Our Emotional Heritage


John Gottman is a reknowned marriage counselor and researcher who worked at the University of Washington for several decades. Part of his research involved asking people about their past experiences with emotions. How, for example, did your parents let you know that you were loved?

In one interview, a woman told him, “My father always kept a distance. Even on his deathbed. When he was dying, I said ‘Dad, you never told me you loved me. And, now that it’s almost over, that’s the one thing I wish I could hear.’ But, do you know what he said? ‘If you don’t know by now, you never will.’ “And, then he died. I walked out of the hospital room and I was so angry. He was gone forever, and all I could feel toward him was angry.”

When Gottman asked this woman how this event had influenced her life, she was clear. She said, “I tell my kids every day that I love them. And, I tell my husband, too. No matter what’s going on, I always find a way to do it.

Gottman tells this story to illustrate a concept he calls ‘our emotional heritage.’ Our emotional heritage is the way we were treated in the past, and even more importantly, the way this treatment made us feel. Gottman says, we all carry with us an emotional heritage. And, it’s important for us to be aware of what that heritage is, because it has a tremendous impact on our current relationships.

So, imagine says Gottman, that we arrive at work on morning to find this message from our boss: “Please see me at 9am. Something has come up that we need to discuss.” What would be our first reaction? Gottman says a lot depends on our emotional heritage.

If we’re like Jim, we might feel anxious. Jim was raised by a harsh father whose behavior was hard to predict. One day he’d heap praise on him. But, the next day he’d berate and punish him for the smallest infraction. So, Jim spend much of his childhood feeling as if something bad could happen at any moment. These feelings carried over into adulthood. So, he tended to react to anything unexpected with fear and defensiveness.

Lisa, on the other hand, would respond to her boss’s message as a jolt of energy. She grew up the oldest of five where she was always being told: “You’re always so responsible.” Whether she was rescuing a younger sibling from some mishap, or organizing the group for a camping trip, she always got the message: “We know we can depend on you.”  And, those feelings carried over to her work. So, if the boss needed her right away, she assumed it was probably to brief her on a problem that only she could handle.

A companion to this idea of emotional heritage is what Tom Bradbury called ‘enduring vulnerabilities.’ These are emotional results of negative incidents in our lives like loss, betrayal or abuse that are so powerful that it’s impossible to shake their influence.

These twin concepts of emotional heritage and enduring vulnerabilities fit perfectly the message of Passover. On Passover, we are told to remember that we were once strangers in the land of Egypt. This is our heritage. But, even more important than the events of our past is how the way we were treated made us feel. The Torah tells us explicitly, ‘v’atem yedatem et nefesh ha’ger’/you know the heart of the stranger. You remember what it felt like to be treated as an outsider. This is your emotional heritage. Therefore, show empathy for the stranger among you.

It’s clear from the continuation of the Exodus story, that the Jewish people experienced an enduring vulnerability from the trauma of the slavery experience. Long after we were free, we still carried with us the negative feelings about ourselves that were instilled in us by our Egyptian task masters day after day. It made us skittish and panicky at any sign of trouble in the wilderness. And, our emotional heritage had such a powerful impact on us, that eventually God concluded that the generation born into slavery would not be emotionally strong enough to conquer the Promised Land. That task would have to be passed on to a younger generation that wasn’t burdened with the emotional baggage of slavery.

On the other hand, the Torah turns the concept of enduring vulnerability on its head. It tells us that under certain circumstances, enduring vulnerability can actually be a positive. God doesn’t want us to be traumatized forever. But, God wants us to preserve just enough of that memory of how it felt to be mistreated to make us empathetic to others in a similar situation.

That’s why, for example, the Torah commands us to leave our comfortable homes once a year and live in a sukkah for a week. It’s not that God does not want us ever to get over the trauma of having been homeless. It’s rather that God is worried that we will get over it too well. And, there is value in us preserving some of the memory of our helplessness, so that we will identify with the powerless today and reach out to help them.

The impact of our emotional heritage is something we continue to struggle with as a Jewish people today. What are the enduring vulnerabilities of the Jewish people? Children of holocaust survivors will all tell us that the emotional inheritance they received from their traumatized parents profoundly impacts the way they look at the world. If your experience of the world tells you that your whole life can be overturned in an instant without warning, imagine how that impacts your ability to trust in future relationships. That experience is so powerful that it can even be transferred to the next generation that hasn’t gone through this trauma personally.

And, something we are still trying to figure out as a people is what is the impact of these enduring vulnerabilities on our behavior today?  When does the memory of past trauma cripple us emotionally and prevent us from moving forward into new promised lands? And, when is that memory useful in making us wary of still present dangers?  And, when is that memory a tool that can make us more sensitive to the suffering to others?

Of even greater interest to me is the positive aspects of emotional heritage. In the example Gottman gives of Lisa, the leader of her five younger siblings, it’s clear that when our emotional history is positive, it can be a source of enduring strength for us. And, it’s just as important to be able to draw on our positive emotional history as it is to negate the impact of a negative emotional past.

That’s why on Passover we are bidden to recall not only the bitterness of slavery but the exhilaration of being freed. The Haggadah tells us that each of us must try to relive the emotional memory of redemption, to experience in our imagination the joy of leaving slavery, as if we personally had been there.

That’s why we re-experience the thrill of the crossing of the Red Sea every day through our prayers. That’s why every Saturday night, we relive the emotional experience of going from darkness to light that we encountered in the days of Mordecai and Esther. It’s because the memory of our resilience, our courage, our success can encourage us whenever we encounter a formidable obstacle today.

And, it’s the same with our personal memories. When we lose someone very dear to us, we suffer an enduring vulnerability that never entirely leaves us. We miss them terribly, we are weakened by their absence, and the pain of no longer having our loved one in our lives is not something we can ever fully overcome, or would want to.

On the other hand, whether it is a father, a mother, a husband or wife, a sister a brother, a child, or a good friend—they leave us a precious emotional inheritance. It’s not only who they were that we remember. We also remember how we felt when we were with them. We remember what it felt like to be loved by them. We remember how they gave us the courage to be vulnerable because we trusted them so deeply.

These are enduring sources of strength. These have permanently impacted our ability to experience joy. These are our permanent emotional inheritance which have the ability to influence all of our future relationships, down through the generations.

As we reflect back and remember our loved ones who made such a deep impression on our lives, let us be grateful for the emotional heritage they left us. Let us be thankful for what they taught us. And, let us continue to see our enduring vulnerabilities as an emotional resource that can help us bring more compassion, understanding and love into the world.


And, it’s the same with kissing. Chimpanzees kiss each other in the same circumstances that human beings do—like when they greet each other or reconcile after a fight. So, De Waal says: A kiss is a kiss. But, other scientists say ‘a kiss’ is human. What monkeys do is not the same. It may look like a kiss. But, it’s really just mouth to mouth contact.


Bill Clinton would have reveled in this distinction. There was that wonderfully famous moment in our culture when Bill Clinton declared “I did not have sex with that woman.” And, as we later found out, what he meant was not that he had no physical contact with Monica Lewinsky.  He was depending on our agreeing with him that mere intimate physical contact does not constitute sex.


Sex is not just a physical action. It’s an idea, a concept, a category. And similarly, there is a tipping point where mouth to mouth contact becomes more. It becomes meaningful. And, only when we’ve done something meaningful can we be held morally responsible.


There’s a show on tv now called Humans about a new line of robots that are extremely lifelike. They look like us, they speak like us. And, their movements are fluid, not herky jerky like a stereotypical robot. But, they are not quite as fluid as we are. There is a little bit of rigidity to their motion that reminds us ever so slightly that they are not human.


At one point, the man of the family, who rents a beautiful female robot, has sexual relations with her. Later when he is confronted by his wife, he claims he didn’t do anything wrong. He cries out, “It didn’t mean anything. She is a machine!”


His wife is not convinced. But, once again, he is hitting on a very important distinction. A machine might be capable of action. But, to be human is to be capable of meaningful action. The Rabbis tell us that the question of meaning is what defines slavery. If you tell your worker ‘hoe this field until I come back’ you have made him a slave because you have given him meaningless work. You have robbed that person of his humanity because a human being does not merely engage in mouth to mouth contact. A robot can do that. What makes us human is that we are capable of a kiss. A kiss is meaningful.


And, the moment we cross over that mystical barrier into meaning is the moment we become morally responsible. I will repeat one of my favorite stories because it illustrates this point so well. I once was showing the Torah to a group of fifth graders. And, of course, the question that intrigued them the most was: what happens if you drop the Torah?


And, it really disturbed them greatly that there was a possibility that you could drop the Torah. So, one student said this: What if you are holding the Torah and you begin to sway a little. And, you start to lose control of the Torah. But, you haven’t dropped it yet. And, you try to right yourself. But, the Torah is really heavy, so it’s a real struggle to hold it. And, the heavier it feels, the lower it gets in your arms.


And, slowly, slowly, you find yourself getting lower and lower to the floor as you struggle to prevent the Torah from touching the ground. And, eventually the Torah is a quarter of an inch from the ground and you’re still holding it, but it’s getting so heavy that you barely hold it anymore. And, finally the Torah touches the ground. And, the question is: Did you drop the Torah? And, do you have to fast?


It’s a fabulous question. What the student was really asking was: was this mouth to mouth contact or a kiss? Was this a series of a hundred still frames or was it one motion we could call a ‘drop’? Was this the herky jerky motion of a robot, or was it the fluid indivisible motion of a human being? Or, in other words, have I done anything meaningful?


Because if I’m a herky jerky robot, I am only capable of a thousand unrelated actions strung together. None of those tiny actions in and of themselves has any meaning. I do not lift the Torah, and I do not drop the Torah. In fact, there is no “I” at all. It’s only when my actions are on some level no longer divisible, it’s only when the series of mouth to mouth contacts become mysteriously unified into what we call a kiss that we can be held morally responsible for that kiss.


The gap between mouth to mouth contact and a kiss is a chasm. It’s defies rational explanation. How do we get from one to another? We can say it’s a matter of intention. We can say it’s a matter of meaning. But, what have we really explained? Can you measure intention? Can you observe meaning under the microscope?


The role of science is to break down life into the tiniest of parts. It’s a very important way of looking at life. But, it’s only one lens. Because if a human being is only the latest version of a zillion incremental changes over time, there is no human being. There is no unity to these still frames. We can’t say they mean anything anymore than we can say the movements we have programmed into a robot are meaningful.  The moment we speak of meaning, we are making an inscrutable leap. And, we are out of the realm of science, into the realm of religion.


George F. Will once wrote a wonderful book about baseball called “Men at Work.” His goal was to show that being great at baseball or at anything is as much about hard work as it is about talent. So, he tells us that Don Mattingly the superstar hitter of the Yankees used to go out every day before a game and take 500 practice swings. And, this was at the height of his career when he had already achieved fame.


Why does it matter? Because talent is not very democratic. Talent is something you are born with. And, the democratic impulse is to resist with all our might any advantage conveyed by birth, and to stress the rewards we earn by our own choices.


But there are limitations to this argument. If 500 practice swings could produce a Ken Griffey, then there is nothing wondrous about Ken Griffey. And, I can tell you that on the day I saw Ken Griffey tie the record for days in a row for hitting a home run, there was something magical about it. And, everyone else in the stadium felt that way, too.


And, that’s why David Brooks argued recently that hard work is only the beginning. There are moments when after working and working and working, suddenly the mind takes flight. It’s like that famous bicycle chase scene in E.T: you’re pedaling with all your might, and suddenly your feet leave the ground. These are moments of inspiration.


Inspiration is not something we can plan for. It’s not something we can control. And, that’s scary. There is nothing more exhilarating than the feeling of flying in the air. And, there is nothing more terrifying. Once our feet have left the ground, we have made a commitment that we can’t go back on easily. That’s why after our people left Egypt, we had a profound moment of panic. For the first few moments, we were flying– and we were thrilled. Then, we looked down at the ground, and we cried out: “Oh my God, what have we done?”


But, that’s what freedom is. It’s a leap, not a baby step. It’s the moment we have courage to let go of that chair and go ambling across the room to the waiting arms of our parents. It’s the moment we let our feet leave the ground. It’s the difference between mouth to mouth contact and a kiss.


On Passover we read Shir Ha’shirim, song of songs. It’s opening words are: yishakeni mi’neshikot pihu/let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth. We are the monkey that learned to kiss. And, thank God we did. This is our humanity. This is our leap to meaning. This is our freedom.