| Family Reflections |

The High Road

When we’re victims of unfairness, we can choose to respond with dignity

"My husband never remembers our date night. If he doesn’t care, why should I?”

Because now you’re both not working on the marriage. That’s not going to bring you much happiness!

And yet, this sort of behavior is common. We like things to be fair, and when they aren’t, we’re willing to “cut off our nose to spite our face.” We forget that it’s our own face we’re deforming. If our spouse isn’t trying to improve his marriage, we can still try to improve ours! True, he doesn’t deserve our effort. But the effort isn’t for him. It’s for us. We’re the ones who benefit when we take the high road.

It Starts Young

Mother: Chaim! Stop hitting your brother!

Chaim: He called me an idiot!

Mother: That’s upsetting, but you know the rule: no hitting!

Chaim: Yes, but you never do anything about it!

Chaim’s violence is justified in his young eyes by his mother’s lack of helpfulness. He has a problem he can’t solve: He’s been insulted by his brother. Presumably the problem happens repeatedly, and no one has been able to make the brother stop the behavior. As a result, Chaim feels he has to take matters into his own hands, using violence to make his point. Finally, his brother will get the message. Even his parents will have to stand up and take note. Chaim’s power play will bring him the results he craves.

As we know, there’s a time for everything, even violence (i.e. in the defense of one’s life). But in normal family life, where basically healthy people struggle to love each other every day, violence cannot be the solution to interpersonal difficulties. Even if one family member sinks very, very low, another cannot solve the problem by sinking to the lowest level yet: physical aggression.

The victim of mistreatment will have to take the higher road, attempting to resolve the problem with decency. Why should she do so? If sorely provoked, why can’t she use any means at her disposal, including violence?

Because, in addition to breaking the law, she would sacrifice her human dignity in order to obtain her goal. She would sacrifice the dignity of her family member. And her goal (a better relationship) can never be obtained by aggression.

Physical Aggression

Mother: Chaim! I already told you: Stop hitting your brother!

Chaim: He hit me first!

This is different. We’re no longer looking at verbal attacks, but rather physical ones. The high road is no longer an option because Chaim is not going to sit around and accept physical abuse from his brother. He’s going to dish it right back. He feels fully justified in doing so. “If my brother can hit me, then I can hit him!”

He shares his logic with his mother. To his surprise, Mom doesn’t buy it.

“We have rules in this house. If you came to me and told me that your brother hit you, then he would be punished. It’s not your job to punish him. It’s mine. But since you hit him back, you will now both be punished.”

Chaim is outraged. “Whatever you do isn’t working. He keeps hurting me, so I have to take care of it myself,” he declares. He’s willing to lower his dignity and do whatever it takes to right the wrong that his parent seemingly won’t or can’t.

Chaim correctly observes that Mom has been ineffective with her “punishments” and that the perpetrating brother is still on the loose. In his helplessness, he becomes as aggressive as his brother, and the house becomes a war zone.

Now we need to ask ourselves: If Mom isn’t protecting him from physical assault, does she really have the right to insist he take the high road, fighting aggression by simply “telling (ineffective) Mom”? Or should we acknowledge that, when faced with unremitting physical attacks — aggression the parents haven’t been able to put a stop to — a child is put in an impossible position?

Reaching Higher

Taking the high road is the solution of choice in family life. It’s the one most likely to preserve and promote peace, mutual dignity, and love. It can be taken even when there is aggression; the victim can report the offense to the authorities (the parents).

But this only works when parents are able to stop the aggression. If they can’t do it themselves, seeking professional help will help the aggressive child heal and help set his victims firmly on the higher path.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 699)

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Comments (2)

  1. Avatar
    Ruchi Koval

    I was a little thrown by the implication in “The High Road” that physical aggression is worse than verbal abuse and has to be addressed differently. I know this is a common approach, and schools and camps often have a “zero-tolerance policy” toward physical aggression that does not exist for verbal aggression.
    In fact, physical aggression is often a response to verbal attacks, where the victim of verbal abuse is finally fed up with “taking it” for so long and lashes out in self-defense — physically. While no one should harm another person’s body, I believe this is still self-defense. Bullies get away with subtle verbal assault and they know they can. But only physical aggression gets addressed.
    Of the roughly 250 mitzvos available to us nowadays, about ten percent are related to our speech. Hurting other people with our speech is just as bad, if not worse, than hurting them physically. The scars, as we all well know, last much longer too.
    Maybe it’s time for us to revisit the outdated and non-Torah attitude (which I know Sarah Chana Radcliffe didn’t intend) that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Not true and not Jewish.

    1. Sarah Chana
      Sarah Chana

      You’re correct on both counts: Verbal abuse is seriously hurtful and no, I did not intend to minimize that Torah-true fact in any way. What I was saying is that there is actually an instinct to attack back physically when we’re physically attacked. It’s a survival instinct, wired into our limbic system. Although we may have “had it” with a verbal abuser, on the other hand, there is no such instinct to attack physically in defense of a verbal attack. There may be a strong desire to lash out physically at that point due to anger and emotional suffering, but one can overcome that desire because it isn’t governed by a physical instinct. Therefore slightly different interventions are called for in dealing with perpetrators.
      Nonetheless, no one should underestimate the harm that is inflicted by verbal abuse; it may not be bone-crushing, but it can be soul-crushing. This is why the Torah specifically prohibits it through the transgression of ona’as devarim, the prohibition of hurting people’s feelings with words.