“Do not comfort your friend in the hour when his dead lies unburied before him…”
Ethics of the Fathers 4:18
In our ongoing study of Ethics of the Fathers, we come across several pieces of wisdom attributed to Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar. Here, in 4:18, he helps us understand when, as a friend, we must hold back. “Do not try to pacify your friend in the hour when he is in a rage; and do not comfort him in the house when his dead lies unburied before him; and do not question him in the hour when he is making a vow; and do not make an effort to see him in the hour of his disgrace.”
Every act of restraint mentioned here protects the emotional fragility of someone caught in the throes of anguish or humiliation. In his commentary to Ethics of the Fathers, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg observes that in the four cases cited, “the overt message of our words and actions” become “the contradictory subtext of the actual effects of our intervention with another. In other words, our good intentions are contradicted by the facts on the ground. We are saying the right things, but due to insensitivity to the other person’s state, our actions are having the opposite effect.” Communication works two ways. Words are given and received and sometimes, without paying careful attention, they are not received well. Timing is everything.
This mishna calls for two words: situational awareness. Friends shouldn’t interfere when emotions are high and one’s circumstance or one’s dignity is low. This does not mean it is inappropriate to intervene when calm presides. We need our friends to question our anger or our judgment and to provide a guiding hand and a comforting soul when we have the capacity to hear what they have to say. As Dionne Warwick sang so well, “That’s What Friends Are For.”
My friend Adena recently bought me Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant’s new book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy. We’d all like an Option A life but few of us will have one. Sandberg writes movingly of her pain. Her husband died in a hotel gym on vacation (yet another reason I don’t go to the gym). She found him and shares the exquisite difficulty of sharing this news with her children. The woman who told us to lean in does not hold back. She makes herself very vulnerable in these pages, and I wonder what she might have about this teaching from Ethics of the Fathers.
In one of her most moving chapters, the authors tell us what it means to be a friend to one who has suffered immense loss. Sandberg was struck by friends who restrained themselves so much it was as if they ignored this huge, seemingly unavoidable news in her life. “Many people who had not experienced loss, even some very close friends, didn’t know what to say to me or my kids. Their discomfort being around us was palpable, especially in contrast to our previous ease. As the elephant in the room went unacknowledged, it started acting up, trampling over my relationships. If friends didn’t ask how I was doing, did that mean they didn’t care? Did they not see the giant muddy footprints and piles of manure?
Sandberg also points out that the when the person experiencing these losses remains silent, it can isolate friends, family and colleagues. It seems it’s impossible to get it right. But this was not Sandberg’s issue. She was very open about her grief. She writes about weeping openly at work, thus, the discomfort of others became all the more shocking and disappointing. “The deep loneliness of my loss was compounded by so many distancing daily interactions that I started to feel worse and worse. I thought about carrying around a stuffed elephant, but I wasn’t sure that anyone would get the hint.”
Naturally, many people refrain from saying anything because they don’t want to cause the sufferer more pain, not realizing, of course, that this itself was a cause of pain. She also shares some helpful advice. Avoid platitudes, especially this one: everything happens for a reason. Suffering does not benefit from competition so try not to one up someone else’s suffering or focus on oneself at the expense of the person who needs to be comforted. They include a great card image: “When life gives you lemons, I won’t tell you a story about my cousin’s friend who died of lemons.”
Instead of asking “How are you?” a question which seems inappropriate – how should I be given my suffering? – ask instead, ‘How are you today?” Messages like “I’m thinking about you. It must be really hard for you right now” provided comfort. Letting someone know that he or she is not alone can also minimize the distance. I’ll add, from a parenting perspective, help your kids lean in when it comes to addressing other kids and adults who are struggling. Teach your children not to be afraid of approaching the pain of others.