It's Not As Tough At Home As You Think
Making Family Life Smoother and Better
By Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
Mesorah Publications, Ltd.
It is easy for me to assume that problems are universal. As a psychiatrist, people do not consult me to tell me how happy they are. Day in, day out I am presented with a variety of emotional and psychological problems. It is easy to conclude that the whole world is one great big problem.
O.K. Not everyone has problems. Yet, we cannot escape the impression that there are many more problems today than in the past. There may be a valid reason for this. Problems occur against a background. If you develop a nagging headache or cough at home or at work, you are aware of the discomfort and you have a problem. If your house is on fire and you are trying to save yourself and rescue everyone in the house, you are totally unaware that your head hurts or that you are coughing. A certain level of comfort must exist in order to be able to identify discomfort.
I dont think mankind has ever before experienced as radical a change in lifestyle in so short a period of time as we have. Earlier this century, the average life span was under forty. Today it is twice that and increasing. In 1917 the flu epidemic killed hundreds of thousands of people. Today, with antibiotics and vaccines, major epidemics are rare. Just several decades ago, work often entailed physical exhaustion. Today most work is done by machines and by computers. In the past there was no escape from sweltering heat. Today we can be comfortable indoors in the most intense heat wave. The miraculous progress of medical science and technology has revolutionized our lives. We can now be much more comfortable than in the past. Against a background of comfort, discomfort is more likely to be felt.
I can testify that in the 1940s parents and children did not have the luxury of worrying about some behavior problems. They were preoccupied by the fear of polio. Every muscle ache triggered anxiety that the child might have this crippling disease.
The marvels of scientific progress have resulted in our feeling that life should be comfortable. We are less prepared to deal with discomfort. Young people share in this attitude. When they encounter discomfort, there is the risk that they will resort to chemicals that promise to make them feel better. After all, when grownups dont feel as relaxed as they would like to, they take tranquilizers. Kids may go for other tranquilizers, like alcohol or drugs.
We need to establish an attitude in the home that, all the marvels of science notwithstanding, the goal of life is not the achievement of maximum comfort. The goal of life is to achieve something, hopefully spirituality and character development. It would certainly help if parents would not resort to alcohol or tranquilizers when dealing with normal stresses.
Parents should establish a value system in the home. The children should feel that each individual and the family as a whole has a mission. It is much easier to tolerate some discomfort if you are heading toward a goal. If the purpose of life is to achieve maximum comfort, every little discomfort can become a major problem.
We are the beneficiaries of unprecedented conveniences in living. These are indeed wonderful. This may lead to an attitude that no one should have to tolerate any inconvenience at all. We should avail ourselves of spiritual teachings that can help us understand why we must sometimes bear inconveniences. If we are really convinced of this, we are more likely to convey it to our children.
Please notice that the title of this book is not Life Is Not Tough. Rather it is Its Not As Tough As You Think. In other words, life does not have to be paralyzingly tough. We can smooth out some of the bumps in life. But it is unrealistic to think that all rough spots can be eradicated. We must still do much coping. Our intent is to encourage you to cope. If a situation appears to be overwhelmingly tough, dont just give up. If it can be broken down to bite size, it can be dealt with successfully.
Human beings are creatures of habit. We do things a certain way for a long period of time and then if we must change our pattern, considerable effort and attention are required. This is true even if the change is for the better. Suppose you have been driving a car that has the gear-shift lever on the steering wheel shaft and then you upgrade to a luxury sports car that has the gear-shift lever between the seats. You are driving a much better car, but chances are that at the beginning you will be turning on the windshield wipers each time you try to shift gears. You will have to concentrate on shifting rather than doing it automatically. This is true of all changes.
Think of the family as a system. The system is very much like a mobile -- you know, the toy that hangs over the babys crib, with little figurines suspended from a central pole. When it is not in motion, all the pieces rest in one position at an equilibrium. If you move any one figurine ever so slightly, the equilibrium has been upset and all the others must now shift to a new position to establish a new equilibrium.
Much the same is true of a family or any group system. All the members of a group have been functioning in a way that maintained the equilibrium. If any one member changes in any way, every other member must accommodate to establish a new equilibrium. As we noted, change requires concentration and effort. Sometimes the change may require so much energy output that the group may try to reestablish the old equilibrium, even if it were less desirable.
Change can be of any kind. A child may go off to school in another city. A child may marry and leave home, or bring his spouse home. There may be a new baby in the family. All these may be very desirable, but they require accommodation by everyone else. If any member of the family is going to try to live exactly as he did before, there is likely to be some turbulence.
I have seen cases where a wife complained bitterly about her alcoholic husband. However, if the husband recovers, it is not unusual to find that the joy over his recovery is marred by some dissatisfaction. Everyone had been accustomed to behaving with an active alcoholic in the family. The sober person has created a change, and the natural resistance to change may result in the unwitting undermining of his recovery.
Whether the change is for the better or not, a family should realize that when there is a change, it is not going to be business as usual. The transition to a new equilibrium can be smooth if it is anticipated. If any difficulty arises, the family members can discuss it among themselves and work out the new accommodation. Sometimes there may be a need for counseling to assist in the readjustment.
Readjustments may be tough on some members of the family. With preparation and a bit of help, it does not have to be as tough as you think.
The ideal relationship is where each partner wants to give more to the union than he/she wants to take from it. When the reverse is true, frustrations at not having ones desires satisfied are likely to occur. This is rare when there is more giving than taking. This attitude between parents makes a profound impression upon the children. The reduction in sibling rivalry can be a palpable blessing.
There are many relationships where this is indeed the case. These are indeed happy relationships. Both partners are supportive of each other. Both are able to withstand stress much better. Abuse is virtually impossible when the other partners happiness is the foremost consideration.
That is the kind of marriage I witnessed at home. I will cite just one incident that sheds light on the nature of the relationship.
My father was diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas that had spread to the liver. From his many years of visiting the sick and discussing their cases with their doctors, he had a better than average knowledge of medicine.
You know that cancer of the pancreas that has affected the liver does not respond to chemotherapy. Right? he said. I agreed.
Then there is no point in undergoing a treatment which can have very unpleasant side effects if there is nothing to be gained from it. Right? Again I agreed.
Then we both understand that there will be no chemotherapy, he said. O.K., I responded.
However, the doctor had told my mother that there was very little to expect from chemotherapy. At the very best, he said, it could extend my fathers life three months.
Three months! my mother exclaimed. Why, even three days is precious. Every additional day of life must be preserved. She then told my father that he must undergo chemotherapy.
Im sorry the doctor said what he did, my father said to me. I know that chemotherapy will do nothing except make me miserable.
But, my father went on, if I refuse chemotherapy, then when I die, mother may feel guilty. She may say, If only I had insisted on chemotherapy, he might still have lived. I dont want mother to feel guilty. Ill take the therapy. Ive done many things for mother during our 52 years together. This gives me the chance to do one last thing.
This was the nature of their marriage. This is the kind of stuff that good relationships are made of.
When I saw a bumper sticker saying Have you hugged your kids today? my initial reaction was, What kind of foolish question is that? Thats like saying, Have you breathed today? Then I realized that it is not at all foolish. There are children who do not get enough hugs.
Children need hugging. Extensive research has shown that infants who do not get enough human touching and caressing may become chronically depressed.
When my children were little, my parents visited. My father got down on the floor to play with his grandchildren. My mothers eyes welled up with tears. I never had that, she said. We stood in awe of our father. It would have been sacrilege to hug and kiss him. We only kissed the back of his hand, as with giving obeisance.
My father lived near his grandfather. Virtually every night, his grandfather would visit before the children went to sleep. He would play with them a moment, tickle them under the arm, kiss them gently and send them to bed. That is probably why my father could get down on the floor with my children.
This behavior may be transmitted generationally. If you hug your kids, they will hug theirs. Everybody will be healthier.
Make it a practice to hug your children the moment you come home from work. If you delay, your wife may tell you how the child misbehaved. At that point a hug might be interpreted as sanctioning bad behavior. So hug them before you might have to discipline them.
Let the children know you love them. If disciplining should be necessary, it will be more effective.