A conversation with D after shul

Posted on January 22, 2007

I told D that when I went to shul this past Shabbat, I thought about the question D had asked earlier, what would I want my rabbi, my congregation to know about my experience. I thought about safety and comfort. I kept all that in mind as I wandered among people during the kiddush luncheon after shul.

A few people said hi or wished me a Gut Shabbos or Shabbat Shalom. I returned their greetings. Only one person asked me how I was, though I usually assume most people don’t really want to know. She might have, but I just said I was tired and asked about her. D makes me laugh when asking how I am and I say fine and then D says, that’s nice, now tell me how you’re really doing.

One woman shared with me a very moving story about her son returning to Judaism after a ten-year absence and how she felt about it. Another woman shared her frustration over writing a doctoral thesis. Yet another expressed disappointment over the tendency of others to gripe about a situation but never do anything to change it, or even to brainstorm possible solutions.

Over the course of an hour, I must have talked to half a dozen people, all of whom shared some tension in their lives, and it finally hit me. I’m very good, maybe too good, at deflecting attention off of me and onto the person I’m talking to. And people love to talk about themselves. We all do, for the most part.

Please don’t get me wrong: I love to hear people share what they feel safe sharing about their lives. I’m endlessly intrigued by other people’s careers and motivations and what brings them to make the choices they make in life. I know I’m a student of humanity and have been since I was a child. But what hit me was that what I was giving to others is what I wanted for myself.

I wanted someone to want to hear what was going on in my life as much as I wanted to hear them share. Safety and comfort are important, yes, but what I felt I was lacking at shul was someone who cared. And maybe people do, but I’m not getting that message.

I fear that if I came out and publicly admitted my emotional struggles, they’d see it as a ploy for attention, or making mountains out of molehills, or worse, they’d avoid or disregard me. On a few rare occasions, when I thought it was safe, I did disclose my disorder. None, not a single time, did it result in any sort of sensitivity. When I explained to one woman I had considered a friend how the anxiety involved makes me terrified – to the point of severe panic attacks – of making cold calls to solicit donations or volunteers and I asked to help in some other way, she simply dropped me from the committee. She hasn’t talked to me since, and that was over a year ago.

It hurts. It hurts to be cast aside because of my limitations. I have seen this happen to others, and it is a sad reality in our shul. It hurts to think that I’m valued only for my contributions, financial or otherwise. I have seen this happen to others as well, some of whom have left the shul as a result. It is another sad reality. And it’s devastating to think that in a real crisis, no one from the shul would be there for me.

I know that every time the words always, never, or no one enter my thinking, it’s not true. Like Avraham Avinu arguing for the ten righteous in Sodom (not that I’m implying shul is anything like Sodom-it’s not!), I am sure there are, if not fifty, at least ten people in the shul who would care. I just don’t know how to find them.

When I told D all this, D told me the following (paraphrased, since I wasn’t taking notes during our conversation):

They’re not mind-readers, Rivka. When you give them a pat answer to their “How are you?” you may be telling them what they want to hear, but you may also be telling them that you don’t want to talk about yourself. And when you keep the conversation focused on them, that can also be a sign not to pursue how you’re really doing.

Or, I argued, they’re just as happy to talk about themselves and even if I took the opportunity to say I’m having a really bad day, they’d give me a patronizing oh so sorry and go right back to talking about themselves. That’s not a fear – that’s actually happened. Repeatedly.

It comes down to what you want from the conversation, from that person. Is it an appropriate relationship to share something personal? If so, is it an appropriate time? Place? If your answers are all yes, then sometimes the initiation has to be up to you. You have to let them know that you need something more than small talk. And you need to be aware that they have to be in a place to give that to you, as well.

What about yesterday at shul?

From everything you’ve said, Rivka, you might as well have had a neon sign above your head flashing DON’T ASK ME ABOUT ME. You didn’t give anyone an opportunity, much less an opening. If you want someone to come in and sit down and have a real conversation with you, not just idle chat, you have to at least unlock the door.

I don’t know how to do that.

That’s why you have therapy. Rivka, we’ve discussed and learned Torah for well over two decades. When you want to engage the texts, engage G-d, what does it start with? Always?

A question.

Change it from a noun into a verb. What do you have to do?

I have to ask.

Exactly. It’s no different here. You don’t go around shul looking for people who appear to be in distress so you can break down their personal barriers and drag the truth of what they’re feeling out of them. But if they ask, you’d be there if you can. Put yourself in their place. If you were talking to someone who was intentionally aloof, would you really violate that in case, deep down, they wanted someone to care? Or would you respect their signals and give them their space?

Okay, I get it.

So we’re back to my question. In order to unlock that door and invite someone in to have a real conversation with you, what do you need to feel safe, or to feel comfortable? What do they need to know before coming through that door?

(If I haven’t mentioned it before, D is quite fond of metaphors.) I don’t know.

Think about that. Maybe that’s the key to unlocking the door.

We talked some more, but D’s perspective–as usual–helped. Sometimes I think one of the major symptoms of depression is that I get too stuck in a perspective that’s flawed. And maybe that’s why my creative pursuits are so helpful, because they force me to think outside of my own perspective.

Meanwhile, I guess I still have questions to answer.

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