The author of Kids Speak is dead. Suicide.
And our kids struggle to find words. It is indeed hard to speak.
When the pain is too great, the betrayal too deep, the anger too intense, the astonishment and shock too overwhelming, the grief too choking, the confusion too much to make sense of, you can just lie in bed and cry.
That’s what my daughter did last night. And I cried with her.
For the last two days I, like many, have felt consumed by the multitude of news stories surrounding sexual scandals. Wherever you turn, there seem to be men and women in positions of authority who can’t be trusted, people who knew and facilitated their behavior or turned a blind eye, leaders not strong enough to take a stand and make a change and countless victims on so many different levels who are suffering as a result.
It is certainly enough to make us want to stay in bed.
It feels too hard to confront, to process and to speak.
And what exactly should we be speaking about?
Over the last few days, I, like many, have struggled myself and alongside my children and students to think about how to move forward with hope and with strength. It is so difficult to know what to say. So challenging to know how to process it all and not lose faith in our world and in people. There are no easy solutions, quick fixes or good explanations.
But speaking about certain ideas can be empowering and give direction as we begin to navigate and pick up the pieces.
- There is no substitute for trusting ourselves. Having the self-confidence to trust our own feelings, instincts and intuitions is something that parents need to help children develop from the earliest stages of life. It is an essential part of being an independent person. If something feels off to us, it often is, and at the very least it warrants some discussion. That little feeling inside that leaves us feeling funny or uncomfortable when someone sometimes does or says something should be listened to carefully and never be ignored.
- When something is bothering us we should share our feelings. We should find someone who really listens, that we can process with, who can help us explore and understand what is not sitting right. And if the first person we go to doesn’t take us seriously, brushes us off, tells us its “lashon hara” or doesn’t identify with the discomfort, find someone else that does. Sometimes a different perspective can help alleviate a concern or give us the ability to see something from another angle.
Alternatively, we can get the validation and help we need and deserve. Human beings have the capacity to heal from even the most painful and difficult experiences if they get the right support. And as a community it is imperative that we make this a priority and do our best to support in every way those around us who are in need of healing.
- People are complicated. They have different sides to them. Someone who does a lot of good can also sometimes disappoint us, make mistakes or cross lines in ways that they shouldn’t. Often the blurry areas, the overstepping, the violating of boundaries are a continuum of the very same qualities we love and appreciate. The charisma, the desire to be there and to help, the self-confidence, the clarity and certainty with which one presents and interacts are all positive things until taken too far. The ability to recognize the complexity of a personality is helpful in navigating relationships.
- Respect and trust have to be earned. No one gets a free pass just because they are a leader, a teacher, a rabbi, a therapist, or an authority figure. Even the people we look up to and admire are human. Can we appreciate people without worshipping them? Can we respect people without losing our ability to see them as real and fallible? Can we build connections to role models without making ourselves dependent on them?
- We can learn to trust if we keep our eyes open and make good decisions. We can feel optimistic that most people are good and well-meaning but we also need to be smart about the way we interact, the places we go, those we spend our time with and the boundaries we put in place. We don’t want to walk around scared, fearful and paranoid that everyone is suspect. But it is possible to be trusting, positive and hopeful and still be cautious, thoughtful and deliberate at the same time.
- Proper boundaries in relationships enable us to thrive in healthy ways. Boundaries are necessary in our family interactions and friendships, between doctors, therapists and clients and between teachers and students. They are important even between two members of the same gender especially when there is a built in imbalance of power in the dynamic. Boundaries can include guidelines about where people meet, how long they speak for, the time of day they get together, if they are alone or not, the place of physical touch and the amount of physical space that should be between them. Having correct boundaries in place can be a preemptive way of preventing harmful and inappropriate encounters.
- We believe in the importance of taking responsibility. Our Torah is rife with examples of great leaders who made terrible mistakes. But what made them great is their ability to own up to their failures and take responsibility for their actions. Judah, when confronted privately by Tamar after mistreating her in several ways says, “She is right. She is greater than I am.” He admits that he has erred (Genesis 38:26). King David, after sleeping with Bathsheba and approached by Natan the prophet immediately confesses “I have sinned to God.” (Samuel II 12:13) People deserving of respect face their issues, get the help they need, and don’t run from bearing the consequences of their deeds. They have courage to confront their mistakes, take responsibility, repent and move forward no matter how tough the process.
- The big picture perspective matters. No matter how good the intentions someone has when acting or reacting in a certain way, it is crucial to step back and take a wider look at the take-away messages that will be understood by the broader public. In our efforts to protect some are we trampling others? Does our behavior leave our community in an overall better and safer place? Do people feel heard, seen, accepted and believed? Even if in any given moment we may be able to justify rationally, halachically, or religiously why we make the decisions we do on a narrow level, does it all add up coherently together? And what will be the long term ramifications? Are the public statements being made giving people the support that they need?
- We should not judge entire communities and segments of the population by their leaders, news outlets and mouthpieces. Look at individuals. Speak to people. We are quick to lump everyone into one category but when you interact on the personal level you can appreciate the wide spectrum of opinions and the sophistication and complexity that exists in every group of people.
- Finally, it is okay to allow ourselves and others to feel bad, betrayed, confused, scared, sad, resentful, lost and angry when difficult things happen. It can be beneficial to give ourselves the space to feel the intensity of our emotions. To give them the time they need. Our reactions are often fitting, normal and appropriate for what we are experiencing. There is no need to suppress them. Instead we can ride them out and live with the discomfort. They will usually subside with time after given some space. Trust that we will find a new balance and equilibrium and will be stronger as a result.
These are some of the things we have been speaking about at home and at work.
Let’s speak up and speak out about trust and empowerment, about complexity and responsibility and about respect, boundaries and caution.
Let’s speak up about helpful and productive take away messages.
It is the brighter and more hopeful way forward.