Building Compassion in the Home
My father used to quote with regret:
We flatter those we hardly know
We please the passing guest,
But we deal many a deathly blow
To those we love the best
We find it far easier to be compassionate in general, compassionate toward people with whom we do not live, than to our children, our parents and our spouses. Why is this so? First, we seem to have more ego on the line when we relate to those close to us, particularly our spouses. Alan Morinis writes, “Compassion can come into existence only when you lower the barriers that ordinarily wall off and isolate your own sense of self.” When our spouses criticize us, annoy us, or disappoint us, we immediately attempt to separate ourselves from them. It is at that point when we do not want to identify with our spouse.
The second reason is that when we feel sorry for ourselves, we are a danger to ourselves and to others. Thus, when we feel criticized or ignored or hurt by others close to us and feel sorry for ourselves, we react and have no compassion for the person by whom we feel wronged.
The third reason is that we have a very short fuse with our children, spouses, and parents. A fuse, in Mussar, is the time between striking the match and the dynamite. But our best self, the self focused on middot, must look past that immediate pain and have compassion for the other person. And our best self may even recognize that those attributes that annoy us, anger us, disappoint us the most are those attributes of our own self that annoy us, anger us, disappoint us the most.
Last year’s Chanukah gift to my wife of 40 years was a pad of 3-by-10-inch paper stapled together—a coupon book. The individual coupons entitled my wife to the right to lengthen the fuse:
- This Coupon requires Mike Nichols to stop talking.
- This Coupon requires Mike Nichols to go into the den and meditate for twenty minutes.
- This Coupon requires Mike Nichols to change the subject.
- This Coupon requires Mike Nichols to take 5 deep breaths between every statement.
And so on. The coupon book also had a forever, evergreen clause meaning that each coupon is limitless in number.
When my wife opened the gift, she was not impressed, as she thought that I could not make a change in my historic reaction patterns. To her and my surprise and pleasure, the first time she handed me a coupon, I immediately stopped the bickering. Stopping an argument in its tracks is slowly becoming a good Mussar habit.
I am far from perfect, but recently I was telling a story to my sister that my wife had already heard. When my wife commented that everyone had already heard that story, I swallowed my first reaction of hurt and irritation, and began to feel compassion for a wife of 40 years who certainly has heard many stories, many times. And to my benefit, that compassion led to one of the most important Jewish values, shalom bayit (peace in the house).
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