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Jul 1, 2011


I was born a sensitive child. I was colicky, difficult to console. Even as I got older, I was easily hurt, and my emotions resonated so powerfully I could barely handle them. Often enough, I couldn't handle them. In that sense, I was not an easy child.

Throughout my childhood, into middle and high school and even a good chunk of college I experienced such pain, sorrow and anguish that words cannot describe and stories cannot do it justice. While this piece isn't about my pain, suffice it to say I felt alone; a chasm separated me and the rest of humanity, a divide made by pain and perpetuating my pain.

But being sensitive has two sides to it. As a young child, I was so empathetic I could practically read minds. I was the boy that would grab a chair for someone who needed it, noticing from across the room even before they were even aware they'd wanted to sit down. I could tell when someone was bothered, and often I would intuit where their distress came from. Having a lot of pain myself often helped me understand and empathize with others who were experiencing misery. I know what it feels like, I came to understand it all too well. Put me in any crowd, and I can usually point out those who have experienced torment like I did. As a man I'm much the same in many ways: I've got a stubbornly sensitive, genteel, chivalrous side to me.

That grief forged within me tremendous depth. There's a lot more to the story, but it's not for this time or place. What I learned -and a part of me that I built alongside my strength -is that my emotions are not another person's responsibility. If I am hurt or angry or frustrated, that is not for another to handle, nor is it for me to put on their shoulders. Nobody can make me feel an emotion unless I allow them to have that influence. To give them that ability is to hand them power over me. Internalizing this epiphany was a huge part of owning myself and finding my own self-worth. I think it's an essential part of maturing and growing out of childhood into adulthood, because that was my experience.

Conversely, I reasoned, another person's emotions are not exclusively my responsibility (though I'm far more careful with younger children, with whom I have a completely different orientation). While I can (or try to) be well-intentioned, benevolent, sensitive and empathetic, as I've taken more responsibility for how I feel I have come to expect that others do the same. Perhaps that is an erroneous assumption, but I don't imagine myself as having the power to make another mature adult feel a particular way.

At any rate, I view my empathy is a show of my own loving and caring, not merely lip service or an obligation to others. I'd like to believe that I choose my words with care, especially for those I am close with, and I believe empathy is one of the most important and underdeveloped skills required for intimacy of any kind.

Having been plunged to the depths of agony, to have suffered as I did, and having hoisted myself out of that darkness (and having found an unconditional acceptance, love and awe for myself) grants me the belief that people are not so fragile. In that sense, hurt feelings are not the worst thing in the world. Like wounds of flesh they heal with time and some care, even if they may leave behind scars as reminders and warnings. Like the scrapes and scratches we encounter in our lives (I've found hardly a week goes by that I don't incur a minor cut, scrape, bruise or pain of some sort from the physical wear-and-tear of life), the vast majority of pains are not maliciously intended, but are a part of the challenges we face in life, and may spur growth if the opportunity is seized and used properly. I also realize that for some people that is a big "if."

Maybe I'm just fortunate, and cannot generalize to others from my own resilience. I appreciate my own strength greatly, and I know what it takes to forge. At the time I was thrust in the fire and hammered by the smith (be that God, Heavenly intervention, the universe, circumstances, whatever), I lay powerless upon the hard anvil, and the forge was more of a hell for me than the molten fires of Mount Doom. Now I see how I was shaped and purified through the process, and how I chose that path myself. But I believe that I grew up with the best parents I have ever encountered, and much of my resilience may be drawn from their strength and greatness as parents (and their own parents and so on) in raising me.

I know pain -for a long time it was my most reliable companion -but I have wrought meaning from its tortuous tentacles. Some days, just as Reuven asks Danny Saunders in "The Chosen," I wonder if there isn't another way to build such character. While I do not wish the pain upon anyone, I also know no other way. For that reason, even when I first read Viktor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning" as a teenager, his thoughts and message seemed simple and self-evident to me (while his eloquence, elegance and experience both resonated with me deeply and brought incredible value to my own life and perspective). The Rav (Soliveichik) also echoes the sentiment that suffering serves to encourage renewal through Teshuvah (repentance), thereby impacting and refining a man's character. 

Yet, over and over again, I return to this question: Why should I have to always walk on eggshells to prevent other people from feeling hurt? (I will clarify here that there is no intent to hurt others' feelings. I do not sit around twisting an evil mustache and plotting to inflict emotional harm, even under a pretense of galvanizing others to grow.) 

For me, the assumptions I hold and my own life experience gives me an answer that many may not like. I didn't blame those in my past who brought me pain. They were cogs in the machine or a stroke of the smith's hammer from which I've been forged and chosen to forge myself.

Honesty and feedback, hurtful as they may feel, enhance my life by giving me more input and the opportunity to make the choice to grow. For that reason, I love feedback, though I appreciate when it is gentle. So I strive to be gentle in giving feedback as well. The point, of course, isn't to inflict pain; but I don't see a value in avoiding pain at all costs. Actually, I see extreme avoidance as assuming frailty in others -assuming they cannot handle feedback or will not grow -or worse, an individual's own inability or unwillingness to experience and sit with another person in pain.

In fact, not only am I willing to live with pain, it is a part of life I appreciate. I do not shy away from it, even when I see that pain in others. I recognize it may often be exceedingly difficult to deal with, but I am willing to sit with my own pain and the pain of others -especially when I have played a part in that process -and be there with them, choosing to give them my presence and support. I believe firmly that this quality is essential for successful relationships.

The point, of course, is not to inflict pain but rather to experience together and live with the scrapes and hurts that exist and are inevitable in everyday life. In some ways, while I work on being gentler, I value this quality more than carefulness in avoiding pain. Empathy over sensitivity. Really, if I had to choose one, it would be empathy. Because sensitivity may protect those around me from some or more pain, but empathy and support will bring us closer and encourage growth rather than just avoiding the hurt. Yet each situation should be taken individually and different types of situations may call for different responses. (How this may apply to shidduchim or dating is a different discussion, but if someone would like to bring up the point I'll gladly consider and discuss it below.)

Whether or not this is the wrong perspective or a bad way to look at things I cannot say, it is simply who I am, and what I have learned from my own life experience.