The way others treat you is not a reflection of you; it is a reflection of them.
These are tough words to remember sometimes.
In Judaism, we have 72 different names of God. I like to explain it like this: our human minds are too small to hold, all at once, in tangible form, the concept of God as everything inside and out. So these names are different images we can hold in our minds, to work on one aspect of God at a time, depending on what we need at that moment. Ha Makom is one of these names; it means simply “The Place.” If God is in the place where I am standing, if I am aware of that with every breath, would I treat others differently? If others thought more about “Ha Makom,” would they make a different choice?
It’s been almost a year since he left: the very persuasive, persistent, deceitful, adorable, wonderful-but-awful, manipulative, completely self-absorbed, gentle, sweet, complicated and fascinating must-have-his-way man who was like a tsunami in my heart and life. Almost a year; I have been fighting a really tough battle to heal the post traumatic stress disorder that his abrupt departure caused…
a year in which there have been people who felt they needed to be cruel. On top of the pain and confusion of his illness and leaving; on top of the deep psychic wounds that left my body shaking every day, shaking like I had an earthquake inside, for over six months.
It’s hard to describe the experience of ptsd. It is humbling. You think you are fine – you go to pick up your coffee in a staff meeting and your hand is shaking so violently, you immediately snatch it back and hide it in your lap, clench it with the other hand, try to calm your breath. There is a shaking inside, which (ironically enough) was my love’s burden daily as well from his own illness.
This shaking was a daily reminder of him.
So were the tears that would come without warning. I began to call them “Miriam’s Well,” a well I would carry with me everywhere – I began to see them as a healing mikveh, (ritual bath) so I could step away from the secondary emotions that came along with them: shame, fear, despair of ever healing and being whole again.
Once I distanced from/ simply observed my reactions to the symptoms, that is when the healing began, very gradually. I wasn’t judging myself any more- my Self was grateful for that small mercy.
But I was still under attack both from people I used to think I knew, and people I didn’t know at all, but met with him on occasion after our “engagement.” People who were his friends.
He called me best friend, love of his life, his greatest teacher, his deepest blessing; he called me an angel, his wise raven, his beshert and his reason for living, and yet these friends of his had a hunger to tear me to pieces with their claws and teeth, one angry, vicious bite at a time. I asked him to tell them our story, so they didn’t have to rely so much on their assumptions or on gossip – but he was a person who liked to hide. He did not like to talk about himself or share anything personal. I think that trait of his, his dishonesty and distrust of others, is what eventually led to the legacy he left me with: the lions in my gladiator’s arena.
I was a broken thing, and I was under siege.
It’s a hard thing when you are not well, when you are grieving, and when you are asked to bear even more.
I never found out why these people decided they needed to be cruel. For a long time, I kept asking myself “why?” “Why would a person try to actively harm someone who has so much grief and harm to bear already?”
I asked the questions over and over, until I learned that wasn’t a healthy way to live. There will never be answers to the question “why”.
Hypocrisy seemed to be everywhere I looked.
But then I learned to focus on the kind people; on my angels. Thank God for them – the good people, the ones with integrity. Because of them, my spirit did not break; because of them, I did not lose my faith.
I have healed now, and I am beginning to process this into a novel. I feel I have actually become even stronger and more whole than I was before I met him. And yet these people are still carrying their hatred. It is a year since he’s been gone, and they actively pour their energy into showing me how much they hate. I do not understand why, and it makes me sad for them.
I took a friend to see 42. It was such a lovely night with this person I have known for over a decade and haven’t seen in a long time; catching up over a small meal, going to the movie screening which felt old-fashioned somehow and really lovely; connecting with him was connecting with my old life, the innocent and happy life of theater… (incidentally, how very odd that the most I have ever experienced dysfunction, cruelty, hypocrisy and pain is inside the synagogue? Are artists just healthier because they express things and explore the shadow side all the time? Are people drawn to the synagogue in deeper need of healing, or are they more apt to hide and shame their shadow-selves? I am writing this here as a side-note to think about later.)
All was really lovely and sweet: The popcorn, the joking of the audience, the speeches beforehand and the haimish feeling that abounded.
And then afterward, there was a nasty little thing that threatened to put a damper on the whole lovely night (if I let my mind dwell on it, which I did not):
the man glaring…actively, malevolently. This person I used to know. This person about whom people have said “he wouldn’t behave that way. You might be reading into it.”
(Really? How many times can someone scowl, glare, and look at you as though they are seeing a murderer, before it’s not “all in your head”?)
his wife in the bathroom, stuttering out “I have to go,” and ending her conversation quickly so she could get out after I walk in. These were people I used to know and be very friendly with.
Myself, defiantly, angrily, putting on lipstick and looking into my own eyes in the mirror.
Eyes that had no tears, this time. Eyes that have seen enough unkindness, thank you very much.
There is no one on this earth I would treat the way these people are treating me.
I have done nothing to harm them or theirs…
That night their behavior did not break or harm me; it hurt, which developed into anger.
Anger and defiance.
I have been through enough.
But I refuse to carry the anger. I am going to try to understand, because I refuse to be like them. I am struggling to find a spiritual way to encounter this kind of cruelty, and all I can think of is that somewhere in myself I have to find compassion. They are behaving this way out of some kind of pain, and that pain leads them to find an object to blame other than themselves. I am convenient; they don’t have to know me as a person, so they don’t have to worry about how their behavior might harm. They don’t have to be understanding or see anything from my point of view or care. If they are able to think of me as a thing, not a person, they can safely put a lot of cruel, nasty behavior on me and not even think twice about it.
What bugs me is this: these people go to the synagogue regularly, for more years than I have been alive. They do all the synagogue functions. HOW can they not have learned by now about compassion and loving kindness?
All these years at the synagogue, and they see a young(ish) woman, 21 years younger than the man who pursued her, and they blame HER? and continue to do so a year later?
Are the clergy not doing their job, or are the people not learning? How can Judaism address this … lack of bridge?
He used to talk about this, my ex-rabbi. He said “It was my biggest struggle for 20 years.” that people bring their synagogue-face in on saturday mornings, nod and smile and sigh about lovingkindness, forgiveness and compassion, and then step right outside even into the oneg (I had this happen to me) and turn around and yell at someone “You are not welcome here.” Many simply do not live their lives as though God is where they are standing at any time, all the time.
God, for them, seems to be received passively in a seat in a temple.
How does one teach people that God is a verb? That God is a way of walking in the world, and that this is why we have lessons come to us? Things don’t “happen TO us,” just to be reacted to and endured and then forgotten – every thing that unfolds in our lives is an invitation to be an active participant in the growth of our own souls. By examining, by learning, by making a different choice next time we have an opportunity to be either unkind or kind, thought-full or thought-less.
That person, incidentally, who yelled at me in the Temple — I would never treat him the way these people are treating me. The person who screamed at me and roughly grabbed my arm – I would stay away from him for safety’s sake, but I would never glare or actively seek to show him unkindness.
I searched my heart and found compassion for mental illness, psychic distress, and pain.
The way others treat you is a reflection of them, and only of them. You did not “earn” either kindness or unkindness.
The way you treat others is a reflection of you. You can improve that reflection at any time! We spend so long trying to improve the reflection we see in the mirror… we spend so much money and time on facial creams, blemish removal… what if we spent even a fraction of that time trying to improve the reflection of our soul in the way we treat others?
I wish I could teach this to the teens who are being bullied, who despair and want to end their precious lives as a way to escape. I wish I could teach this to every person who ever felt the sting of someone else’s blaming, judging, or cruelty.
I was in Boston once, about to attend a summer session at rabbinical school; I had just arrived from a drive across the country and was exhausted. At that time, I wore my kippah all the time… there was a bus of young school kids pulling out of a parking lot. This beautiful little African-American girl stuck her head out the window and yelled “Fucking JEW!” She said “Jew” as though it were a curse.
It was a shock, but my compassion was immediate, because she was so young, her sweet face all twisted up. I thought: is that face twisted up in pain? in agony, in anger? My immediate thought was, “Where did she learn that hatred?” and “How many names has she been called in school, that little one?”
What if my compassion could be that immediate with these people, even though they are not young? Part of my anger-response comes, I think, because of their age (in their 70’s.) I feel they should “know better.” Well. That is my own judgment coming in. If I were aware of “Ha Makom,” God being present in me in that moment, perhaps my compassion would come faster.
If I could, this is what I would teach those who bully – and I find as I write it that it is a lesson I need to teach myself, daily:
Ha Makom is a name for God meaning “The place.” God is in the place where you are standing. God is not to be found in a synagogue or church : God is where you are standing, sitting, waking, dreaming: all the time. (and yes, in Judaism we even have a blessing for after going to the toilet. That is holy too- the workings of the body are miraculous.)
Bring your shadow-self, bring your light, bring ALL of you to prayer or meditation, because it is only when you bring your entire being, that you will soften and learn compassion for yourself and others. If you hide the part of you that feels it has to glare with hatred at a young(ish) woman whose story you don’t know, you will not be acknowledging that part; it will be shoved down, hidden, and thus will never be softened. Bring that, too. Bring it to God – here and now! Ha Makom! – and say “Here it is. This is also me.” Breathe into those dark places with compassion –and you will find God in those places. Those dark places will soften with your acceptance, just as my healing began when I stopped shaming and judging my own tears and shaking body. You will heal, then.
You will no longer need to be cruel any more.
I stand there wondering how to meet these pettinesses, these cruelties, with kindness…and I find that my response is coming out of MY shadow-self. The self who says “how can you go to temple and behave like this?” the self that is judging. the self that is puritanical and preachy. The self, in fact, that is just like these people in that cruel moment. Just like them.
And I have to laugh.
This year has been my gladiator’s arena. I chose to stay here; I fought hard to stay. I chose to live my life in this place that was toxic, where I was treated like Hester Prynne and I so longed to be given a chance to speak my heart –
but I was never given a chance, because people do not want their scapegoat to have a voice.
They don’t want that tied up goat to have a story. They want it to be an object that can carry all of their darkness, so they don’t have to sit with it.
And living in this perfectly imperfect place, I was given so many lessons, so many tests.
I have learned so much.
Ha Makom – the place where I am standing, here is God. Here is my synagogue. If I take care of my own synagogue and make sure I am behaving in alignment with my core values, make sure I am acting in integrity, it doesn’t matter how other people choose to treat me, or what they choose to believe about me. I know my synagogue is a holy place, a beautiful place.
In my personal “temple” or “ha makom,” the place I am standing, I would never treat someone unkindly or glare at them or snub them; I simply don’t behave that way. Now I am learning I can go one step further and not judge them for their behavior. I can take out the pain-response and simply breathe to myself “Ha Makom,” when they are cruel. I am grateful for this arena in which I have learned to fight by not fighting: by simply growing larger in my heart and more compassionate.
The gladiator can observe the lion, set down her weapon and focus on her own power to choose.