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  • Rabbi Mordecai Finley

Change and Growth


I have gained a much deeper understanding of human pain and human growth due to my work leading a weekly spirituality group at Recover Integrity (www.recoverintegrity.com).

Life cannot force us to grow. We can respond to the blows and dilemmas that confront us by growing into fuller versions of ourselves, but we can also choose not to grow. The decision making process to grow or not occurs, of course, in regions of the inner life unseen by the conscious mind. We can only see the symptoms in our thinking or behavior.

Imagine the person who ways, “Why should I be fair when no one else is fair?” There is some deep wound inside, some betrayal, some experience of not having been treated justly or lovingly. An inner decision making process for such a person concluded that meanness and callousness is the answer.

But why might that person become an addict? Because choosing to be callous is not growth. Choosing to take vengeance on anyone or everyone unleashes toxic forces within, toxic forces that are intolerable. We medicate with drugs, alcohol, food, or other addictive or destructive behaviors because some pattern within the ego self chose – “anything but grow through this.”

To grow - emotionally, cognitively, morally, spiritually – always involves pain. The reordering of our inner life can be excruciating. For the fearful it requires courage. For the judgmental it requires compassion. For the confused it requires clarity. For the angry it requires acceptance. We have a choice. Grow, with the pain of growth. Or remain stuck, with the pain of remaining stuck – and medicate.

The term “growth” is taken from humanistic psychology, a diversion from Freud, that saw human fulfillment and actualization as the goal of life, not just relief from neurotic symptoms. From the perspective of humanistic psychology, we don’t only suffer because the superego is crushing the desires of the id; we suffer because we are not more mature.

Some years ago I counseled parents, a very traditional Jewish couple, whose daughter had married a non-Jewish man. The history of immigrant families replayed, as they refused to meet the guy, and banished their daughter. The chaos of an intermarriage was greeted with rigidity.

The parents were suffering deeply. The mother went to a psychologist, who suggested a session with me. I met with the mom. Her claim came down to this: Our daughter defied us and broke tradition. Her husband did not ask us for permission. They do not respect their elders. We can do nothing but reject them. (I have heard this case over and over again for decades). I got a sense why this young woman had left her parent’s home, her traditions, and her people. I could feel the suffocation.

“So why are you seeing a psychologist?” I asked. “Because I am so depressed that I am emotionally paralyzed.” Had this woman had a different constitution, she might have chosen booze over depression. Either way, her emotions were killing her.

What she wanted, of course, was to “undo”. Her rage and punitive behavior had a magical goal. If she stayed angry enough, she could undo what happened. To not be angry would be to accept reality. In the immature ego self, angry denial is always better than sad acceptance. Anger is almost always trying to turn back the clock.

Anger is exhausting, of course, and depression follows. Our inner lives can get hollowed out.

“Why are you calling a rabbi?”, I asked. She did not know. Her psychologist told her to. I knew this psychologist to be a wise and astute person.

I gave her the rabbi’s point of view – essentially, a moral one. What is best for the Jewish people is for this man to see what a wise and compassionate tradition we are. What is best for this family is to heal and move forward. What is best for this daughter is to feel her parents’ love and support (the daughter was pregnant). What is best for these parents is not to miss out on the life of their grandchild, for all concerned. What is best for their daughter’s husband is for his wife not to endure such rejection and heartache.

“So what do I do?” she asked. “Apologize for everything,” I said. I tried to reshape her thinking by showing her, as patiently as I could, that she and her husband had messed things up by the numbers, and by fractions of numbers. They did not miss a step in making things worse. Time to start making things better. Be wise. I knew that there had to be a huge cognitive readjustment. That compassion for their daughter had to replace the anger and desire to punish. That wisdom had to replace rigidity.

Of course, I was told that I did not understand. That to follow my approach meant that everything was permissible and that life had no standards.

I took one last try. I do understand. Hurting others unnecessarily is wrong. Being confused about what you really want from life can lead to terrible mistakes. My standard is emotional health, rational clarity, moral courage and spiritual wholeness. I held my breath.

“I will think about it,” she concluded.

“Talk to the doc,” I counseled. I knew she was an expert in addiction counseling.


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