Note: A few details have been changed to protect confidentiality, but the key scenes happened exactly as described.
To what degree should we try to control our environments? Is there some kind of benefit to jumping into situations without attempting to shift them to accommodate our needs, desires, weak spots, and fears? If we enter and trust, are we inviting the unexpected magic of the universe into our lives? Or would that make us schmucks who leave ourselves open to all kinds of badness and sadness?
Recently, I received an invitation to a Bar Mitzvah. I don’t see the family involved very often since we live in different states. I don’t think I’ve seen the Bar Mitzvah boy since he was a baby. But this family is close to my own family; we share a strong connection and warmth. I can always get to know them better, and this is the perfect time for that.
For some lucky reason, I clearly remember seeing the boy’s grandmother, long deceased at this point, at my own Bat Mitzvah. She unfortunately lost control over a difficult disease and died very young. I’m guessing she was battling poor health at the time of my Bat Mitzvah, but I certainly didn’t notice. I have a strong memory of her approaching me at my Bat Mitzvah party, praising the speech I had shared in a genuine way that showed she had really listened to it, and congratulating me on an award I had received. I was amazed that she even knew about the award: it had nothing to do with my Bat Mitzvah and certainly wasn’t anything earth shattering. But she was interested enough in me to know about it and mention it to me.
I only remember a few specific details from that party: a few little chats I had with people who happened to strike me enough on that day to have earned a place in my memory banks all these years later. That conversation with this woman — grandmother of the Bar Mitzvah boy — is key among them. She made me feel special and appreciated.
This new event fit with my schedule, and I get a huge kick out of Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. In a way, I feel bad for Jewish kids, at least the ones who don’t enjoy being on display. At an age where many of them feel insecure and awkward, they’re forced to perform in front a large group. Of course, the ones who do enjoy public performance get a perfect chance to display their flair for public speaking and their hard-won ability to decode a foreign alphabet… even if, in most cases, they have little idea what they’re actually reading.
Every child reacts a bit differently, and it’s great fun to see how each one responds to having a special day — a religious service and then a party — in honor of them. In most cases I’ve witnessed, even the kids who don’t enjoy the spotlight wind up proud of themselves, relieved and heartened that they were able to meet a difficult challenge in front of a crowd. Earlier this year, I attended my nephew’s Bar Mitzvah, and it was a real thrill to see a dude who had so recently been a small child perform with great poise, intelligence, and spark.
The choice to attend this new event was easy. But then I had another decision. I have an extremely bad reaction to someone who is very likely to be there. It’s similar to an allergy; every physiological measure I can sense goes haywire when she is around. And she’s normally inescapable, because she’s my generation and people tend to think we belong at the same table.
Her husband can tell that I try to avoid her, and he constantly attempts to bring us together, waving me over to sit with them and such, most likely because he wants happiness and harmony. I understand: I like happiness and harmony too. But somehow, with her, I just can’t. For as long as I’ve known her, she has barraged me with very insulting comments. I think she figured out: “Hey, look at this short, clumsy, under-confident person. If I feel like hurting someone, an easy target has arrived.”
In a particularly memorable moment — at yet another big event in my social circle — she tried to reassure me that I could get married… because “lots of unattractive people get married.” I had not mentioned anything about feeling unattractive: this was an intriguing non sequitur. She elaborated, telling me that X friend of hers is very unattractive and she got married, and Y friend is so unattractive, and yet, she managed to get married!
At that moment, I was done with her. So very done. Years of embarrassment and discomfort that arose when I was forced to be with her came to a sharp head. I didn’t fight back because I wasn’t capable of it; I always freeze at these times. Never mind that I have no desire to get married and anyone who knows and understands me realizes that. She most likely realized it too. But she saw an opening and pounced. And my body never forgets the moment when I see her. Her presence is likely dangerous for my health, with my pounding heart, tensed muscles, and mind overloaded with traumatic memories.
I have avoided events because she would be there, perhaps similar to people with very severe peanut allergies who avoid some situations because they might risk exposure. But that is sad, and makes me suffer even further, closing me out of experiences that I might have enjoyed. Every once in a while, I remember that I didn’t attend a party that my parents hosted in their home, very shortly before my grandmother died, because this person was going to be there. I’ve made peace with that situation — my grandmother and I happened to have a wonderful phone conversation the night before she died, though we had no idea what would happen so soon — and I feel like we said a perfect, even quietly glorious, goodbye to each other. Still, I missed out on seeing my grandmother in person one last time, and I can’t completely remove that fact from my consciousness.
So I thought about this upcoming situation and how I might handle it. I wanted to go; I didn’t want to let my nemesis stop me. I also didn’t want to cause a problem for the hosts by making a special request. If I simply sent back the RSVP with no comment other than “Mazel Tov!” I’d be at the same table as my “friend,” with her husband aggressively waving me over to join them.
There was another option, but did I want to take it? I could simply say that I was excited to go, and that if, by some chance, the hosts could put me at a different table from this person, I’d be thrilled… and if not, I completely understood. This would spark curiosity, for sure. The hosts could be annoyed. I mean… let’s just say that my chronological age places me far past childhood. I should be beyond this sort of thing, able to sit with anyone and enjoy myself, protecting myself easily if necessary. But I’m just not. I feel the same kind of hurt that a child feels. In some ways, I never calmed down, never developed adult control.
I kept the response card on my desk for several days, debating over what to do. Maybe I’d get extremely lucky and the woman I didn’t want to sit with wouldn’t come. Maybe she’d have a conflict or find herself unable to travel for the event. In that case, making no request would be the best option: I’d get what I want without making a fuss. But the odds of that happening were low: she is the kind of person who wants to attend everything, to be at the center of things. If I said nothing, I had overwhelmingly high odds of winding up at her table and experiencing unbearable physical and emotional reactions.
Very possibly, she’d dish out some new form of abuse… and I am becoming more sensitive to this kind of thing as I grow older, not less. I am acutely aware that this life is not infinite. Do I need to waste any time at all feeling miserable and unbearably tense, if a solution is easy? On the other hand, do I dare to make a request at someone else’s party? Was it right to inconvenience other people in the midst of their planning?
Would it inconvenience them? That felt like the key question. I am one person; they could put me anywhere… right? At events like this, there is no predicting exactly who will come and who won’t. If their friend Justin will be on a business trip that day, they can put me where he would have been. Or whatever. No problem. My request would be very open-ended: any table at all, as long as that woman wouldn’t be there. I was emboldened. In a fit of confidence and bravery, I made the request and dropped the response in the mail.
And then, me being me, I obsessed. Did I seem like a crazed lunatic? What kind of adult makes a request like that? If I had left well enough alone, maybe some incredible person would have been at my table: someone who would have provided enormous insight, or helped my life move forward in some way that I was deeply craving. Maybe I ruined things for myself in some major way by not letting events happen as they would have if I had held back.
About a week later, I heard through the grapevine that the hosts well understood and were happy to accommodate my wish. No one was angry; this was an easy request. That’s really all I had to hear. I just wanted to go and enjoy, without worrying about major stresses and sources of discomfort. I worried that I didn’t have that right: that, if my mental and physical health weren’t up to sitting where I, in theory, belonged, I had no business going at all.
If my request had required major effort on someone’s part, I would have been right to hesitate. But this really was so easy. Didn’t I have the right to try to ensure my comfort and happiness, given that no one would be inconvenienced very much at all? I say we all have that right. We should all go forth into our various situations, ready to assert our needs.
Let me be clear: I am not a demanding sort, and I’m not saying that others should be. I take care of things myself rather than asking friends for help if at all possible. I figure I need to adjust myself to others’ lifestyles when I visit their homes: I would never think to make requests to accommodate my own preferences. But this request was so very simple, and the effort vs. benefit ratio was enormously favorable.
The main problem was simply expressing that I had a need. That was difficult, even painful. I wanted to be one of the bunch who just came and went with the flow. Almost always, that’s just who I am. But, when this woman is involved, things are a bit different. I could try to change that — work on controlling my reactions and ignoring verbal abuse. But should I? Strong reactions carry warnings, lessons, and possibly even wisdom. I believe that, sometimes, they should be heeded. We all deserve to heed them sometimes. We all deserve to be happy if a simple tweak on someone else’s part could make it happen.
Stephanie Wellen Levine is the author of Mystics, Mavericks, And Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls: winner of Moment Magazine’s 2004 Emerging Writer Book Award. Currently, Stephanie is on a spiritual quest as she completes a second book and teaches at Tufts University.