Sometimes one hears a story that does not, at first, seem so remarkable, but the more one reflects upon it, the more lessons one discovers. A rosh yeshiva recently told me about an avreich who had come to discuss a problem with him. The avreich, an exemplary ba'al middos, described a chavrusah (study partner) who not only argued with everything he said, but did so in an extremely aggressive fashion, as if determined to destroy him.
On the one hand, the avreich did not want to lose the chavrusah, whom he said was the best he had ever had. On the other, the chavrusah's aggressive stance was causing him a severe case of nerves.
The rosh yeshiva suggested that perhaps he was somehow conveying a certain lack of respect for his chavrusah, and that was the cause of his chavrusah's aggressive behavior. He advised him to concentrate before every learning session on how much he respected his chavrusah and his learning.
Two weeks later, the young avreich returned. The rosh yeshiva asked him how his learning was going. He smiled broadly, and said that not only had the problem disappeared, but his chavrusah had become one of his best friends.
I asked the rosh yeshiva how he had guessed at the cause of the problem, especially in light of the fact that the avreich who approached was an extremely sweet and aidel person and did, in fact, greatly respect his chavrusah's learning ability.
The rosh yeshiva confessed that he had not known he was right. But he assumes that a normal avreich is not a bad person and does not do things for no reason. So if the chavrusah was behaving in a highly aggressive fashion, there must be a reason for it. In addition, he could only work with the avreich who had come to him with a problem and not with his chavrusah, who had not sought his help.
One lesson I took out from this story was the importance of taking counsel with those older and wiser when one is experiencing some form of difficulty. "Increase advice, and you increase understanding," our Sages taught. But many, especially young yeshiva students, view seeking advice as an admission of failure or that one has "problems." There is a certain solcialization process in yeshivos against discussing one's concerns with someone more experienced.
I'm not talking about asking a gadol, who may or may not know you, what to do on a constant basis. Doing so sometimes represents a refusal to take responsibility for one's life and a failure to develop one's most precious gift: one's Free Will. Someone once suggested to Rav Shach that perhaps we are at a higher level than previous generations because we ask gedolim so many questions about what to do. Rav Shach responded that we are not at a higher level. Rather we are just less willing to think.
The avreich in question was not asking what to do, but how he could work on himself. He was aware that one enmeshed in a particular situation or relationship lacks objectivity, and can often benefit from an outside perspective.
Perhaps the most important lesson from the story is our own power to change the circumstances of our lives. Instead of looking at particular situation as a given, over which we have no control, we have to be aware that often times we play a major role. A good rule of thumb when something is not going well in one's life or in an interpersonal relationship is to look towards oneself -- the only person over which one can ultimately exercise any direct control.
Much of what skilled counselors do is look for recurring patterns in people's lives. Even negative patterns can have a certain reassuring quality about them. Someone who thinks, for instance, that others don't like him, is likely to be proved right. Indeed that attitude itself almost guarantees confirmation on a regular basis. And each new piece of evidence provides the satisfaction that any theoretician feels from empirical confirmation.
Breaking those patterns often requires an outsider to discern the pattern, but even then the real work must be done by the one involved.
The wisest of all men long ago gave us surefire advice for changing the quality of almost any relationship: "As water reflects a face back to a face, so one's heart is reflected back to him by another (Mishlei 27:19)." Changing our body language and the messages that we give off inevitably changes the way others view us. But doing so is not just a matter of technique but of being willing to consider fundamentally changing the way one views the world and others.
In strikes me that there is also a communal message in the opening story: We must produce more talmidei chachamim who are also deeply immersed in the mysteries of the human psyche and the yearnings of the Jewish soul. As I understand it, that is one of the goals of the Binat HaLev organization, under the direction of Rabbi Yitzchak Lorincz.
A maggid shiur described to me recently a young man he tested for yeshiva. The young man was obviously very bright, but had equally obviously not devoted himself to his learning in yeshiva ketana. My friend discussed him with the Mashgiach in that yeshiva, one of the most genuinely wise men I have ever met. The latter noted that the bochur was young and somewhat undersized for his class, and surmised that he had probably had difficulty in integrating socially. Since he was bright, and yet had not found himself in learning, he must have found some other outlet for his intellect. The Mashgiach speculated that he had probably spent his time taking apart and putting back together transistor radios. He was right.
As a society, we have a crucial interest in ensuring that our learning institutions have people in them like that Mashgiach. And as parents, we have a responsibility to encourage our children to have as much contact as possible with those blessed with an understanding of the human soul. Not because they have problems, but because all growth starts with self-knowledge and the willinginess to work on oneself.