Family Friction? Be Thankful for the Variety of Spices

Last week’s post focused on the polarization in government and the impact on tax law. Each side stakes out its position and tries to force its views on the other side. Even when there’s plenty of common ground, no consensus emerges. Witness this week’s renewed debate over gun legislation. There is no spirit of compromise—it’s all or nothing. If you can force together 51 Senate votes, it’s “all.” If you can’t, it’s “nothing.” This dysfunction isn’t limited to government. Such partisanship behavior also spills over into families.

I wrote recently that 2022 is the “Year of the Wedding” after so many COVID wedding postponements. Marriage creates a perfect storm for polarization. I know firsthand. Laurie and I are a match made in heaven, but even we had our share of tension 43 years ago as we joined together in holy matrimony.

Laurie and I each came from spiritual homes with a strong Jewish identity, but different practices and traditions. Our situation is certainly not unique. The tendency is to cling to how your family did it as the “right” way—the perfect recipe for “I’m right” and “You’re wrong” behavior. I shared this struggle with Rabbi Harry Danziger who officiated at our wedding. While we were standing under the chuppah exchanging vows, Rabbi Danziger provided an eloquent solution.

Our wedding was on a Saturday night after the ceremony of “Havdalah” marking the “separation” between Shabbat and a return to the ordinary work week. The sabbath endows us with a higher soul, symbolized in the Havdalah service by savoring the fragrance of a mixture of spices in a spice box. In a subtle reference to our different viewpoints, Rabbi Danziger urged us to celebrate those differences by recalling the Hebrew spice box prayer: “We thank G-d for the variety of spices.” The world is a sweeter place because we each bring to it our own spices: our own experiences, beliefs, traditions, and customs. I began to see our differences as a spice box that could blend into a sweeter aroma. Indeed, that’s the home Laurie and I created, where we blended our upbringings in a way that created a spiritual Jewish home that’s right for us.

In his article in The Atlantic “A Gentler, Better Way to Change Minds,” Arthur Brooks offers these tips on building consensus:

  • View those who disagree with you as valued voices, worthy of respect and attention. Go out of your way to welcome them into your circle.
  • Don’t take rejection personally. You can love someone with whom you disagree.
  • Listen more. When it comes to changing someone’s mind, listening is more powerful than talking.
  • Cultivate openness, non-discrimination, and non-attachment to views in order to transform others. For your values to truly be a gift to others, you must first weaken (though not abandon) your own belief attachments.

I’ll add one more tip to this list. Ancient Greek Stoics saw conflicting viewpoints in a positive light. The Daily Stoic Life teaches the value of being part of a Scipionic Circle, surrounding ourselves with peers who see things differently and stretch our minds. “If you’re not exposing yourself to new ideas, how will you get better?… If you’re not being challenged, how can you become wise?” Adopt a new perspective on conflict. Don’t dodge it, embrace it. Families who look at conflicting beliefs through this lens can build mutual respect, find common ground, reach consensus, and emerge with a sweeter spice box of honored viewpoints.

Marvin E. Blum

Wedding of Marvin and Laurie Blum (1979) celebrating the blending of spices.