A Polite Request for Basic Sensitivity

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16 Feb 2012

Rebecca Rosen is carefully perusing the cereal shelves in her local supermarket.  Bran flakes or Life?  These little routines help her take her mind off the difficult period she and her husband are going through.  They have been trying to have kids for three years, but, unfortunately, G-d has not yet blessed them with a child.  It’s especially hard for her to live in a community where so many young couples have already been blessed with several children.  While examining the nutritional facts on the cereal box she is granted momentary respite from her otherwise anxiety-ridden thoughts.  Until she is interrupted.

“Rebecca?  Hi, how are you?”

The voice is of a friend from college, though in recent years the two have drifted.

“So…how’s life?” she continues.

Rebecca smiles. “Its great, thank G-d. I’m finishing up school at Hunter and my husband has been working at KPMG.”  Rebecca knows this is not the answer her friend was looking for.

“But…[emphatic pause]…how’s everything else?”

Its becoming more and more difficult for Rebbeca to continue smiling.  “Good, really good.”

“I know you and Josh have been having trouble having kids,” her old friend continues.  Rebecca’s stomach knots up.  She knew the conversation was going there.  She’s unsure what bothers her more: the distant friend asking her a too-personal question or the indiscreet location for a conversation that should warrant an intimate living room…not a supermarket aisle.  As her friend continues, Rebecca just continues to hold a smile and nod through the barrage of questions and unsolicited solace.

“It must be so hard …  Are you really trying? … Do you or your husband have issues?  …  I know a Rabbi who …  Anyway, have a great day!” and she abruptly ends her monologue.

Rebecca smiles.  Now comes the hardest part.  Rebecca turns to her friend who eagerly awaits her response to the sage advice just dispensed; Rebecca mumbles, “Thanks so much, you too.”

Boruch is a father of four with a wonderful wife.  Life had always been going well for him, but he was recently laid off and now has mounting debt.  He’s been out of work for close to a year and the longer he remains unemployed, the more hopeless the prospects seem.

A close friend of his, Simcha, just made partner in a top ten firm.  Boruch is happy for his close friend, but the prominence of Simcha’s promotion makes Boruch’s unemployment all the more apparent.  Simcha plans to make a small kiddush in shul on Shabbat to celebrate his promotion.  Boruch is nervous but determined to go to celebrate with his close friend.

At the kiddush, Boruch feels unsettled. He can almost see everyone thinking, “Oh, wow, I can’t believe he came! This must be so hard for him.”  Truthfully, they were right.  It was hard.  After giving Simcha a hug and a “Mazel Tov,” Boruch turns around to leave.  His hopes of making a discreet exit are dashed as  he is stopped by several people.

Im yirtzeh Hashem by you…it should be G-d’s will for you too….”

He feels as though a consolation firing squad has selected him for execution.   An older friend takes him to the side.

“Boruch, you should know this whole situation you’re in is really a brachah.  Don’t worry about it.”

Frustrated by his friend’s insensitivity, he looks up at him and mutters, “Yeah…im yirtzeh Hashem by you.”

Following davening Shabbat morning, Yoni is sitting in his usual seat listening to the announcements.  After finishing with the Shabbos schedule, the gabbai, a humorous and jovial man, begins with the different Mazel Tovs of the members of the shul.  Yoni has begun to dread this part.  Though he has only been married for two years, he and his wife have not yet been able to have children.

“Mazel Tov to the Berkowitz family on the birth of a baby girl!”

Some members in the back call out, “Kiddush l’chaim!”  Yoni chuckles, and though it can be hard, he is happy for Berkowitz family.  The constant jibes, however, from his friends and members of his shul have made it increasingly more difficult.  As the gabbai’s list of community simchas continues, the comments inevitably begin.

A friend at Yoni’s table turns to him, “So, nu, Yoni, what are you waiting for?” Yoni’s chuckle fades to a strained smile.  “Yep, we’re trying,” he responds.  Another member, sitting in the table directly in front of him, turns and calls to Yoni, “We’re all waiting to hear your simchas!  B’karov!”  Yoni nods, feigning a sense of agreement.  He knows his friends and neighbors mean well, but he’d wish the focus of other people’s simchas did not constantly shift to his own tzaros.  He is happy to know that everyone is waiting for his simchas, he just wishes they would wait with a little less noise and a bit more poise.

I know what you are thinking.  The comparisons are not fair. Frankly, I agree with you.  Singles have a very different struggle than couples trying to have children.  And the struggle to have children is surely quite different than the effort to find a job.

The point of this essay is not to illustrate an equivalency between life’s vast array of obstacles, but rather to encourage equal thought and sensitivity when approaching anyone’s  difficulties in life.  The moment we begin engaging in the game of,  “Who really has it worse?” we have obfuscated our responsibility to view each individual’s problem as deeply unique and personal.  Allow G-d to award the prize for “who had it worst.” In the meantime we can try to make these difficult situations less painful.

Everyone has set-backs in life.  Different people have different starts and journeys during their productive and successful lives.  Some get laid off, some struggle with having children, others take longer getting married.  Each deserves sensitivity, privacy and decency.  These can be obtained with a healthy dose of common sense and a brief period of thought before actually speaking.

Don’t be so quick to assume that it is the single’s fault for his or her predicament.  The same way some people try but cannot have kids, some people try but are unable to find a suitable partner.  Some people happily marry later in life, and the only thing which stopped them from finding a partner sooner was Mazel, not a personality/commitment/pathological disorder.

Make sure your words of encouragement are solicited (explicitly or implicitly) and try not to constantly gravitate in conversation to the set-back that your friend/acquaintance/person-you-met-in-the-supermarket is experiencing.  Despite what you may think, sometimes they don’t want to talk about it.  Don’t say it’s a brachah to someone unless you’d really wish it upon yourself. Indeed, we should all have friends and acquaintances that treat us with the same sensitivity and respect they’d ask for themselves. Im yirtzeh Hashem by you.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.