The Power Beyond Words

}z}Shanah Tovah everyone, and happy 5774.  While I’m a pretty secular Jew myself, I find the cultural roots, most specifically the notion of Tikkun Olam – the fact that we are partners with the divine in an effort to heal the world – to be important guideposts for living my life.

My mother, however, is quite religious, and even with her advanced medical training, finds the teachings of the Torah and her faith to be essential components of her being.  Our differences in perception of what it means to be Jewish sometimes lead to friction, but the commentaries she sends to us each Sabbath and holiday are often food for thought.

The one she sent for Rosh Hashanah from Rabbi Yehuda Amital struck me as particularly compelling, as it related back to parenting and relationships.  On the surface, that doesn’t seem to be the point, as the relationship it is talking about is between man and God.  Here’s the operative paragraph to chew on:

A person who turns to God faces a dilemma.  Generally, turning to God in prayer consists of using words.  However, human language was created for dialogue between people, between one finite creature and another.  There is something tragic about the fact that a person must use human language when turning to God.  Human language limits, constricts, and distorts.  It cannot express what is found in the chambers of our hearts.  Human speech is fundamentally different from divine speech.  God, after all, uttered “Remember the Sabbath” and “Keep the Sabbath” in one statement. This is an entirely different mode of expression than human speech; it is a completely different essence.  The blast of the shofar solves the dilemma, as least to some degree.

At first I thought about this statement in terms of sound, and it was very resonant regarding the power of sound to create emotion.  From the power of a movie soundtrack to create an emotional response that the scene itself alone cannot, to that song that moves you even though you can’t remember most of the words, sound strikes an instinctive chord in us.  It creates bonds that transcend language and ideology.  So, as the Amital suggests, if we look to speak with our metaphorical hearts rather than our intellect, using pure sound to express our feelings makes a lot of sense.

But then my mind wandered to a different place.  A recent visit by my parents, my aunt, and my brother who was in town from Barcelona for the first time in years.  Mom and I had a disagreement, and she flashed me the look.  You all know what I’m talking about, as every mother has one.  While sound imparts more of a purity of emotion, a look conflates emotion with reasoning.  You don’t just “go with” a look, you attempt to decipher its meaning.  But because the look shares that primordial origin, the meaning of the moment oft becomes hopelessly conflated within the entire prism of a relationship.  My mother’s look disapproval struck not just the parent in me, but the child.  And it hurt.  A lot.  It caused me to lose my temper and allow the moment to blossom into a full-fledged argument.

When tempers calmed a bit and my mother and I talked the next day, I told her that I didn’t think she realized the power she had, and how those looks can wound even a grown-up child.  She responded that those expressions are, “like breathing or blinking your eyes.”  She felt that she displayed tremendous self-control by walking away from the situation without saying anything.  And no doubt that was the case.

But while I understand that non-verbal emotional expressions become so ingrained that they become reflexive, I started to really think about whether the look was something beyond control.  In looking at my own behavior as both a Dad and a coach, there can be no contesting that I have indeed crafted a pretty potent look myself.  Sometimes, when it “just comes out” I see that look back saying, “Oh, no, Dad is mad” as their heads spin the Wheel of Misfortune regarding what’s coming next.  But now I have a different perspective on the power I am wielding over them.

So what the incident with my mother brought to light and Reb Amital’s commentary shed light upon was that, much like we look to mediate what we say to our kids because we know the power of words, we also need to be aware of the power of non-verbal communication, perhaps even more than what we say.  For it is the recipient of the look that is telling the story, and the plot is often a lot different than what we meant it to be.

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One Response to “The Power Beyond Words”

  1. Libby Harris Says:

    Again, how I love you. Beautifully stated. You made me think of my teacher “look”, where the kids would tell me to hit them or do anything to them rather than have to endure the look. How I love you. L

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