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“How does that help?”

 

Sometimes it is better not to know. Mrs. iWe and I, who in our youth were perpetually curious, have learned through experience that when someone tells us we are better off not knowing something, we should not ask again. Indeed, we ask, “How is that a helpful thing to say?” whenever one of us or our children opts to share a juicy bit of gossip, or crank up bulldozers in the vicinity of sleeping dogs.

With non-family-members, reproof is usually not appropriate; so we get very quiet in those situations. Sometimes they even take the hint.

But around family, this is particularly sticky. What happens when someone wants to air old grudges, or ask about something they really do not need to know?

There is a Torah precedent for this: Jacob’s sons dispose of their annoying brother, and lie to their father by producing the famous coat, covered in blood. But many years later, Joseph turns up. He gets square with his brothers, but all Jacob learns is that Joseph is alive.

The Torah fairly bristles with the unasked — and unanswered — questions. What happened to Joseph all those years ago? Jacob never asks. The brothers never tell their father, and Joseph does not utter a word. And if we think about it, the reason is simple enough: no answer can be helpful. All it can do is open old wounds, and perhaps carve a few new ones.

In every family, I think this is a potential minefield. There are those who always want to relitigate the past. They live with anger and grudges, issues that cannot be resolved even if others try to make amends. We cannot undo the past, after all. But they continue to insist on bringing it up, time and again – regardless of whether or not it helps to do so.

I know the Torah teaches us that when it is not productive, to let it go. But how do you make it happen in practice?

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There are 14 comments.

  1. Thatcher

    Maybe by focusing forward, not taking the bait of old “gotchas”/gripe lists the other puts out there? (I’ve seen very long-standing examples of this in practice…nearly-heroic ones.)

    • #1
    • December 2, 2018 at 6:19 pm
    • 3 likes
  2. Contributor

    iWe: Sometimes it is better not to know. Mrs. iWe and I, who in our youth were perpetually curious, have learned through experience that when someone tells us we are better off not knowing something, we should not ask again. Indeed, we ask, “How is that a helpful thing to say?” whenever one of us or our children opts to share a juicy bit of gossip, or crank up bulldozers in the vicinity of sleeping dogs.

    I agree. If I check in with someone and the person tells me she doesn’t want to talk about it, I let it go. I once had a friend who loved to tell me all kinds of gossip. She actually was a lovely person, so I told her that I was uncomfortable hearing those stories–that I’d rather she wouldn’t share stories about others. She actually was very gracious, and she never did it again–and we remained friends.

    Regarding family, we didn’t re-litigate. We just didn’t talk about things from the past. No one could tolerate conflict. So most grievances went unspoken. Now none of us speaks with the other.

    • #2
    • December 2, 2018 at 6:25 pm
    • 5 likes
  3. Member

    Nanda Panjandrum (View Comment):

    Maybe by focusing forward, not taking the bait of old “gotchas”/gripe lists the other puts forward? (I’ve seen very long-standing examples of this in practice…nearly-heroic ones.)

    And by trying to find a good result from even a bad deed, as Joseph did regarding his brothers selling him into slavery.

    • #3
    • December 2, 2018 at 6:28 pm
    • 5 likes
  4. Member

    I don’t have an answer, but I am awed by how well you have described the problem. :-)

    • #4
    • December 2, 2018 at 6:32 pm
    • 4 likes
  5. Member

    iWe:

    We cannot undo the past, after all. But they continue to insist on bringing it up, time and again – regardless of whether or not it helps to do so.

    I know the Torah teaches us that when it is not productive, to let it go. But how do you make it happen in practice?

    iWe, not sure if this would work in a family setting with a relation nursing a grudge and just waiting to spring it on everybody (because, their grudges are so important that they are willing to despoil much-treasured family time).

    But, given the conditions and the opportunity, I deploy the following Zen tale (I might’ve done it on Rico once or twice, probably via PM, not sure):

    Two monks, an elder and a novice, travel together upon the spring thaw to the capital city in order to buy supplies after the harsh winter. They come across a normally babbling brook, that is now a raging stream that has surged up over the footbridge by about six inches. On the near side of the bridge stands a young noble woman, dressed in silks.

    The elder monk asks if he may assist her getting across the bridge, and she assents. The elder monk lifts her up in his arms, carries her across the bridge, and deposits her safely on the far side. The monks move on.

    The novice is in turmoil. But, but, we are not to even think of women, let alone touch them! The elder knows this! How could he shatter his vows so callously?!  Finally, after miles, the novice can contain himself no longer. “Master! How could you do that? How could you so violate our vows and the rules of our temple by touching that woman and hauling her across the bridge?!”

    The elder monk stops and looks at the novice. “I put her down on the far side of the stream. Why are you still carrying her?”

    Then ask: brother, why are you still carrying her?

    Anyway, has worked for me (deployed more at work than at home) with senior officers, peers and subordinates. Again, gotta make sure the environment is right. If the tale is interrupted, kind of loses its umph. Too, it’s worked when I’ve had to tell that story to myself.

    • #5
    • December 2, 2018 at 6:33 pm
    • 10 likes
  6. Member

    iWe: here are those who always want to relitigate the past. They live with anger and grudges, issues that cannot be resolved even if others try to make amends. We cannot undo the past, after all. But they continue to insist on bringing it up, time and again – regardless of whether or not it helps to do so.

    The value of forgiveness (of others, naturally) is avoiding this. It took me many, many decades to understand this, longer to believe it, and still longer to practice it. I may still be working on that last.

    • #6
    • December 2, 2018 at 6:52 pm
    • 10 likes
  7. Thatcher

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):

    iWe:

    We cannot undo the past, after all. But they continue to insist on bringing it up, time and again – regardless of whether or not it helps to do so.

    I know the Torah teaches us that when it is not productive, to let it go. But how do you make it happen in practice?

    iWe, not sure if this would work in a family setting with a relation nursing a grudge and just waiting to spring it on everybody (because, their grudges are so important that they are willing to despoil much-treasured family time).

    But, given the conditions and the opportunity, I deploy the following Zen tale (I might’ve done it on Rico once or twice, probably via PM, not sure):

    Two monks, an elder and a novice, travel together upon the spring thaw to the capital city in order to buy supplies after the harsh winter. They come across a normally babbling brook, that is now a raging stream that has surged up over the footbridge by about six inches. On the near side of the bridge stands a young noble woman, dressed in silks.

    The elder monk asks if he may assist her getting across the bridge, and she assents. The elder monk lifts her up in his arms, carries her across the bridge, and deposits her safely on the far side. The monks move on.

    The novice is in turmoil. But, but, we are not to even think of women, let alone touch them! The elder knows this! How could he shatter his vows so callously?! Finally, after miles, the novice can contain himself no longer. “Master! How could you do that? How could you so violate our vows and the rules of our temple by touching that woman and hauling her across the bridge?!”

    The elder monk stops and looks at the novice. “I put her down on the far side of the stream. Why are you still carrying her?”

    Then ask: brother, why are you still carrying her?

    Anyway, has worked for me (deployed more at work than at home) with senior officers, peers and subordinates. Again, gotta make sure the environment is right. If the tale is interrupted, kind of loses its umph. Too, it’s worked when I’ve had to tell that story to myself.

    An old favorite, mi jefe!

    • #7
    • December 2, 2018 at 7:05 pm
    • 4 likes
  8. Member

    iWe:

    I know the Torah teaches us that when it is not productive, to let it go. But how do you make it happen in practice?

    I dig. And, for the most part, I don’t know how. I did get one tip years ago that helped almost miraculously: Pray for that person.

    • #8
    • December 2, 2018 at 7:18 pm
    • 7 likes
  9. Member

    My mother was famous for not being a gossip and I’ve tried to carry on the tradition. I only have one daughter and she is much like me. We talk A LOT but we are in agreement that boring people talk about other people. 

    But funny story. Someone very close to me was damaged legally and hurt emotionally by someone that is known to many people I know. I actually avoided a few people who made it known they had stories to share.

    It would have been helpful to know. 

    • #9
    • December 2, 2018 at 7:21 pm
    • 8 likes
  10. Moderator
    She

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):

    iWe:

    We cannot undo the past, after all. But they continue to insist on bringing it up, time and again – regardless of whether or not it helps to do so.

    I know the Torah teaches us that when it is not productive, to let it go. But how do you make it happen in practice?

    iWe, not sure if this would work in a family setting with a relation nursing a grudge and just waiting to spring it on everybody (because, their grudges are so important that they are willing to despoil much-treasured family time).

    But, given the conditions and the opportunity, I deploy the following Zen tale (I might’ve done it on Rico once or twice, probably via PM, not sure):

    Two monks, an elder and a novice, travel together upon the spring thaw to the capital city in order to buy supplies after the harsh winter. They come across a normally babbling brook, that is now a raging stream that has surged up over the footbridge by about six inches. On the near side of the bridge stands a young noble woman, dressed in silks.

    The elder monk asks if he may assist her getting across the bridge, and she assents. The elder monk lifts her up in his arms, carries her across the bridge, and deposits her safely on the far side. The monks move on.

    The novice is in turmoil. But, but, we are not to even think of women, let alone touch them! The elder knows this! How could he shatter his vows so callously?! Finally, after miles, the novice can contain himself no longer. “Master! How could you do that? How could you so violate our vows and the rules of our temple by touching that woman and hauling her across the bridge?!”

    The elder monk stops and looks at the novice. “I put her down on the far side of the stream. Why are you still carrying her?”

    Then ask: brother, why are you still carrying her?

    Anyway, has worked for me (deployed more at work than at home) with senior officers, peers and subordinates. Again, gotta make sure the environment is right. If the tale is interrupted, kind of loses its umph. Too, it’s worked when I’ve had to tell that story to myself.

    Yepper. I’ve heard that before, too.

    Like most good advice, though, it’s easy to give others; harder to listen to oneself.

    My dear departed mother (“money might not make you happy, but at least you can be miserable in comfort”) was also fond of saying “the best thing to do with good advice is ‘pass it on.'” Her mileage in the self-awareness department varied from day to day, as it does with most of us.

    • #10
    • December 2, 2018 at 7:49 pm
    • 6 likes
  11. Member

    Holding grudges and revisiting family strife is, in my experience, very cultural. I have many, many relatives in Scotland and many of them are carrying on old slights that are generations old.

    When my dad got a cancer death sentence he said to me “You’ll need to call Scotland.” My reply? “I’ll need to make about 20 calls because no one is talking to anyone except me.”

    A few years ago there was a huge misunderstanding in my family that resulted in my brother and SIL not joining us for Thanksgiving. (I thought they didn’t want to come – they thought they weren’t invited) My beloved SIL sent an email on Saturday night, by Tuesday we were laughing at the pub: “How could you be so stupid!” Thank God for Yankee sister in laws.

    I told the story to my New York, Jewish friend and she said, “In my family that would have been good for three generations of pissed off.”

    I had the opportunity to spend a week recently with a good, good friend who happens to be Irish (and is estranged from her two sisters) and was repeating stories about some of the fusses and disagreements I’ve had with my brothers and sisters. She asked: My God. How do you come back from that?

    And I replied that we just don’t shut up. We talk and we talk and we talk until we’re too tired to be mad anymore.

    Edited to add: though I did suffer a brother and sister who refused to talk to each other for three days – while we were all in the same cabin in Canada – over a disagreement about Israeli borders.

    • #11
    • December 2, 2018 at 9:10 pm
    • 12 likes
  12. Inactive

    Before she crashed and burned – an event foreshadowed by her ridiculous response to the excruciatingly funny “Dr. Nora” episode of Frazier (with the brilliant Christine Baranski in the title role and which now can’t be seen because Dr. Laura suppressed it) – Dr. Laura used to ask callers “is this the hill you want to die on?”

    Good question.

    Except in pivotal existential disagreements, leaving the other party a face saving way out is probably a good thing. A lot of people have a strong tendency to mistake every  disagreement for an existential one. This tendency is probably related to@drbastiat‘s post on narcissism and the discussion thread.

    • #12
    • December 2, 2018 at 11:26 pm
    • 9 likes
  13. Coolidge

    Nanda Panjandrum (View Comment):

    Maybe by focusing forward, not taking the bait of old “gotchas”/gripe lists the other puts forward? (I’ve seen very long-standing examples of this in practice…nearly-heroic ones.)

    This Thanksgiving, my dad started in on us: “All of you just lie to me, right to my face.” I said “Dad, I’m 50 years old, I have no reason to lie to you.” He responded “Bull****! You are the worst!” I briefly considered arguing back with him. then my brother and I got up and walked away. Life’s too short for that nonsense.

    • #13
    • December 3, 2018 at 7:11 am
    • 6 likes
  14. Member

    Annefy (View Comment):

    Holding grudges and revisiting family strife is, in my experience, very cultural. I have many, many relatives in Scotland and many of them are carrying on old slights that are generations old.

    When my dad got a cancer death sentence he said to me “You’ll need to call Scotland.” My reply? “I’ll need to make about 20 calls because no one is talking to anyone except me.”

    Love this. Oddly enough, it sounds nothing like the Scottish side of my family– though it perfectly encapsulates the Italian side :-)

    • #14
    • December 3, 2018 at 9:04 pm
    • 3 likes