Living life according to Hillel: “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow”

Old woman walking awayMy mother called me yesterday, her voice shaking with tears.  “I’m in such terrible pain.  I can’t stand it.  I need to see the doctor.”

“Okay,” I said.  “I’ll take you.  When can the doctor see you?”

Mom’s answer made me realize I’d been played.  In a suddenly ordinary voice, she replied, “I already called and he can’t see me today, but he can see me tomorrow.  What time works for you?”

As someone suffering from a few of my own rickety joints, I have no doubt that Mom’s in significant pain and that a codeine shot will help out.  For that reason, I always take her to the orthopedist whenever she asks.  It’s just that I rather resent that she felt theatrics were necessary to get me to “yes.”

These trembling theatrics are what my Mom has always done.  That’s why, even though she’s a nonagenarian, they still bug me.  I can’t slough the tactic off by saying, “At her age, between labile emotions and a sense of helplessness engendered by age, of course she’ll use emotional manipulation.”  The reality is that this is just her way.

When I was growing up, we had a family friend who was wonderfully dramatic.  She easily turned something as mundane as her morning trip to the grocery store into an epic, and always amusing, adventure.  Because she was dramatic, my sister and I called her a drama queen.  What we didn’t realize was that her drama was to entertain, not to manipulate.  Meanwhile, back at home, our mother was enacting quiet little dramas about everything, all with an eye to achieving her ends.  It was very effective but, as you can see, decades later, it still irks me.

I love my mom.  She had a rotten life in many ways and developed survival skills to deal with a broken home, frequent relocations, Japanese concentration camp, the Israeli War of Independence, a frustrating marriage, immigration to a country she basically dislikes, etc.  I respect that, despite those troubles, she spent her entire adult life as a highly functional human being who worked hard, had a wide circle of friends, lived life vigorously, and parented with love and commitment.

Nevertheless, I still don’t like being played.

Despite this gripe, believe me when I say that I’m not making a big deal of yesterday’s phone call beyond whining a bit here.  I’m also using this self-indulgent whine to lead to a larger point.  I firmly believe that, at a certain age, we have to let go of resentments — or at least, as here, turn them into occasional grumbles, rather than life-controlling forces.

More importantly, I believe that, to the extent we don’t like people’s behaviors, it behooves us not to emulate them.  Or, as Hillel said, “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow.  This is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary.  Go and study it.”  Thus, while I’m sure I have uncountable failings as a mother, the one sin I never commit is using emotional manipulation on my children.

I routinely try to remind my children about the Hillel principle.  It’s not unusual for them to respond to a scolding by saying, “You and/or Daddy and/or my sibling do it too.”  I then ask, “Do you like it when I (or your Daddy or sibling) do that?”  The answer, of course, is always “No.”  Which leads to the obvious follow-up question:  “Why in the world would you willingly emulate behavior you think is bad?”  I then always add, “Now that you’re teens, you’re old enough to stop just being reactive and, instead, to start making decisions about the type of person you want to be.”

It’s because they are teens, that my kids don’t instantly modify their behavior in response to my little Socratic dialogues.  Nevertheless, I want to plant this seed in their mind:  “You are responsible for choosing who and what you want to be in this life.  If you admire behaviors, copy them; if you dislike behaviors, avoid them.  You cannot in good conscience willingly engage in behaviors you believe are bad simply because ‘other people do them too.'”


Here’s an irony.  Just as I finished proofreading the above post, my Mom called.  “I have no pain today, so I guess the doctor won’t see me, right?”  I told her I was so happy she was feeling better.  While she doesn’t miss the pain, I sensed that she regretted that she won’t get to go to a doctor today.  She does love her doctors — and they, bless their hearts, take wonderful care of her.

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  • jj

    It doesn’t happen to everybody, but for those to whom it does happen it’s weird to realize that as you become an adult, and look at the adults who raised you from an adult perspective, you don’t much like them – or one of them.  In other words, if this were someone you just met, would you have any interest in adding her/him to your circle of friends?  It’s disconcerting when thew answer, about one of your own parents, is: “no way in hell.  If I just met you at a back-yard barbecue I’d be perfectly happy to never see you again.” 
    The difficult part is to realize that this has nothing at all to do with loving them, or being a dutiful child; it’s a different thing entirely.  It doesn’t make you a bad person, it just makes you an adult, with your own independent sense of discernment, no longer referred through them.  And it’s perfectly possible – indeed, it happens every day – to love someone without much liking them.  But it’s unsettling.  You sound unsettled.  Don’t worry about it.

  • Texan99

    C.S. Lewis said that one reason we had to relinquish our vices before entering into grace is that what is tolerable once or twice would be intolerable in eternity. Whether or not you buy that, I often muse about the annoying character tics that aren’t so bad in a young or middle-aged person, but become horrible in a very old person whose faculties are failing.  It’s a good idea to develop habits and  traits that are so strong that they’ll survive when we’re fading and checking out.  Otherwise what will be left are the awful things we can more or less control and hide when we’re still strong.
    I know we all have an elderly relative or two who make this lesson plain.

    • Bookworm

      Texan99, you’ve identified the problem I have with my mother.  As I’ve told my sister (who lives far away and isn’t on the “Mom front line”), most of my Mom’s good qualities seem to have been rubbed away by time — her verve, sense of humor, optimism, compassion, etc.  All that’s left are the bad traits — hypochondria, being manipulative, living for spiteful gossip and bad news, paranoia, etc.  Even though her corporeal self is still here, I often feel as if I don’t know this person anymore.

  • Ymarsakar

    I go by my own adjustment of the Golden Rule, the Meta Golden Rule. Where you treat those in an inferior position to you, in the same fashion that you expect those above you in position to justifiably treat you.
    The vulnerability of the Golden Rule are sociopaths, sadists, masochists, basically individual variances outside conceptual or societal frameworks. In other words, it uses the framework of justice itself to maintain the system.

    • Ymarsakar

      Correction, the Meta Golden Rule uses the framework of justice, in so far as people get what they deserve, no more and no less. Instead of a fixed two person system, it’s a circle chain that goes around.

  • Charles Martel

    Back in ’72 I knew an old Hungarian woman in Berkeley, Berjie, who was always either starting, in the middle of, or just finishing a heart attack. Those around her got to the point where we would cluck dutifully and pronounce a scad of “there, theres” whenever she’d clutch at her bony chest as she was pouring tea or in the middle of some story. We put up with it because, perpetual heart attacks aside, she was a sweet, interesting lady. However, putting up with stuff like that over a lifetime, as Book has had to do, not so easy.

  • David Foster

    There’s a book by C S Lewis, “The Great Divorce,” about a man who is in purgatory and gets to take a bus trip to heaven to determine if he wants to stay there.
    One of the people he meets, who IIRC is also on leave from purgatory, is a woman who keeps complaining all the time. When he asks the angel (his guide) about her, the anglel response, “She’s a complaint.”
    “You mean a complainer, don’t you?” responds the man.
    “No,” says the angel…”Once she was a complainer, now there’s nothing left, and she’s just a complaint.”

    • Bookworm

      That’s what my mom is and I fear to be.

  • Danny Lemieux

    Book, I think that all of us work over our lives to  cultivate a public “best behavior” facade that is designed to facilitate effective relationship building with others. I suspect that a lot of older people “let themselves go” when they stop looking into (i.e., investing in) the future and become obsessed with what they have left, which is the here and now. I’ve observed the same dynamic at work with my own parents and grandparents.
    There is a gambit that they teach in negotiation training programs called “calling out the gambit”. That is, when your opponent is using a manipulative gambit on you and you recognize what is being done, you openly tell your opponent that you recognize the gambit and describe it to them. This deflates them and flips you into the position of advantage. My mother-in-law once tried to use the same emotional manipulation on me that was effective with her kids…including my wife  (they recognized it, but didn’t dare call her on it). I called her on it (in front of my wife) and she never dared to try it on me again. 
    Texan99, that was a great comment! 

  • Texan99

    Thank you, how kind!
    I try to remember how I feel and act when I’m sick enough to be almost delirious–weak, querulous, and not up to any effort to be fair.  When someone is old and sick enough, she probably feels like that all the time.
    I guess that means that when I’m temporarily sick now is a good time to practice behaving well anyway.  Yuck.
    David Foster, that’s just the passage I was thinking of, too–the lady who became a Grumble.

  • Ymarsakar

    Humans feel stress when they put on their facade mask in order to survive in human society. Yet as they grow older and weaker, they often stop putting on the mask and just do what they want. But having been afraid of putting off the mask for much of their lives, they have no code or virtues to adhere to when the mask comes off, when they show their true selves.
    Because virtues are acquired through habit, you can only behave virtuously without your social mask on if you have practiced in the times past. Otherwise, once the social facade that protects us from other human emotions and social punishment disappears, we automatically default to our desires and our instincts. Which are not normally positive, when uncontrolled.
    A person that has lived their entire life under the tenets of society and the rules of the facade, obeying the rules imposed on them, will act out in certain ways when freed of these constraints. The old philosophers were correct on the matter that good and bad people behave the same, when the fear of punishment goes away.
    Only true strength and enlightenment can avoid that issue. If a person behaves in a certain way, no matter what society threatens or promises, then it won’t matter if they get old and drop the mask, because they never had one to begin with. That wasn’t why they were motivated to act the way they did.

  • Earl

    @Texan99 and David Foster:  I think that The Great Divorce is my favorite of Lewis’ books – only by a hair, perhaps, but it is SO worth reading every couple or three years!!  I love the lizard killed by the angel!!  Wow!
    Anyhow, my mother-in-law (RIP) was a borderline personality, and would use all kinds of techniques to manipulate people and to create chaos.  Whenever things were going well, she pull one of her stunts to throw things out of whack again.  Her family had all grown up with it, and were kind of cowed – after all, they had had to live with her.  I hadn’t/didn’t, and seeing this happen just floored me – this was an adult acting like this.  My Mom (the psychiatrist) had told me that it was important to establish an independent relationship with the in-laws, so when she said something genuinely outrageous to me, I refused to be hurt – I just started laughing and said something like “You can’t possibly mean that – so I know you’re joking!”  It took a while, but after a bit she stopped the games with me and we actually had a decent relationship – although it was always painful to watch what she’d do with others.  Given what I learned of her past trauma, the way she acted could be understood, but there was always the fact that “She’s an adult, for pity sake!”

  • Ymarsakar

    <B>It took a while, but after a bit she stopped the games with me and we actually had a decent relationship – although it was always painful to watch what she’d do with others. </b>
    You know, Book, you once noted that human relationships are very different from animal hierarchies such as the pack nature of dogs.
    Yet, is this not the same? One dog acts out in the company of those who spoil that dog and act submissive to that dog, but the moment that dog is in the presence of someone that cannot be threatened or scared down, they act differently. Is that not the same?