Road map for change

by Geulah Grossman

Batya Ludman, a clinical psychologist, family therapist and trauma specialist, provides cogent descriptions of life’s challenges, mental exercises that lead to personal insights, and practical advice for dealing effectively and meaningfully with people and events throughout the life cycle

Reading Dr. Batya Ludman’s wonderfully wise Life’s Journey: Exploring Relationships, Resolving Conflicts sparked some memories for me.

In 1970, when I had my first child, two best-sellers sat on my night table: the umpteenth edition of Benjamin Spock’s The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care and the just-published Future Shock by Alvin Toffler.

Spock’s message to parents was: “Be confident – you know more than you think you do – and the rest is clearly explained in this book.” Even in 1946, when the book was first published (it’s still going strong, having sold more than 50 million copies in 42 languages), many young parents needed both encouragement and a friendly source of knowledge because – like today’s immigrants – they were living far from their extended families.

Toffler defined future shock as “a personal perception of too much change in too short a period of time.” Although Toffler wrote his book before anyone could have imagined specific changes like computers in every home (or every room) and cell phones in every pocket, he was spot-on in predicting that masses of unexpected or unfamiliar information would weaken the sense that “I know how to get along in this world.”

In 1975, when I came on aliya, the only useful book I found was Sybil Kaplan’s The Wonders of a Wonder Pot. It taught me about unfamiliar ingredients and ways to prepare them without an oven, but any other information I needed for navigating into Israeli society – and for raising my children within it – was totally unavailable. Knowing Hebrew gave me the illusion that I understood what was going on around me. In reality, it’s the culture, not the language that takes time, patience and human guidance to understand.

Although future shock now engulfs everyone in Western society, new parents, parents of teenagers and new immigrants have to endure extra-large doses, making their first entries into unfamiliar worlds. Many people belong simultaneously to two or all three of these groups. Oh for a map, and a helping hand!

In her book, Ludman, a renowned clinical psychologist, family therapist and trauma specialist, provides cogent descriptions of life’s challenges, mental exercises that lead to personal insights and practical advice for dealing effectively and meaningfully with people and events throughout the life cycle.

The mental tasks are of two types. The “macro” exercises encourage you to examine (or re-examine) the values and aspirations that mold your personality and lifestyle. The “micro” exercises focus on small units of thought and behavior. For example, most of us would like to improve the way we deal with anger, both internally and outwardly, but don’t know where to begin. Fury can rise so fast that we experience it as out of our control, unstoppable and unpreventable. Thinking about this in vague general terms will probably get you nowhere, as you will discover ruefully the next time anger overwhelms you. Instead, Ludman suggests a very specific and concrete approach: Pick a time in the last week when you were angry. Now, go back and ask some questions as you review your scenario, only this time with some added distance, given the perspective of time.

What was the situation that made you angry? With whom are you angry, and why? What triggers does this situation evoke that are deeper than those that might actually appear at first glance?

What are your physical and emotional symptoms (e.g. jaw-clenching, insomnia, palpitations, depression, guilt)?

How do you respond behaviorally (e.g. scream, cry, withdraw)? How long does this response last? What do you feel you handled well and what could use improvement? What were your strengths and weaknesses in this situation?

The ever-pressing routines of daily life lead some of us to neglect the relationships most precious to us and then to wonder why they have suddenly gone flat. Yet a very small investment of time can yield exhilarating results.

For example, if you’re having trouble getting along with your spouse, try this: Catch your partner “being good.” Pick five things each day for which you can praise your partner. These don’t have to be big, but you will have to search a little some days. Tell your partner what you liked and write them down for yourself. Do this for a week and then go back and ask yourself how it went.

Reading the above, you might think “Big deal. Of course every partner likes being praised.” However, the deeper benefit of this deceptively simple exercise is the way it will change your perceptions and help you develop the habit of seeing your spouse’s best qualities and actions.

As we all know, life in Israel provides endless opportunities for stress. Fortunately, it also has built-in stress relievers, such as strong family support systems and community cohesiveness. However, in their first years here, immigrants may not yet have these supports. Furthermore, even those of us who do have such supports can need more assistance during acute or ongoing crises. Ludman gives detailed explanations of relaxation and breathing exercises, which can be practiced as a daily routine and/or mobilized when we need them most. The shared root of the Hebrew words neshama (soul) and neshima (breathing) underscores the mind-body interactions that make breathing exercises so effective.

Other topics raised in this book include effective communication, marriage, child-rearing, technology and its challenges to family life, the senior years (our parents’ and our own) and bereavement. One chapter, “Take Your Foot Off the Gas,” should be translated into Hebrew and read together by all Mediterranean parents and their new-driver teenagers.

In addition to the high quality and scope of its advice, what makes this book unique is its chapters on life in Israel – the initial aliya adjustments, the difficulties of living far from loved ones, dealing with children’s teachers, coping with terror and the threat of terror, worries about our soldier-children, the roles of religion and culture in our lives and the combined effect of all of these factors together.

Here’s one of my favorite paragraphs: “Pretend for a moment that you are from another planet. Remember, life is not what you knew back home. Appreciate all the things your new life has to offer and enjoy your adopted country’s strengths… Where else do you see pink and red flowers growing on the same tree?… You have to be moved when the bus driver, the woman at the checkout and the gym instructor all say Shabbat Shalom.”

Life’s Journey is an excellent gift for anyone at any stage of life’s journey – especially (but not only) if that journey includes aliya.

The writer is an individual, marital and family therapist practicing in Ra’anana, Jerusalem and Karnei Shomron.

This originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post magazine.

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