Seems hard these days to talk about anything other than the precarious state we find ourselves in as Jews, but we could all use a distraction, so I offer this subject change.

This piece was inspired by a recent listserve post, but it is not meant at all as a commentary on the post of the situation it described.

The post asked a question about parents who are seeking advice/guidance about their 15-year-old son who was exhibiting anxiety and possibly OCD symptoms related to public performance, such as davening or getting an Aliyah.  The writer gave the best background information he could, but, of course, there is only so much information that can be conveyed in an email post.  My response was a pretty simple, straightforward suggestion to ask the child himself about his subjective experience.

I’m motivated to write because it is my observation that too often, especially in our community, there is a deficit in the motivation and energy given to hearing the voices of those we are trying to help.  I want to be clear that I am not seeking to be holier than thou.  It is always easy to suggest “ask the patient,” and to cast criticism on those who don’t do so sufficiently.  I have no interest in such criticism.  In addition, I believe that a good deal of this comes from a genuine and strong desire to help others, not from any disrespect  or negativity as it relates to clients/loved ones.  We often don’t ask because we’re busy trying to make it better, not because we don’t care.  Perhaps it is related to caring too much. 

To be more clear, I’m pointing  here  to a phenomenon whereby individuals invest a good deal of emotional and physical energy into understanding  and helping someone they care about, but seem to neglect, or even have an aversion to, actually talking to that someone about the problem.  I’ve seen, for example, parents of children and adults who will talk to numerous “experts” to try to understand what is the problem with their child, all the while avoiding asking the question of the child him or herself.  Indeed, I can recall conversations with parents who were very motivated to discuss with me, the therapist, the question of what is the nature of their child’s problem, but when I suggested that they talk to the child to understand his or her subjective experience, it was as if they’d stopped listening.  It seemed that they were open to hearing almost any s’vara or eitza, as long as it didn’t involve talking to their child.

I recall a mother whose young adult son was struggling with depression in yeshiva in Israel, but he was resistant to treatment.  She concocted numerous schemes, some of them quite underhanded, to try to influence him to get treatment.  What was left out was any effort to improve her direct understanding of him, or efforts to improve their communication.  She was determined to solve the problem in any way she could think of, other than talking to him.

A number of years ago, I was fortunate enough to attend a NEFESH event where Lisa Twerski spoke about pre-marital counseling.  Her essential message related to the fact that many young people who are dating will ask trusted adults about their date’s behavior, wanting to know if this or that is a “red flag” or something to be concerned about.  Those adults who are asked will then often give their best advice.  Dr. Twerski’s message was that we shouldn’t be answering these questions.  Rather, we should be coaching young people to verbally express their feelings, advocate for themselves, and negotiate conflict, difference, and disagreement. Such a simple and obvious message, but the fact that it needed to be said suggests that there is a problem.  Again, there is a pull to solve the problem in a near absence of the person who has the problem.

At last year’s Agudah convention, there was a panel discussion about issues and challenges that are facing young married couples.  Many opinions were shared about those challenges.  I suggested that, in addition to discussing these issues amongst ourselves, we be sure be hear from some ACTUAL young people about their perspectives.  Again, I don’t mean to sound holier than thou, and I don’t think anyone in that room would object to my suggestion.  Also, I want to be clear that I DO believe that older people have more wisdom than younger people.  Still, it seemed to me that there wasn’t a sense that the actual voices of young people being missing from the conversation was a problem.  There seemed to be a comfort with solving the problem in the absence of the voices of the people we were trying to help.

I’ll leave the psychological analysis of why this happens to greater minds and a later date.  For now, it is my hope that we, as a community, do a better job of not just helping each other, but also listening to each other.