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The Interpersonal Bridge

by Rabbi Avraham Twerski

Excerpted from "DO UNTO OTHERS" -- How good deeds can change your life. Andrews McMeel Publishing -

The Yiddish word for a good deed is mitzvah, as in, "Harry takes Mrs. Solomon every day to the park. This is some mitzvah!" The denotation is good deed, but the connotation is much larger; it is the milieu and the spirit accompanying the performance of the deed...

The second meaning of mitzvah is connection. That stands to reason. When we show kindness to another, a bridge is built between us and them. Follow the Golden Rule to its logical conclusion and you will have formed relations with the many people for whom you harbor good feelings. The selfish life is one that pampers only the body; the spiritual life emphasizes expression of the soul. When we do for others we are setting aside ourselves, which is a spiritual deed. Good deeds therefore help dissolve the barrier between one person and another and allow us to briefly become one.

Some people seek ways in which to become one with the universe, which can be achieved through meditation or, if one wishes to be delusional, through the ingestion of chemicals. A far greater achievement is to become one with others. The optimal way to accomplish this is through mitzvah.

The following story is true, for I witnessed it with my own eyes. It forever convinced me how important it is for human beings to connect, no matter how "far gone" we might think they are. Humans need to reach each other.

Early in my career I served as a psychiatrist in a large state hospital where there were hundreds of mentally ill patients, some of whom had been there for many years. Medical students would visit the hospital periodically and I would tour the facility with them, pointing out "museum pieces," i.e., cases that are described in psychiatric literature but rarely encountered outside of an institution.

On touring a chronic care building, I pointed out a man who was the most "senior" patient in the hospital. He had been admitted 52 years earlier at the age of 17 with the diagnosis "dementia praecox," because the term schizophrenia had not yet been coined. This man was mute, his records showing that he had not spoken a single word in 52 years.

The patient had a routine whereby following breakfast he would go to a corner of the community room and assume an absurd contorted position with his hands directed upward, and he would maintain this position for hours until he was called to lunch. Following lunch he would return to this position until supper, and thereafter until bedtime. Neither talk therapy nor medications nor electroshock treatment had served to alter this behavior, which he had maintained all these years. No amount of urging could get him to sit down except at mealtime, and he often developed edema of his feet as a result of his immobility and his posture.

On one of the medical students' visits one young man asked if he could talk to the patient. "Certainly," I said, wondering what impact he thought he could make on this patient when decades of psychiatric efforts had failed.

The student approached the patient and said, "You must be tired. Go sit down." The man gave him a blank stare and did not move. The student then assumed the contorted position of the patient, equaling his posture with great precision, and then said, "I'll stand here like this. You can go sit down." Without a word, the patient sat down on a bench for the first time in 52 years!

While it is impossible to know what was going on in this man's mind, it is likely that his delusion may have been that by assuming this particular position, he was holding up the universe, and he clearly could not submit to all entreaties to leave that position, lest the world collapse. (You may ask, as we all did, why did he leave to eat and sleep? But there was no rationale to this behavior.)

For all those years no one had understood this person until this ingenious medical student solved the mystery. But why? Granted this was irrational behavior, but what we suddenly understood was that this unusual behavior had great meaning to the patient, but no one had tried to understand it. The strange behavior was just dismissed as "crazy" and no more consideration was given it or him. But by showing this patient compassion and understanding, the medical student gained a mitzvah, he showed kindness and allowed the patient to feel some relief. Further, a connection was formed between the irrational mind and the rational. Who knows how far such an understanding might have gone if it had happened many years before.

Understanding another, no matter how far apart our beliefs might be is a mitzvah in both senses of the word -- a kindness and a connection. If more often more of us tried to build this bridge there's no telling where such kindness might take us. Think about it the next time someone around you acts in a way you can't immediately understand.

Reprinted with permission from



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