My Way or the Highway

A man was out driving when his wife called him frantically on his cell phone. “Are you on Main Street?” she asked, knowing that his normal route would take him to that busy four-lane road.

“Yes,” he replied. “I am. Why do you ask?”

“Well, I just heard on the radio something about a car having been spotted going down the wrong way on Main Street. They’re trying to find and stop him, but I just wanted to tell you to be careful.”

It was quiet for a moment on the other end, and then the man whistled. “You won’t believe this,” he said, “but now that I’m looking, it’s not only one car. It seems that all the cars are driving the wrong way down this street!”

• • • • •

While we chuckle at the driver’s certainty that it is everyone else who’s got it wrong, the truth is that in so many areas of life, we, too, see the rest of the world through a narrow prism that has us always in the right and those doing otherwise clearly acting backwards.

If the world would be comprised only of extremes, then perhaps we would indeed be making a correct assumption. After all, given only two opposing choices, if we are doing something we believe is right, all others, by default, must be wrong. If the choices are only black or white, good or bad, then one is either right or wrong, good or bad. There is no in-between.

What messes up this easy and simplistic equation is that there are endless shades of gray spanning the spectrum between black and white. Are any of us all good or all bad? Hardly. We do many good things, and perhaps there are even some readers who are really up there, but no one can say that there are no areas where they still require lots of work.

While all of the above should be quite basic, it seems, for some unknown reason, that over the last few decades, our vision has been growing narrower and narrower. People are seeing things in black or white, and the idea of subtle differences or nuanced perception is becoming rarer and rarer. The examples of this in everyday life are everywhere.

One common and recurring example is the ubiquitous “letter to the editor” which seems to appear any time a topic is brought up that has more than one side to it – which is virtually any topic.

Take, for example, the recent back and forth in this very paper regarding therapists and the great damage – or great assistance – they render. While a letters-to-the-editor column, especially one where virtually everyone is anonymous, is usually not where one would look to find anything worthwhile, when it comes to anthropological studies, a letters column may be just where one might accurately take the pulse of a community. Ergo, it is quite telling that it is virtually impossible for a letter to appear warning of the damage certain therapists have inflicted on unsuspecting victims without an opposing letter whose writer protests furiously, because, after all, he was helped by his therapist.

Now, logically, such a second letter has completely missed the point and all its protestations are irrational. After all, the point of the first letter was to warn about therapists who have, and who still would, wreak tremendous damage on individuals and families due to their incompetence or their having been influenced by the secular ideas and values prevalent where they have studied. This first letter does not say that the problems are never real, nor that it is not possible for qualified and Torahdike individuals to assist the sufferers. By the same token, a hundred letters written by people who have been helped by proper therapy does not take away from the fact that therapists who do not administer their therapy properly and have ruined countless lives are dangerous people who should make their parnassah selling tomatoes rather than dealing with live people.

Yet, as far back as this author can remember – and it’s only been getting worse – every time anyone writes about a certain type of music, educational atmosphere, retail product, expression, teaching, or anything else that is dangerous, anti-Torah, unhealthy, or otherwise not good, there is always the inevitable, “How can you say that?! My cousin’s neighbor’s niece had a positive experience with her type of music, education, retail product or teaching!” As if all the very real and very terrible damage done by improper influences is in any way negated by the fact that someone else might have had a positive experience with a positive influence.

In the vernacular, it’s called mixing klutz with boidem. It’s nonsensical and irrational, yet as predictable as flies follow garbage, a completely irrelevant protest will always follow any good point anybody might make. How are we to understand this myopic tunnel-vision, this one-dimensional world-view from which our generation suffers? Just because I had a bad experience, why can’t it be that someone else had a good experience? Conversely, why does my positive experience mean that it is a chutzpah for anyone to even suggest that others may have had negative experiences?

Surely our generation is not comprised of people simply not smart enough to incorporate two differing experiences in one mind. Why, then, this curious phenomenon?

Years back, I recall two people discussing a Jewish singer (this was before the idea of a Jewish “entertainer” even existed). One fellow was emphatic that this singer was evil incarnate. After all, it was he who introduced many non-Jewish, and less-than-mentchlich, beats and ideas into frum society. The second person insisted that the singer was no less than an angel. After all, he knew for a fact of many positive accomplishments performed by this selfsame singer, whether in the realm of chesed or chizuk to others.

The two could not be reconciled. The first kept asking how anyone can say that this guy does chesed when he sings like a goy. The second was equally furious that anyone could even suggest that the fellow sings like a goy when it was a fact that he did so much chesed.

Now perhaps the reason that I did not find myself agreeing with either of these two disputants was because I happened to know – for a fact! – that both were right. There was no question that the subject of their debate did, at times, “sing like a goy,” but I knew as well of phenomenal kindnesses in which he was involved. From my unique perspective, then, the entire debate made no sense. Why did it have to be either this or that? Are we all one-sided individuals? Do those of us who do good have no yeitzer hara and never fall? Why could they not see that clearly this person did much good, but at the same time his yeitzer hara got the better of him at times?

Does the fact that someone will have to give a din v’cheshbon for the terrible things he has done preclude the other good things he did? If someone’s music is treif, does that mean that he never did anything good in his life? Conversely, does the fact that he does so much good mean that his music cannot be treif? Why can’t both be true?

There is no question that we are all smart enough to understand this. Perhaps, then, our blindness is one rooted not in the mind, but in the heart. The surrounding society has produced a generation of coddled individuals who can think of nothing but their own desires, feelings and whims. In our embracing this surrounding culture, we may have unwittingly, though predictably, weakened ourselves as well. We simply have no idea how to see past ourselves.

If I was helped by my therapist, how dare anyone malign therapy or therapists? Never mind that they are speaking of therapists who do not help, but rather destroy, people. My focus is me, and I was helped, and if you speak negatively in any way about this topic, you are minimizing my pain. Oh, poor me. How dare you not commiserate with my pain by doing everything in your power to validate me and my pain? Oh, you are not even speaking about my situation or my pain? Sorry, I am too absorbed in myself and my situation to even see any other possible situation.

So it goes for everything else. If I was hurt by a comment made to me by a well-meaning individual, such a comment must be cruel and thoughtless. The fact that others may actually get chizuk from the exact same comment in no way minimizes the obtuseness of anyone who dares to make it. If I was hurt, it is a hurtful comment. Period. There are no two sides.

If I am a confused soul and find some sort of temporary solace in questionable styles of music, how dare anyone point out the fact that such music has pushed teens away from a healthy lifestyle? If I understand the dangers of goyishe music, how dare anyone suggest that one who promotes it ever did good in his life? If I was helped by an individual, how dare anyone suggest that anything he does is not right?

So while, logically, none of the above statements contradict any of the other statements, it’s not that we can’t understand that. We don’t want to understand it. We turn everything into black or white and blind ourselves to any of the thousand shades of gray.

What’s the purpose of pointing all this out? Surely it is not to dwell on our shortcomings. There is nothing to be gained by that.

What we can do, however, is to realize where our feelings are coming from and thus work on changing our perspectives. When we see, hear, read or experience something and our immediate reaction is a negative one, we may wish to stop for a moment before lashing out, either openly or in our own minds. Let us ask ourselves why we feel so upset. Is it because the other person is wrong, or is it rather a result of our own personal experience or preference? Can it be that our situations are different? Can it be that, even in an identical situation, the other person is not uncaring but rather feels entirely differently than we do? Can it be that some people actually like a comment we would look at as being horribly thoughtless?

Of course, there are absolutes, and what the Torah says is good is good, and what it tells us is bad is bad. There is no such thing as, “Well, maybe what the Torah says is bad is not that bad…” Chas veshalom. There are areas where we must take a stand and put our foot down, not because we feel that way, but because the Torah says so.

When the matter at hand is one of personal feelings, though, we must be as pliable as we can be firm. Not everyone experiences things the way we do, nor does our personal experience reflect the rest of mankind. If you had a good apple, enjoy it and try to find more of the same. It does not mean that there were no rotten apples in the same bunch.

If you got stuck with a rotten apple on the other hand, you might wish to use your experience to warn others of how and where to look. It is entirely possible, though, that someone else picked a good apple right away. Be happy for him!