Growth Pains

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Argument Silhouette
03 Sep 2008

My daughter woke up in pain. Holding onto her ankle, she was twisting and turning, trying to find a comfortable position. I sat down next to her and rubbed her leg, soothing her with words that I hoped would help her get through the pain.

“Shhh, my sweety, you’re just growing. Tomorrow, you’ll be a little bit bigger.”

Adults also experience growth pains. When I think back to the periods in my life that were emotionally challenging, the times that at that moment I wished they would already be over with, those are the points that I learned lessons that altered my life. Difficult periods, such as unpleasant interactions with others, acted much like my daughter’s growth pains. They’re painful at the time, but afterwards, the sufferer has grown a bit bigger.

I think back to a few years ago, when we were having difficulties with a neighboring family. It centered around one of our children who was on-and-off friends with one of theirs. But it extended to the rest of both families, resulting in a major feud, the likes of which I would not wish on anyone. Besides the pain it caused all the children involved, it also took up much time and emotional energy on the part of my husband and myself. At times, I found myself crying, extremely tense and unable to sleep, after the conversations (read: fights) with the mother of the other child.

Our first reaction to her accusations that our child was mistreating hers was to try to stay out of it. In general, our policy about dealing with our children’s feuds with their friends is to try to let them work it out, with a little guidance when they need it. We feel that usually they work it out more quickly when the parents are not involved. What we did not realize was the extent of pain the other child was going through. Of course, there was no way that we could have realized it. We didn’t know he had some sort of physical/emotional limitation that made him hyper-sensitive. How could we know that? As far as we could see, our son was acting like a normal boy his age, and the difficulties were stemming from both sides. We did not know that because of the other boy’s disability, he was suffering unbearably, as were his parents who were going through it with him.

Once the other side made clear to us that we must get involved, our next reaction was self-defense. We listened to their side, and then tried to explain our side. Our intention was that if they would just realize that our son is not so bad, that he is just acting his age, and so forth, they would not take it so personally. We were trying to help their son understand where ours was coming from, so that he would realize that we were not out to get him. But all of our self-defense and explanations did not help. Actually, to our consternation, they seemed to be making things worse. The more we explained, the angrier they got.

We then tried a two-tack plan. To teach our children how to deal with this child on the one hand (to not insult him in any way), and to try to help their side understand our son. Unpleasant conversations went on for months with no signs of improvement. The mother would scream at my husband and me over the phone. She wouldn’t (later we realized that she couldn’t) hear any side but her son’s. I asked the mother to try to speak to me more calmly. That upset her more. Things went from bad to worse. No matter what we said or did, the situation did not improve.

One day, we realized we had to try a new approach. Whatever we said did not seem to penetrate. So I decided just to listen. I’ll let her get it all out. And she did. Oh, boy, did she ever? She told me everything that her son had gone through, how many hours of crying he had undergone, how much suffering he and consequently her whole family had endured over the last months, or maybe even year or more.

I just listened and listened, asking an occasional question, and expressing my sincere sympathy. As she talked and talked, I suddenly felt myself entering her shoes. I was feeling a bit of what they had experienced. I was feeling their pain with them.

And my reaction was not to explain or defend. I found myself crying again, but this time not of my own agony, but out of deep pain for what her son and she had undergone. I listened, I cried, I sympathized.

And then I apologized.

True, their son’s reaction to my son’s normal behavior was not typical. It was definitely exaggerated, and his reaction was way out of proportion to the cause. In addition, he himself was not guiltless. My son had also been the victim of torment from the boy’s side.

But all of that does not matter. The fact is that another family was suffering, and we were the cause.

When the mother perceived my understanding and sincere regret, I sensed her relief. In her voice, I heard a drastic change, the sound of a load being released from her shoulders. It was as if she had been holding her breathe for the last year and was finally able to exhale.

We were finally able to move on. Slowly, we worked to repair what had broken. It was not easy, but with time, we saw positive results.

Recently, I had another tense interaction with a friend. Her husband and she were upset at us. For a couple of weeks I had sensed a distance, but she did not open up to me. During one phone call, she finally spilled it out, emotionally explicating exactly what we had done wrong, concluding that our friendship had been damaged, and there was nothing we could do about it.

This time I did it right. I didn’t deny or explain. I didn’t feel accused or self-defensive. I simply told her that I wanted to hear more about this. We set up a time to discuss it a few days later, to give her a chance to pull her thoughts together.

When we got on the phone at the appointed time, I told her that I just wanted to listen. I would not respond to anything at this point. I wanted to hear her side completely and have a couple of days to speak to my husband and prepare a response.

And that’s what we did. She talked and talked, with me just asking questions or making small comments here and there. By the end of the conversation I truly understood where they were coming from. I thought I already had a clear picture after the first phone call. But now I honestly felt their pain and understood why they felt so hurt.

After a couple of days of talking it out with my husband, I called her back. I apologized and told her we would work at improving things.

She and her family just came over for Shabbos, and I’m happy to report we’re on the right track.

The success of this second episode was a direct result of the first falling-out we had had with the neighbor. Because we had learned the importance of feeling the other’s pain, of putting ourselves in their place, and letting go of all self-defense, we were able to use these tools in the second situation. We had learned—be it the hard way—a lesson we will use for the rest of our lives. The pain was worth the growth that came out of it.

The author is a freelance writer, editor and translator living in Israel. She is a wife and mother doing her best to keep her home tip-top, but more importantly, her family tip-top.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.