I doubt there is a single one of us who feels we have managed all our relationships perfectly, or even three quarters as well as we could and should. If there is such a person, he or she should be the first to see a therapist.
Rabbinic tradition names the strange figure with whom Jacob wrestled all night as the guardian angel of Esau. It’s the Esau in his conscience, whose cry and tears Jacob hears now, twenty years later, as he crosses back over the physical and emotional border to re-enter the landscape of his childhood.
Jacob has had many opportunities to learn to listen better over the intervening years. He’s experienced for himself what it’s like to be on the wrong end of deception. He’s witnessed, disturbingly aloof, the pain each of his wives has felt, Leah unloved, Rachel long unable to conceive a child. Only now, at last, his conscience is open.
Most of us don’t intend to inflict suffering on those we love. But over years of family life, the whole of our self inevitably comes into play. Few of us have a perfect grip on our temper, always. Our vulnerabilities, especially those of which we are not conscious, make us defensive. Defensiveness easily becomes aggression. Trying to compensate for aspects of our upbringing we didn’t like, we lean the other way and inflict different wounds. Philip Larkin has a strong line about what parents do to their children, only it’s not one a rabbi can repeat.
That’s why the best qualities we can bring to our relationships, with friends and colleagues as well as family, are appreciation, humility, the readiness to acknowledge we may be wrong, forgiveness, kindness and openness of heart. Most of the time, these attitudes see most relationships through the downs as well as the ups.
But there are also crueller, deeper hurts, leaving scars which never heal. In her poem about her new dog Benjamin, Who Came From Who Knows Where, Mary Oliver describes how she only has to reach for brushwood or the broom for the animal to rush away. When he returns, she strives to comfort him, telling him not to worry:
I also know the way
the old life haunts the new.
I’ve listened to the fear, distress, humiliation and destruction of self-esteem domestic violence can leave. Sometimes it involves physical brutality; sometimes it includes financial manipulation; often it takes the form of emotional bullying and coercive control; frequently it is exercised in subtle and cunning, but no less powerful, demeaning and cruel, ways.
I’ve learnt of the impact of abuse on children, ongoing decades after it took place. I know that whatever I’ve heard is only a tiny fraction of what takes place. I feel nervous even trying to bring words to this hidden, taboo subject, for fear they might cause further hurt. I tried to do so in Things My Dog Has Taught Me; perhaps the book’s overt topic gave cover:
There exists something even worse than depriving a person of love: to rob him or her of the feeling of being worthy of receiving love, of being lovable and capable of giving love at all. We are born with the capacity to respond to love; as it grows we develop the ability to love others in return. It is a sin is to starve that faculty for love in another person, especially a child. It is an even greater sin… to punch holes in the fragile membranes of the heart where those experiences are stored and garnered which nurture inside us the feeling that we ourselves are lovable and able to give love, kind and able to show kindness, good and capable of altruistic goodness.
We must do everything we possibly can to make safety and support accessible to everyone who is suffering bullying and abuse, be it behind closed bedroom doors, at work, or wherever. I know to my horror that too many bullies get away with it. Too many people whom they hurt are left to suffer and go on suffering.
This responsibility is even more urgent when bullying and contempt for women are expressed from the highest places, and the victims ignored or jeered at.
We must all also try to learn from the sore places in our own hearts, and from our own potential angers and capacities to bully. We are at our most truly human when we are not hurters but healers.