The woman was distraught. Her son had set out to that place called America, where the streets were “paved with gold.” She had seen him off at the nearby train station but had not heard from him for six months. Now her head was besieged with questions: Had he made it to the ship? Had he crossed the Atlantic safely? Did he find a job? Was he okay? Finally, she heard something. A local businessman came back from America and told her that he had seen her son and that he looked well. He even provided her with her son’s address.
The woman promptly headed to the town scribe to dictate a letter to her son. She began, “Son, it is truly not right that you have ignored your aging mother and you have not sent a letter or even a regards to let me know that you are okay. Do you not realize that I worry about you day and night and that the worry you cause me is aging me prematurely? Is this the kind of upbringing we provided, to just go off on your own and forget those you left behind?”
After dictating her strongly worded but heartfelt letter, she asked the scribe to read the letter back to her. He read what he wrote, “Dear Son, It was delightful to get news that you have reached America and are doing well. I am so proud of you and wish you continued success. With love, Your Loving Mother.”
The woman was taken aback. “But that is not what I said,” she exclaimed.
“True,” the scribe replied. “But this is the standard text we write under these circumstances.”
* * *
In my work both as a Rabbi and as a mediator I have noticed that sometimes people react to difficult situations in the way that they think they are supposed to react under the circumstances. They become scared, angry, aggressive, or submissive, because they think that is what is socially expected of them.
I was once coaching a man who had recently divorced and was saying many nasty things about his former wife. I asked him, “Are you angry at her?” He replied, “Well I am supposed to be angry, right?”
I responded, “Actually, you are under no obligation to be angry. Just because society gives us the ‘script’ that divorced people are supposed to follow, it doesn’t mean that you have to accept that script for yourself. You could view the divorce as the tragedy that it is – for you, your former wife, for the children, and for both families. But you do not have to accept the script of anger that you feel was assigned to you.”
Conversely, as in our opening story, we sometimes have a script written for us that does not reflect or communicate our feelings and concerns. This is not communication. A more thoughtful and mediated approach allows for self-expression in a way that is constructive and builds mutual understanding.
The same, by the way, is true of partnerships and business relationships that terminate. There are some who feel a pressure to see the worst and wonder if they got the raw end of the deal. Others may just smile their way through abuse and keep their hurt all bottled up inside. Neither approach is ideal. Surprising as it may seem at first, it is possible to transition from an intimate relationship to a relationship that is still respectful and supportive. In fact, engaging a mediator as the need for transition becomes apparent, can assist in communication and perspective, and eventually bring to a better outcome. A mediator can assist in helping parties write the script that runs through their minds constantly, helping people define transition moments in a more positive way.
One of the most striking examples of this is the story of Saul and David, his son-in-law. The prophet informed Saul that he would lose his monarchy. Then David was secretly anointed as the next king. Saul sensed that he had lost his specialness, and saw that David was increasingly blessed. It became clear that David was to be the successor, but Saul’s attitude to that succession would make all the difference.
People advising Saul convinced him that David was conspiring against him. They wanted Saul to view David as a rebellious person. This was the script that they wanted Saul to live. In reality, David was loyal to Saul. David’s presence was a great gift – similar to family succession planning – through which G-d provided for the protection of the people. As Saul stepped out, David, his son-in-law, stepped in as the protector of the people.
David realized that Saul was following the script provided to him by his closest advisors, a script of anger and jealousy, potentially leading to a civil war. In a famous incident (Samuel 1: 24), David came so close as to be able to cut off the corner of Saul’s royal garment, but he didn’t dare harm the king. He later held up the corner he had cut from Saul’s garment and called out to Saul, “Why do you listen to the words of mankind who tell you that David wishes to harm you?” David invited Saul to follow a different script, a script that recognized David as part of the great plan and journey of life.
We are all like actors assigned a part in a play; many people and impressions propose the script that they think we should play. Review the script well before you act upon it. If you like the script suggested for you, fine and good. But if you don’t like the script, spend the time to meticulously edit it until it reflects the sublime human being you are meant to be.