Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Mixed Messages

Many years ago the famed British anthropologist Gregory Bateson proposed that schizophrenia was caused by children living in a home where they received from their parents 'double bind' messages. By 'double bind' messages he meant that the content of the message conflicted with the context. In example, the mother of the child who grows up to become schizophrenic may tell him/her often that she loves him/her. The problem is that she says the words while displaying an angry or impatient face, a face that speaks anything but love. Bateson felt that the ever present conflict between what the child heard, content, and what the child saw, context, created double bind messages that were crazy making and ultimately contributed greatly to the mental illness that would show-up in later life.
And while Bateson's theory of schizophrenia has been debunked, the concept that double bind messages or what we commonly call 'mixed messages' can have a deliterious effect remains true and compelling.

I was remembering that when I read the early parts of this week's parsha of Matot.
There Moshe tell the heads of the Tribes the laws of vows. He speaks powerfully of the importance of the spoken word and its power to bind someone except in certain and specific exceptional cases. The Torah tell us that Moshe opened his instructions to them with "These are the words that Hashem commanded." Our Sages taught that Moshe was unique amongst the prophets in his clarity of prophesy. Only he could use the words "these" or in Hebrew 'zeh'. All other prophets could only say "So spoke Hashem", in Hebrew 'ko', a less exact term. They could not say "These words spoke Hashem" with certainty. Their vision was inexact and required interpretation. Not so Moshe, whose prophesy was precise and direct.

Question we might ask is why does the Torah tell us of the unique nature of Moshe's vision, in contrast to all other prophets, here. Why does the Torah reveal this truth about Moshe's experience at this time and with these laws of vows. It was always true to Moshe's prophesy. Why here are we told of it with the Torah telling us that Moshe used the word 'ze', "these", and not 'ko' "so".

I believe the answer may be very much in keeping with the ideas with which we began.
Moshe was instructing the Israelites about the importance of being true to one's words. It was the laws of vows they were being given. One cannot give laws which speak to the importance of the word using "'ko'" or "so spoke Hashem". Here, where the very content is about being true to what one pledges with words, Moshe needed to be able to say "'ze'" or "these are the precise words G-d told me to command you".
One cannot give a message that says words matter in such a form that implies words can be used inexactly. Doing so would be to deliver a double bind message, the content and context would be in conflict. Rather than be effective, delivering messages in that way produces confusion and ambiguity.

I can remember once going to hear a talk by the famed cancer doctor Bernie Siegel. He argued that one must be honest with how one feels and not deny one's experience even when one is trying to be strong. He said "If someone, say a friend you meet on the street asks you "how are you"? If you are not feeling great don't lie. Don't say "fine" when its not. Its never good to deny your experience to your own body and self. If you know the other person does not want to hear a true account of your circumstances just say "6 out of 10". Thats enough to own your truth and yet allow your friend to say "I hope it gets better for you" and move on." Siegel, similar to Bateson, argues that one needs to keep the content of ones messages consistent with the context of one's experience. To do otherwise is harmful.

I would like to suggest that the message we need to take to heart here, both from the Torah text of this week and from the wisdom of the world, is that we need to be consistent even when it comes to reconciling our personal experience and our faith.
So often when we are asked how we are doing we say "Baruch Hashem", or "Thank G-d". We reply that way no matter how we in fact feel, whether sick or healthy, suffering or at ease. Its as if baruch Hashem covers all cases. And why not. Don't we believe all G-d does is for our good. In that case we can and must bless G-d no matter what our circumstances and indeed its all good.

Yet in doing so we miss an important point. When we are asked "how we are doing?" we are not being asked for some objective assessment. Of course to the person of faith all is good. The question we are being asked is a personal one. "How are 'we' doing?"
How are we coping with the 'good' we are receiving, which in some cases can feel pretty awful. To answer honestly and in consistancy with our experience we need to say more than "baruch Hashem". We need to say "Baruch Hashem good" or Baruch Hashem not so good". We need to claim our experience. Our content needs to match our context. We need to own our personal truth as much as we need to affirm the truth that all that Hashem does is for the good. Unless we do both we will never allow for a real reconciliation of the internal struggle between what we believe and what we feel. Unless we are willing to claim the totality of our experience real acceptance of our fate, in more than cliches, will never be possible.

It is important for our own wellbeing, as much as for others, that we minimize the inconsistancies in our life between the content and the context, between what we say and what we show, between our words and our feelings. I do not believe that lying about our truth, even when attempting to be faithful, is in our best interest or is in keeping with the will of the Divine.

Shabbat Shalom

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