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Monday, September 1, 2014

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Breaking the silence

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Rabbi Joe Kanofsky

“We don’t speak to each other.” “We aren’t on speaking terms.” “She and I haven’t spoken in nine years.”

Long before I began working as a community rabbi, I was aware of the “we’re not talking” malady, because friends and extended family suffered from it. The more I paid attention, the more commonplace I found this problem to be.

The irony is bitter that in our hyper-connected age, people in families still deliberately avoid contact with one another. Or perhaps it’s not so surprising. Telephones, Skype, FaceTime, email, text and Twitter all serve to connect us when we want to connect, but they’re no more than tools. So when we want to avoid using them to avoid contact with another person, they serve that function just as well.

Any number of causes underlie this phenomenon. It’s sometimes triggered by a simple misunderstanding – a careless word, a comment taken the wrong way or a perceived slight. The Thanksgiving scene in the film Avalon comes to mind: “You cut the turkey? Without me?” But the roots lie deeper than that. Self-confidence issues are often at the forefront of these fragile relationships before the rupture happens. Other sources of animosity can also be the cause: finances, death or illness of someone close, envy, or love. One person may blame another for something that had little to do with them: “You caused Grandpa’s heart attack!” “She was never the same after you moved away!”  – and so on.

Other times, the lack of communication may be rooted in profound differences or issues – abusive or toxic relationships and radical lifestyle changes, for example.

Whatever the genesis of these estrangements, it’s often difficult to recognize that life is short and fences can be mended. Sometimes, an extreme situation will tip the scales and bring about a reconciliation: a joyous event such as a wedding or birth, or on the other end of the spectrum, a death.

As layers of resentment and bitterness accrue over months, years or decades, “forgive and forget” seems like an inadequate strategy for repairing a damaged relationship. Yet sometimes it may not be necessary to work through all the problems and history of a troubled relationship. As an American politician from mid-century once said, “When all is said and done, we must forgive each other, redeem each other, and move on.”

Someone must seize the high ground and take the first step to try to re-establish the connection. Once an inroad has been made, it might be that the most difficult thing to do is not to talk, but rather to listen. It may take some rehashing of old grudges, some revisits of slights from many years before, in order to heal the wounds. But it can happen, and I myself have been witness to a silence of 40 years broken and a relationship restored and renewed.

If you have a unique story of how a relationship of yours or of someone you know was restored after a period of silence and you’d like to share it, I’d like to listen. Please write me at joekanofsky@gmail.com.

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