*It was Shavuot and Gloria was looking forward to a Yom Tov dinner with friends. Gloria was a well spouse whose husband was in care. She was very fortunate to live in a community where families usually included her in their Yom Tov meals. Tonight she was going to a particularly generous family who often invited single people, whether widowed, never married or well spouses with partners in care, for Yom Tov meals. And so it was no surprise to Gloria to be one of five other single women around the table. As a matter of fact, except for the hosts, there was only one other married couple in the group.
The evening was enjoyable. The learning around the table was insightful and informative. Unfortunately, there were no learning classes for women taking place in this community and all too quickly the two men at the table had to leave for their respective shuls and all-night learning sessions. It was at that point that the guest whose husband was leaving (let’s call her Leiba) began to wail, “I don’t know how I’ll get through the night. I’m not used to being alone. I will jump at every noise and shadow.” She went on and on, bemoaning her fate at being alone for one night.
The single women in the room began to exchange glances. Not only was the excess of Leiba’s complaining difficult to hear, but − whom did she think she was complaining to? Most of these single women had spent every night alone for many years. The women found this excessive complaining not only bizarre, but also annoying and hurtful. Leiba and her husband offered to walk Gloria home. For the entire 10-minute walk, the only topic of conversation was Leiba’s discomfort at being alone for the night.
Gloria wondered if her escorts realized why they were walking her home − home to the house that was empty of her husband every night. Didn’t they realize that having a husband in a care facility trumped being alone for a single night? Not only was it difficult for Gloria to find sympathy for Leiba, but she felt it was kind of inappropriate, as well. Didn’t Leiba realize that what she would endure for a single night was the lifestyle of all the other guests? Being alone was simply how they lived, and the feelings Lieba was trying to cope with for one night was a constant for the other women. These feelings had not gotten easier for them over time.
The next morning in shul, Gloria ran into Leiba. Now the conversation was what a terrible night Leiba had spent. How lonely she had been and how she hadn’t slept well. Leiba never thought to ask Gloria how her night was. She just didn’t seem to realize the situation of the person she was speaking with. Perhaps she never saw her audience.
* * * * *
As difficult as it was for Gloria and the other single women to hear Leiba bemoan her fate, it is important to remember that to Leiba, what she was going through was extremely difficult for her. Compared to Gloria’s situation, it may seem irrelevant and trivial. But Leiba is not Gloria and does not lead her life. In Leiba’s world, being alone for one night was traumatic and she legitimately had difficulty coping with it. We cannot and should not compare adversities. One person’s hangnail may be, for him or her, as difficult to deal with as another person’s heart attack. It all depends on their experiences, coping strategies and strengths. Everyone we meet is coping with some challenge and deserving of our support.
It does not change Gloria’s situation to empathize with Leiba. It is because Gloria is all too familiar with the emotions that Leiba is feeling, that she is the perfect person to give support and perhaps that is why Leiba chose to share her concerns, specifically with this group of women. Perhaps the lack of a sympathetic response, the lack of any response at all from these women was what caused Leiba to go on and on, looking for one.
Gloria would, no doubt, have been more kind and supportive had Leiba found herself alone for a long period of time. But to Leiba, one night was a long period of time. As for Leiba, she needs to control her excess even when she doesn’t get the response she wants, and she needs to learn to see her audience. In a group of married couples, her concerns might have found a more sympathetic reception. But expecting support for a drop of pain from people who are carrying buckets may be appropriate, but unrealistic.
It is so important to look outside ourselves and realize the life circumstances of the people we are talking to. What we find difficult to deal with may be nothing compared to what the people we are complaining to are coping with. On the other hand, what is a minor situation to us may be very major to them. Perhaps the best way to get the response we want is to know our audience and choose to react accordingly.
*Names have been changed.
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