THE JOIE DE VIVRE MUSCLE
A Conversation with Hedy Schleifer
(this interview was translated from Hebrew. Click here for the Hebrew version)
I begin my conversation with Hedy after reading her article about her father’s death. Between her article and the gist of my reading about the Imago Method and the role our parents play in the defenses we create for ourselves, I begin to understand her huge smile.
I tell her I read her article, and I ask her if she sees a connection between her smile and the kind of parents she had.
Hedy: I think everything is connected to both Father and Mother. My mother was a woman who infected people with her optimism, even in the concentration camps. She considered survival there a challenge, a mission. She brought people happiness. That was her mission. At the very times people knew they were going to their death, she celebrated. She made a birthday party for a little orphan girl in a French transit camp to Auschwitz. An honest-to-goodness birthday party, with songs and dances. People who survived the camps told me that one day they received a package of cast-off clothes, absolutely unwearable, and there was nothing they could do with them. Mother organized a group of women and put on a fashion show. Someone else told me: "Your mother made me laugh when I believed I was frozen, and laughing made me realize that I was still alive."
My mother believed that happiness and our lives are intertwined, and if she let them take away her happiness, that would impoverish her. She used to say, "Happiness is my freedom." So that was my mother: Good will and happiness all her life. My father was the world's greatest collector of Jewish jokes in Yiddish. It wasn't optimism that was his strongest feature, but more his sense of humor. He had the ability to find something funny in anything. In my mother's case, it was optimism that filled every cell in her body.
My parents were traditional. Not ultra-orthodox. They were a pair of lovebirds. They loved each other very much, but they didn't know anything about the things that I teach today. There was an icy tension in our house that they didn't know how to melt. They didn't know how to break down this tension. This is something that I didn't understand then. I didn't understand how, despite their love, they had no idea how one of them could cross the bridge into the world of the other and join him there. Love, mutual respect, kindness, and sympathy helped them cross the bridge, but they didn't know how to resolve the tension in this space that surrounded them.
It confused me -- the tension that filled the space. This is the space where the child lives. That was my childhood. Each of them was a very special personality in his own right. There was love, but there wasn't a connection, and they didn't have the tools to make the connection.
So did you get your joie de vivre from your parents?
Hedy: My birth was a miracle. I was born in a Swiss refugee camp, the day Paris was liberated. It was a day the whole world celebrated. The day of the beginning of the end of the war. I received the enormous energy of that moment. I actually think all the celebrating was for me, for the fact that I was born. That is the philosophy I live by: I was born, and the world burst out in a huge celebration. For example, this is how I live: I love to dress nicely. Always. One day Yumi asked me why I was dressed up, when it was only Tuesday. I answered him that this was my Tuesday party. Life as a party is something my parents drummed into me. My parents rejoiced in me, because they never believed that they would survive. I got so much strength from my beginning, because they said: the fact that you're alive -- that's tremendous.
Are you a religious woman?
Hedy: We're traditional. My husband has been wearing a kipa since his father died.
When I get such a brief answer. I decide to rephrase my question, and I ask her if she is a believer.
Hedy: Yes! Yes! Yes! Very! Very! Very! Every cell of my body is Faith. That's my attitude. I believe in the goodness of people. I believe that there aren't really any problems. That if people could only be in touch with their essence, there wouldn't really be any problems. That's also my approach with clients. It doesn't matter what the problems are. It doesn't matter what the couple brings. What is important is that the one comes to visit the other. Someone who pays a visit on someone else will be amazed at the depth of the world that he meets.
I ask about her daily routine, in order to understand a little more how she actually manages with all that energy?
Hedy: I don't have any regular daily routine. We are constantly on the go: Washington, Israel, Europe, and back.
How do you lead the workshop with Yumi?
Hedy: In the workshop, we teach our method, and we model it as a couple. We actually talk about our problems, and tell our stories. We really and truly continue to live in that and use it in our life as a couple.
There are 34 couples in the upcoming workshop, and we teach the seven principles of our method. We start working by having a dialogue, like in a play. Then the couples start to work. When they come back, we analyze the work that's been done. Next we tell a little bit about ourselves, our stories as a couple, we do some more modeling, followed by guided imaging, and then we go back to work. After three days of such intensive work, the couples leave with a full toolkit.
How does the therapy you give affect your relationship as a couple?
Hedy: We teach the method together, but I treat the couple by myself.
Before we learned this method for strengthening couple relationships, we were one of those couples that didn't know what to do with the tension between us. We were good friends, but we didn't know how to cross the bridge so that one could cross over to the other. Our relationship as a couple evolved through the method, and they both developed together, an integration of a number of parts. Today, the method is the result of our work together as a couple. The work goes on every day, all the time.
In our first briefing, you said that in 41 years of marriage you've already experienced Yumi as 15 husbands.
Hedy: Yumi #16 emerged in our last workshop. The transformation at this stage can happen very quickly. It can be quite interesting to talk about all 16 of my husbands. The first one was from our romantic period, when we were high on love. The second one didn't talk at all, he didn't know he had any feelings. After the effect of the love potion wears off, you're a different person. You're not married to the same person that you married. What's left is the connection without the narcotic. You find your husband behind a newspaper or a book. I can describe in detail every little change there was over the years, until husband #16 came along. In the last workshop, Yumi took a lot more space and a lot more time to express himself. He was spontaneous in a way that I've never seen him in my life. He jumped into the circle and danced. He was funny, made contact with people. He had a vitality that I've never seen in him in my life. You have to remember this is a 76-year-old man. I told the people in the workshop I didn't know him at all. That's what can happen when the relational space is holy and secure. We are watching each other develop. He says I'm his eighth wife. He says I didn't need to change as much.
Where do you recharge your batteries?
Hedy: The relationship itself charges my batteries. At this point in our lives together, we're together a lot: thinking, working, creating. I never would have imagined we could spend so much time together in a good and harmonious relationship. Today, I'm a citizen of the world, where I used to come only as a tourist—a world we would enter and leave without understanding how we entered or why we left.
For your method to work, the partners must have "therapy-ability." Is this a capacity that not everyone has been blessed with?
Hedy: I don't see my work as being the work of a therapist; it's the work of a coach. I train a person to be present for the other person. I know that everyone has those muscles. In one person, they may be atrophied, but in the other, less so. I work with the people I meet. I work more slowly with the people whose muscles are atrophied. I decide on the tempo of the treatment. There are those who want to be Olympic champions, and there are those who only want to build up their muscle in that spot. It's important to realize that everybody has all the muscles. The knowledge that everyone has these muscles -- that is my optimism.
Maybe you have succeeded because your foundation is happy? Most people's foundations are much less secure.
Hedy: I agree that happiness is optimism-dependent. Research shows there's also a strong genetic influence. I understand that it's a matter of one's nature. But I know from my husband that it's possible to learn to live happily. The man I met was terribly sad, utterly desperate. He had lost two sisters in the war. His first fiancée in Israel had been killed by terrorists. Already as a child he had not been happy. He had been through a lot. But my 16th husband is a happy man. He wakes up in the morning and knows he'll have a good day. He learned that for my sake. He was willing to build up his joie de vivre muscle. This is a muscle that is worth your while to have. In his case, the muscle was completely atrophied. He had no idea he had a muscle there. We did some weird exercises and he learned. Today he has a big muscle, and he gives to others. Men relate to him naturally more than to me, and they learn from him. They see a happy man that emerged from a sad man. It took time. You have to nurture it, you have to work. It's a gym that must be visited and used constantly.
That's how I see my work: it's not psychology, it's a gym. I don't analyze the situation; I build up muscles. In this series I had a good couple, they already had a muscle. All I had to do was to build it up.