Sunday, May 29, 2011

Canary In The Mine - What Would You Do?

Grey Area Alert!

Life is full of surprises, some good, some not-so-good, perhaps even bad. People face difficult choices throughout their lifetimes, and in some, perhaps many instances people will make mistakes. Hopefully these people will then learn from their actions, and therefore be more cautious when something similar inevitably comes up and they must confront that situation again.

Granted, experience, along with failure, are often the best teachers one can have. The simplest and most commonly cited example is the little kid who doesn't listen to mommy telling him that the stove top is hot, so he goes ahead and touches it, thus burning his cute, little finger and learning a lesson that will hopefully stay with him for the rest of his life.

Sometimes we need to fail in order to learn something about ourselves, about life, about how we can be better and therefore do better. Success is nice and certainly feels good, but someone who simply achieves everything they attempt without really trying, using minimal effort, and still somehow managing to succeed, isn't really learning anything.

But that's not really what I want to talk about in this post.

There is another means through which we can gain insight into life and how things work, and that is through another's example. Take an extreme case: Someone's friend gets killed (Rachmana Latzlan) in an automobile accident because he was texting while driving and thus not paying attention. For all the other youths the same age and especially the friends of the victim, a very harsh lesson should (I say should because not everyone is so sensible) be learned; that one does not text while driving, because you really put yourself at potential mortal risk and could die because of your inattention.

A less intense example could include seeing your friend run himself ragged studying for a test, staying up really late studying, throwing back caffeinated/energy drinks, and watching them go crazy, get no sleep, then fail the test the next day because of a lack of preparation. I don't think this is something that you'd really be willing to try afterward. Granted, you may need to test your own limits a bit, but to not take a step back and think, "Gee, maybe I shouldn't stay up so late before a final. Getting sleep is more important and better for me than running on chemicals to keep my exhausted body awake," would be a lost potential step toward self-improvement.

Then there's dating and marriage.

Everyone makes mistakes in dating. Even the guy who marries the first girl he ever goes out with. For the rest of us, who didn't or won't marry the first person we ever dated, learn from our experiences. Additionally, we go to/listen to shiurim, read books and blogs, talk to our friends, meet with our dating mentors/rabbeim/teachers, attend seminars, and basically do just about everything we can, to learn as much as we can, to supplement our first-hand experiential dating ventures.

There's often a lot to be said by people who have legitimately "been there before" in specific scenarios, and whose advice is worth hearing, and potentially taking into consideration. This does not mean that you need to take everything a particular individual, book, or rabbi says as absolute truth without critically evaluating their imparted wisdom to decide if it merits implementation in your quest for a spouse. Yes, there are also people out there who like to think they know everything, radiate arrogance and false expertise, and try to recruit you as one of their "chassidim" - but I would like to give people the benefit of the doubt that they can think for themselves and filter out these kinds of people.

Yet, what if someone you know isn't doing that? Or seeming can't do that?

What is your responsibility if a friend is doing something that you know is unhealthy for them, in one of a myriad ways, whether emotionally, psychologically, religiously, socially - or whatever? If you know, based on your own experience, or from seeing another person crash and burn by doing what your friend is doing, what is your obligation to intervene on some level? To try and offer advice, though you know they may very well intentionally ignore your helpful intentions, and that the whole attempt could backfire and just make the matter worse.

What do you do if you see someone you know not being themselves, that the happiness they are expressing if forced and marred by tension, to the point where they seem to be playing a part to please someone else, simply because that other person has strong feelings of “liking” them. It’s a psychologically supported notion that a person will respond positively toward another person (particularly in this area) when they know that the other person likes them. As such, it can be very easy to get sucked into an ongoing relationship with the altered mindset that your intentions are completely for the purpose of pleasing the other person, since their admiration feels so good emotionally – even at the cost of ignoring your own needs and wants.

True, in marriage, one is supposed to put the needs and wants of their spouses in a higher tier of consideration than their own. In a healthy spousal relationship, where there is reciprocal giving of this sort, then both husband and wife can focus on the other and still have their personal needs met. You don’t have to be selfishly concerned about getting what you want because you know that the other person loves you and wants to satisfy and fulfill you just as much as you want to do that for him/her.

But, in an unhealthy balance, one person can cling to the other, in essence losing him/herself as they allow their identity to be eclipsed and absorbed by their significant other. This process is usually quite fast, and the strong effects that accompany such an imbalance will firmly take root before one can realize what is transpiring. They lose the ability to take a step back, remove the rosy colored glasses that are blinding them, and consider the situation with a rational perspective.

Though this often happens in abusive relationships, where one person is intentionally trying to manipulate the other – and certainly this is a very unhealthy connection that must be severed – similar one-sidedness can occur where both parties are essentially good people without any abusive tendencies. I have heard from others, and witnessed it myself with a few friends, that this can be a primary cause for a broken engagement or early divorce. The reason for this stems from the enormous reality check that kicks them in the head saying, “What in the world is going on? What am I doing to myself?” after the amount of dependence on the other person becomes too much. Everyone’s threshold for this breaking point is different, and some “wake ups” can occur sooner than others.

Additionally, the healthy reciprocal giving I mentioned above is more primarily suited to marriage. In dating, nothing is certain until the ring is on the girl's finger and even then, real certainty doesn't set in (initially) until that second ring is on her finger after the chupah. Until that point where you've dated long enough, become comfortable enough, know the person well enough to be who you are in their presence, warts and all, and are still received with acceptance, affection and admiration, you can't be absolutely certain that marriage is the proper path for any particular relationship.

So if you see someone mired in this situation, and they cannot step back and meta-analyze their life, what are you supposed to do about it? What can you do when you see someone moving too fast, not thinking clearly enough, making rash decisions that affect the present and future, disrupt well thought out plans for the sake of momentary thrills of being with another person? When their happiness seems more like intoxication rather than the genuine joy you've seen them expressed throughout their life in other areas? When that other person seems to thoroughly brainwashed to a certain perspective, that it feels like your own efforts to get them to think for themselves will have no meaningful impression on them whatsoever?

I am not in any way suggesting that your own perspective on such an issue is the be-all to end all. In Judaism we don’t believe that anyone is infallible, as Rabbi Haim Angel says in shiur. We have no pope, and no one has the authority to tell us what is without having their statements evaluated.

In particular, I fondly recall a source Rabbi Angel always cites during his shiur that introduces his methodology of studying Tanach from Rav Avaham ben HaRambam (this is not an exact translation, but a quotation from in-class notes):

“You have to know that anyone who wishes to hold a certain opinion because of who says it without any critical evaluation at all – this is not emunat chachamim, this is terrible and assur min haTorah – and is also illogical. Uncritical thinking is not good and it’s not intellectually honest. Why is it assur min haTorah? – Because we believe that Torah is Truth because G-d revealed it, so therefore one who blinds himself to intellectual honesty is being dishonest in the pursuit of Truth.”

If this is true when it comes to the pursuit of Torah study, the truest pursuit of the truest wisdom, I think that we can certainly apply this to our everyday lives as well – especially when dating. Yes, one may have a particular rebbe or seminary teacher from their experience in Israel (or at YU, or wherever) that had tremendous impact on you, but why should that respect lead to the exclusion of any other source of potential advice of guidance? And even so, no matter how much you admire someone and what they taught you, they too are not infallible, and even what they say must be examined in a critical fashion to ascertain the truth of their words. If someone is truly genuine, then they will very often check out as worth listening to, and their credibility becomes established – but that doesn’t mean they are any more perfect than the next person out there.

Pirkei Avos 2:8 presents a long list of if-then pairings said by Hillel. Among them is “Marbeh eitzah – marbeh tevuna,” or “The more counsel, the more understanding.” It would stand to reason that while this is useful for every area in life, it is particularly useful for dating and making the decision of who one should marry. Many, many dating/marriage books that I’ve read, as well as shiurim I’ve heard, recommend that a person should introduce a potential significant other to people they respect, such as parents, teachers, rabbeim, family and friends and subsequently get their opinion of the person you’re dating and of the two of you as a couple. The more perspectives you hear, especially those who are unbiased and truly want the best for you, the greater the likelihood that the truth of how well things fit and the potential appropriateness of a relationship will be revealed.

Again, this is not to say that one’s own opinion does not matter. Ultimately, you should be the one choosing who you marry, and not because something looks good on paper and someone you know and trust is pushing you toward the chupah. That’s patently wrong, and people need to be far more aware of when this happens to them – especially post-seminary/yeshiva, when some young men and women never take what they've learned and practically applied it to their real world life.

If well meaning people reach out to you because they are concerned that you’re not doing these sorts of things, it is appropriate to give them the time of day. People can get very taken while dating, and start planning, strategizing, and making up absurd future goals – often at a very rapid pace – without realizing what they’re getting themselves into. The rosy colored glasses go on and are applied with superglue, which means it will probably hurt when those shades come off.

Marriage, even for the most prepared men and women, is a rude awakening to the stark nature of reality. All the fluffy clouds and rainbows that envelop a person’s conscious thoughts (and sub/unconscious thoughts as well) vanish as soon as the responsibilities and trials of marriage kick in. This isn’t to say that marriage is bad or not worthwhile, just that it requires a lot of work, is often stressful, and that the previously unknown can play a large role in the development of the marriage bond. It behooves everyone out there thinking about dating for marriage to seriously contemplate what marriage really is, by talking to as many people as you can, both before you begin, while you are going out, and certainly as you move toward engagement and the wedding itself.

Without proper, multi-faceted, and varied guidance, a person can stumble into the arrogance of either believing they know everything, or that one or two people know everything and that they must abide by their suggestions to the letter if they want to achieve happiness.

Everyone must know him/herself inside and out, in order to truly understand what marriage and responsible adult life (meaning supporting a family, having children, contributing to a community, etc) really means to them. No one wants to wake up one morning to a baby crying and think, “Oh my G-d, what have I done?” We should all do our best to avoid such a tragic circumstance.

In the end, the main thing is to think. To think for oneself, taking into consideration what others tell you because they want to help you not make the same mistakes they have, or that they have seen others make. This includes mentors, siblings, and above all parents, who, if they have a healthy relationship with their children, intrinsically have a deep understanding of what is good for their offspring. Even if there is a hashkafic difference between how you were raised and what you’ve grown into, the people who have known you the longest truly have one of the best understanding of who you are and what you’re about, religious observances aside.

Back to my central point: If you see someone you know and care about not doing this sort of thorough, rational, self-respectful/introspective thinking, what can you do to help them? Can you help them? Should you help them? Or is it better to sit back and let them make their own mistakes, regardless of what the consequences might be?


  1. #1 Daven for them.
    #2 Discuss it with their mentor or parent, if that is appropriate, and see if they can help out.
    #3 If you feel that the person would be comfortable if you point something out to them, do it in a sensitive way, but if you think they will be insulted, al tomar davar she'ii efshar l'shmoa. It's better that they know you're there to listen when they reach out, rather than getting involved when they're not asking for help and having them lose you as a valuable resource.

    As for your advice about knowing what you're getting yourself into before marriage, can you please do a post on that next?
    I feel that most dating lectures revolve around more practical dating tips about the actual dating process, rather than about readiness for and the purpose of marriage.
    I think many of us start dating because everyone else is doing it, whether that is a conscious or subconscious, primary or secondary reason.
    I personally would apprecaite reading your opinions on the matter.

  2. I believe it depends. Around the 2-3 month mark (sometimes as early as 1 month or up to 4 months) is colloquially known as the "honeymoon period" of dating, where research has shown that a surge of neuro-chemicals create intense emotional bonding. Consequently, being in that state leads to general blindness regarding pretty much everything else (especially faults/issues).

    Generally, during this time people are much less receptive to reality.

    While sometimes it helps to bring this up, people often really don't want their Disney bubble burst.

  3. m - 1 was (and is) definitely being done, 2 and 3 were attempted, but with little success. So we'll have to see how things go as they develop...

    Regarding your post request about "readiness for and the purpose of marriage," I am quite flattered you think my opinion is worthwhile enough to read. Bli, neder I will think about the subject and write up a post or two, but it won't be the next one. Hopefully, sometime in the near future.

    Ish Yehudi - very interesting. Do you know of any articles on the subject that I could read? Thanks in advance. And yes, bursting the Disney bubble is not fun, but will happen at some point to everyone. That's why guys and girls need to have as much of a full-disclosure policy as possible when dating, especially as things get more serious later on, so that each can truly evaluate their ability and compatibility for a life-long marriage together.

  4. @ SoG:

    Here are a few, starting with some source material. Here's the seminal article by Helen Fisher on the three stages of romantic relationships:

    (About a third the way through she also talks about the effects of love on seeing the other person's flaws as positive, or otherwise ignoring them.)

    And a couple of sites/articles that break down some of Dr. Fisher's major points on brain chemistry in romance:

    The latter two indicate that the initial attraction (termed "lust") lasts between a few weeks to a few months.


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