Editor’s Note: This month we welcome a new contributor to JSA, Rabbi Mark Wieder, the Campus Chaplain at River Garden Hebrew Home/Wolfson Health & Aging Center and The Coves in Jacksonville, Florida.
“She knows what she did.” The grim-voiced woman recounted a decades-old hurt. “I wouldn’t care if it had been directed at me, but you hurt my kids…”
“An elephant’s got nothing on her,” chimed in the speaker’s husband. I wondered if he would pay for the remark later, although it turned out there was no disagreement with the assessment.
We had been sitting at a table in a small group when the “villain” approached, only to be rebuffed by the speaker. I had had nothing but friendly encounters with the accused, a daughter of a resident who came regularly to visit her mother, often with other family members in tow, often bringing her mother to Shabbat services.
And the accuser has become a friend of mine over the several years in which I’ve served as chaplain of the nursing home. Not for the first time was I finding myself squarely in the middle; fortunately I wasn’t asked to swear allegiance to either party.
I didn’t question the woman who had publicly shared her grudge, but a number of questions entered my mind. The first was, “Do your kids remember the incident you described?”
It seemed entirely plausible that she was investing energy in something that had only been a minor irritant to the children. And did the accused really know what she’d done? After all, no communication had taken place about the situation so many years before. Perhaps it never entered the woman’s mind. If she is aware of her earlier actions, why, I wondered would she have approached the table to begin with?
The terrain felt familiar. My mother, of blessed memory, was a practiced grudge keeper. She had the capacity to be cordial enough while unforgiving on the inside. I had worked with her on the issue over time, and hadn’t made a dent. Perhaps it’s easier for an outsider than for a son. When I run into cases where people are holding onto age-old resentments, I try to help them reframe the situations and let go whatever is holding them back.
My first suggestion is to communicate, if possible. This is not always directly possible—you probably would not be surprised how many people maintain hurts with people who have passed away, moved away, or who are experiencing dementia which makes it entirely too late. But the communication can take place through prayer and meditation, letter-writing, or role-playing. How much easier it is to communicate as situations occur, rather than letting things fester for weeks, months, or as above, decades.
And why communicate?
Because what strikes us as wrong, or hurts our sensibilities, may not raise the same flags in others. I remember a situation rooted in my college days. I wrote an edgy paper that I believed after the fact really pushed boundaries with the professor. I happened to be on the campus for a retreat some years later, and saw the professor across the square. I realized I couldn’t face her. Of course, that meant that I had to go talk to her. Not only did she not remember having been offended by my paper, but she really needed someone to talk to, and we had a very deep encounter for over an hour. Had I not taken care of business, I might still be carrying around a sense of guilt, rather than having been a part of healing.
A second suggestion is to ask the question, “How important is it?”
I can say with a high degree of certainty that the accuser’s children were not permanently scarred by their neighbor’s decision. If it’s not important to them, why should their mother invest energy in maintaining animosity. If it is important, can the adult children be allowed to fight their own battles? The Serenity Prayer, used in 12-step circles, goes: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. One thing we cannot change (despite many science fiction works to the contrary) is the past. If the accuser has chosen not to address the situation head-on, then it might be time to let go of the ill will.
A third consideration is that we have a tradition in Judaism of doing teshuvah, of changing our ways and asking for forgiveness. If the woman is made aware of the ongoing animosity, it grants her the chance to ask for forgiveness. I know that I am grateful to anyone who makes me aware of where I have fallen short. Not everyone has practiced not getting defensive, but it is worth a try to open up a relationship that could benefit both parties. And the accuser might actually gain a friend, or a source of comfort in time of need.