorts of cogent arguments to bolster your position, but he won’t hear them. It’s as if his preconceived ideas have erected a sound barrier which blocks out anything that contradicts it.


The Flip Side

So far, we’ve gone the negative route. We’ve pointed out various ways in which selective seeing or hearing can be a sign of subjectivity, keeping us from being open-minded as it shields us from unpalatable truths. Is there any way in which closing our eyes or stopping our ears can be a positive thing?

The answer is—absolutely!

The problematic or negative kind of selective blindness or deafness occurs when our minds allow our hearts to dictate matters. Instead of new information going directly to the brain for processing, it takes a detour via our emotional center, which can distort our view of the facts and block us from absorbing what we don’t wish to absorb. This makes for a highly subjective reality… which, of course, is not actually reality at all.

But there are certain times when we may choose not to see or hear. I remember once hearing some wise advice about dealing with in-laws or machatonim who may not be your cup of tea. The advice is essentially to put on blinders. To simply decide not to notice things that could bother you. A pair of symbolic earplugs wouldn’t hurt, either, when coping with the difficult people in our lives.

You could say that the difference between a foolish refusal to see or hear, and a wise decision to look away or not listen, is the difference between mindfulness and mindlessness. Same action, different premise.

In the latter case, the brain is bypassed and essentially rendered irrelevant because of some strong emotion or preconceived notion. In the former, the mind is actively engaged in the healthy business of noting reality and reacting to it.

We’ve said that love can rob a person of his good sense. Let’s add that the same process holds true when we’re in the grip of any strong emotion. Hatred, for example. A person who is consumed with loathing for another can be utterly deaf to any praise of that person. The only time his ears tune in is when nasty stuff is being said about his nemesis. Jealousy and resentment can temporarily cloud our vision and stop our ears. So can the sense of self-importance that comes from too much flattery.

It seems that our ability to take in data and arrive at rational decisions in an objective, impartial way is extremely susceptible to the emotional currents that constantly run through us. That’s why it’s so crucial that we try to cultivate mindfulness. Only by being in touch with how things impact us, minute by minute, can we nullify the tendency of our feelings to muddy the waters.

I once mentioned on these pages that whenever I notice myself starting to make internal arguments with myself about why I should or shouldn’t do something, it’s often a sign of the yetzer hara at work. I think the same can be said here. Whenever we find ourselves strongly opposed to hearing or seeing something, strangely reluctant to accept something that’s clamoring to be noticed, maybe we should stop and wonder why.

This, incidentally, is the tool that mussar uses to keep us on the level. It teaches us not to take ourselves and our opinions at our own superficial estimation, but rather to delve deeply into the whys and hows of every reaction as it occurs. As often as not, there will be some hidden and very subjective reason just waiting to be noticed.

A reason which acts like a pair of hands, covering our eyes and ears just when we need them most.



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