Sometimes we can feel that the way we are raised makes us act in a bad way, and that we're stuck and can't change it. But we learn in the Torah that Rebecca, our matriarch, was born and grew up amongst the most selfish and dishonest people, yet she overcame this to grow into one of the most giving and righteous women who ever lived. God gives us each the ability to overcome our obstacles, if we are willing to try.
In our story a kid discovers that he isn't as stuck as he thinks.
"WINNING THE GOOD FIGHT"
Ever since he was a little kid, Larry Green had learned that the only way stop from getting stepped on was to step on the other guy twice as hard.
He already got into a fight that day on the school bus. He was about to sit down on a seat when another kid took it first. At his old school in his old neighborhood all the kids would fight with each other to get and keep their regular seats. Here at the new school he had just started, he didn't have a regular seat yet so he figured he'd better start fighting if he wanted to get one.
He grabbed the surprised-looking kid by the collar and gave him a good shake. Soon they were fighting and the bus driver pulled over to the side of the road.
"Green, that's the third fight you picked this week," the angry driver said. "When we get to school you're going straight to Mr. Berman's office.
He waited his turn outside the principal's office, but he wasn't scared. In his old school, the principal was really tough and mean and would scream his head off at you for the smallest thing. But from what he had seen of Mr. Berman, the man was as soft as butter and he doubted this gentle man would do anything like that.
The door opened and the principal called him in.
"Larry, I hear you have been getting into a lot of fights lately," he said with a calm, even voice. The boy shrugged. "I don't know about your old school, but that's not how we do things here. The boy you hit on the bus told me he had no idea you wanted that seat and would have happily gotten up and taken another one - if you had just asked him instead of attacking him."
Larry shuffled his feet. "Look Mr. Berman," he finally said, "maybe you're right and I shouldn't have hit the kid. But you've got to understand that's just the way I am. Where I grew up you had to fight to survive."
The principal looked him over. "Tell me, Larry, where do you think I went to school?"
"I don't know. Here I guess, or maybe that fancy private school uptown."
Mr. Berman gave him a big smile. "What if I told you I went to and graduated PS 22?"
Larry jumped back. PS 22 was the toughest school in the toughest neighborhood in his old city. Even the kids in his old school were afraid to go near it. How could someone so gentle and refined have come from there?
"Are you serious?"
"Not only did I go there, but I was - this is between you and me - the toughest kid in my class. And if you would have asked me then, I would have also said that's just the way I am, and am always going to be."
Larry had been in a rush to get the meeting over with, but now he was getting curious. "So, how did you change?"
Mr. Berman leaned back on his seat. "Well once - I don't know why - but I looked in the eyes of the kid I was about to beat up. I saw how scared he was, and how he was a real person with real feelings and not just a punching bag I could use to show people how tough I was. I realized right then and there that fighting and hurting people is wrong, and little by little I changed my ways. And you can too."
"But even if I want to change, I just can't. I'm stuck being this way and that's it."
"Larry," he said, looking the boy straight in the eyes, "a person is only stuck in his bad ways if he lets himself be..."
Later that day, Larry felt himself getting pushed from behind as the kids crowded into the lunch line.
Some wise guy is trying to get ahead of me, he thought. But I know how to take care of wise guys.
He felt himself get pushed again. One punch would put a quick end to this wise guy and send a message to anyone else who might try to push him around: DON'T TRY IT.
He was about to turn around and let the kid have it.
He made a fist and was about to turn around and let the kid have it, when the principal's words rang in his head. 'That's not how we do things here... A person is only stuck in his bad ways if he lets himself be... I changed my ways, and you can too..."
Larry took a deep breath, and noticed that the kid wasn't even looking at him. He was just standing there munching on some chips, talking to a friend. He didn't even realize that he was bumping into him. Maybe he really didn't have to hit him and prove he was tough. Maybe he really wasn't stuck!
Larry unclenched his fist.
"Hey, could you please stop pushing me?" Larry said, trying his best to hold back his anger.
"Oh, I'm really sorry," the kid said apologetically. "I didn't even notice I was pushing you. Hey, are you new in school?"
Larry nodded and smiled back. As he began to make a new friend, he thought about how happy he was that he won his latest fight - the fight to change his ways for the better.
Q. How did Larry feel at first about changing himself not to fight so much?
A. He felt like it was impossible, since he had grown up that way.
Q. How did he feel about it in the end?
A. He felt like he really could change and that he wasn't stuck being that way after all.
Q. What lesson do you think Larry learned that day in school?
A. He had assumed that since he had grown up in a school where there was a lot of fighting just to get by, that he was stuck being that way. But the principal helped him to discover that we always have a choice how to react to things and he could really change his ways to be less violent despite his upbringing.
Q. Why do you think Larry felt 'stuck'?
A. The place and people we grow up around have a big influence on the way we learn to behave in various situations. Sometimes we feel this is so much part of us that it's impossible to change, even things that need changing. This is how Larry felt, until Mr. Berman through his encouraging words and inspiring personal example showed him a way to break free.
Ages 10 and Up
Q. Do you think all of a person's character traits are changeable, or are there really some we are 'stuck' with?
A. Certainly each of us is predisposed to certain character traits - one person more calm, another more easily angered, etc. However, we are never 'stuck' with negative traits and can always improve. It takes commitment and motivation but with steady effort we can literally re-design ourselves into better, more perfected people.
Q. How do you think a person can go about changing a negative character trait?
A. One tried and true way is by going out of our way to act the opposite of the negative trait (within reason and for a limited time). For instance, someone who feels he is too cheap and miserly can temporarily act even more generous and giving than the average person, etc. Eventually this can bring our character traits into their proper balance.