God is in Charge So You Don't Have to Be
I decided on a method that I felt would compensate the children as best as possible for all the stress.
When I mentioned it to a rebbetzin friend of mine, she praised my good intentions before casually explaining that what would really be best for the kids was a different method, one that would grant them more security and resilience and be more in the way of “educate the youth according to his way so that in his old age, he won’t depart from it.”
But because of past experience with people who misused this method, I had powerfully negative associations with the method she recommended, so rather than questioning her more about to see how it could work in a positive way, I remained silent while mentally dismissing her recommendation.
Around a year later found me with regrets and paying a price for doing things my way, and I realized that she had been right.
I called her to tell her that I regretted not having listened to her, and that she really had been right, and I thanked her for having tried to help me.
“It’s fine,” she said. “Don’t be too hard on yourself about it. Everything’s from Hashem anyway, so you and your kids were meant to go with that method and not another. Everything will work out anyway.”
“No, but I really should have heard you out,” I said. “I really regret it now.”
“If you really should have heard me out, then Hashem would’ve had you do that. He didn’t. He obviously wanted you to do something else, so it’s fine.”
I had never had anyone respond so graciously before and with such an admirable lack of ego-investment. I didn’t know what to say.
She continued, “I mean, it’s really nice if you realized you’ve made a mistake to admit it and try to fix it, and it’s really nice of you to call me to tell me—good for you! You’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing and Hashem is doing what He’s supposed to be doing. And I did what I was supposed to do. Everything’s running right according to plan!” She laughed.
“You’re being really nice about it,” I said. “I mean, I don’t feel judged or condemned at all. In fact, you’re making me feel good about everything, even though I messed up.”
“Well, if you’re a good person, then why shouldn’t you feel good?” she said. “Anyway, what you really have to understand is that life is a journey. And we can never know what someone else’s journey is supposed to be. All we can do is give others our best shot, but then realize that they need to go where Hashem takes them. We can’t know exactly where that is or how Hashem wants them to get there.”
This really changed the way I think. It’s so important to step back and give other people the room to grow at the pace and in the direction that they need. I’m not saying that I’m perfect about this, but knowing that other people have a journey that I’m not privy to has enabled me to let go and step back after saying what I think about something or to remain silent when they’re processing something instead of me jumping in to “correct” them.
Of course, there are also times when we need to hold firm and be tough about a position.
But many times, trying to force people onto a certain path is tinged by our own need for control and validation.
We see that people need to go through certain stages in life, like infanthood, toddlerhood, etc., and that it would, for example, be terrible to rush a 3-month-old into walking and eating solids.
Then there are individual stages. People need to work things out that you don’t. Or you need to work through certain issues that other people don’t. Or one person needs to work through those issues in one way while another person needs to work through them in a different way—and at a different pace.
And sometimes, the person who you think is lagging behind you ends up sailing past you to a finish line that is much farther beyond your own finish line.
But yes, there is a general framework.
For example, all Jews must keep Shabbat. So there's no problem encouraging another Jew to keep Shabbat according to the laws expounded on in the Shulchan Aruch.
But must that Jew keep Shabbat in exactly the way that I do—taking it in at the time I do (if I take it in very early), taking it out when I do (if I take it out at the later Rabbeinu Tam time), eating the foods that I do, and conducting the meals as I do (some families emphasize singing more, some emphasize divrei Torah more, some emphasize hospitality, etc.)?
No, they don't need to keep Shabbat in exactly the style that I do.
Likewise, when people start becoming frum, they take on different laws at different phases of their teshuvah.
For example, many girls take on some form of modest dress right away. But I’ve known others who started off with a serious commitment to the laws of lashon hara and strictly watched their mouths and kept Shabbat long before they transitioned from denim pants to flowing skirts.
There are guys who start wearing a talit katan (with the tzitzit tucked in and out of sight) and keep Shabbat long before they’ll start wearing a kippah outside of strictly religious ceremonies.
By Way of Illustration...
One child decided to draw his experiences instead of writing them.
Irrationally, I initially found this irksome.
(Well, not totally irrationally; sketching the experiences took a lot more time than writing, which significantly delayed bedtime.)
I pointed out that his pictures were taking up several pages at a time in his journal and that drawing was taking much longer than writing. But mostly, I felt like “This isn’t being done right. This isn’t how you’re supposed to be doing this. Therefore, maybe this exercise in gratitude won’t be as effective!”
Then I realized that my 10-year-old had a right (and maybe even an obligation) to express his neshamah according to its own Divinely imbued dictates. And that maybe drawing was even better than writing as far as implanting gratitude into his soul. Who knows? Anyway, I’m sure that Hashem had a lot of nachat from seeing His Kindnesses illustrated in such whimsical and copious detail...and what Hashem thinks is what’s most important.
(Although I did limit the time in which he had to draw and cut it down to 2 or 3 things rather than 5. I mean, the kid did have to go to bed at some point.)
So yeah, we can know in a general sense what direction people need to take. The Torah, the Shulchan Aruch, the mussar books all guide us.
But we can’t necessarily know exactly which path they need to take to get there, nor the speed nor grace with which they’re supposed to travel that path.
Like I said, I’m not perfect about this either. I’ve pushed when I should’ve held back and held back when maybe I should have pushed.
And I also get caught up in what I assume is a “must,” but is actually a “maybe.”
But the awareness that Hashem is running things so that I (nor anyone else) don’t have to? That really helps.