By Bonnie Glick
Our lives are busy. Kids, school, work, home, community involvement and other activities fill our days and many evenings. In fact, these activities tend to overfill our time. It’s hard to cut out anything from our schedules because everything seems so important.
But when our schedules become so packed, we sometimes miss the obvious things in front of us. Sometimes even the people in front of us who are suffering. We often don’t see suffering at all. When we look at friends and relatives, we often think they’re doing fine since their health seems good.
What we miss a lot of the time is the loneliness. The boredom. The depression. These don’t necessarily present physical symptoms.
My husband and I just dropped our sons at college and entered a new phase of life: the empty nest. The quiet that has descended upon our home is deafening. Simon and Garfunkel were on to something when they sang about the “Sounds of Silence.”
The quiet that we now come home to is not yet permanent — we still have the holidays and vacations — but it is looming. This has me thinking about people who have that quiet around them most of the time, often imposed by a move to a new city, divorce, the loss of a spouse or disability.
The Torah commands us to honor our parents; we must rise before the aged. But neither the Torah nor the rabbis go into detail about what that means.
The message is deeper than the commanding words. Actions should follow in a form that is more tangible than a weekly phone call to mom and dad, or writing a check to a local charity that focuses on the elderly.
How should we honor our parents, especially as they age? How about listening to them? Really listening. As our parents age, they face uncertainties. Sometimes those uncertainties are about their jobs. Oftentimes those uncertainties are about their health. Frequently they are about finances — theirs, as well as their children’s.
How can we listen to the uncertainties of people we love who have always had all the answers? We haven’t become experts in those fields overnight. People say there is an art to listening. I’m not so sure about that. If you open your ears (and often your hearts) during conversations with older people, not only might you learn a lot, you also might hear a lot.
When a grandparent asks how your kids are doing, he might really be asking when the grandkids will visit. When a parent asks, “Why do you work so hard?” she might really be sending a secret wish that you spend some time helping her. Listening and hearing will allow them to share with you.
In the United States, we are a transient population. We move from home to school, from school to jobs, from jobs to family, etc. At some point in time, each of us is the “new kid.” I’m sure we all remember what that is like. It’s lonely.
At this time of the year, as we celebrate the High Holidays, Sukkot and other holidays, we should remember the “new kids” — some of whom are older adults — and invite them over for a meal, a coffee or a conversation. We might make a new friend; we also might make someone’s day.
Following these commandments in the modern day is easier than it might seem at first. Social media now allows us to share our lives and stories all too easily, but that is not the same as listening — it is only telling; a one-way conversation. Still, for many people, social media allows conversations between family members to start, even if it is only during a once-a-week phone call. Someone’s comment on a post — “that meal looks spectacular” — could lead to an invitation to dinner or a conversation about nutrition. Another person’s comment — “looks like a great vacation” — could lead to a conversation about budgeting and finances.
Others have embraced technology with FaceTime and video chats to shrink distances. These tools should not be underestimated, as they can keep people connected in between visits. But nothing impacts a person’s life like human contact. We are social beings at heart.
Taking to heart the commandment to honor our parents and the aged sends powerful messages to society. Those are messages that say: We care. We look out for each other. We listen to each other.
At a time in our country’s history when we find less and less listening, perhaps a resolution to do so in the new year is something we can all try to live up to. It will make 5778 a much better year.
Bonnie Glick and her husband live in Bethesda, Md.