My life often feels like déjà vu. Each year we go through the same routine on Thanksgiving, as we do on many other holidays, though the details vary. Here’s the scene: My wife, Mindy, is a wonderful woman. She gives everyone the benefit of the doubt. It’s virtually impossible for her to see the bad in people. She’s always making excuses for them and hoping that things will turn around and improve. But of course, people almost never change.
A perfect example is this past Thanksgiving. Our daughter is married to a nice young man whose divorced mother is impossible. Besides the fact that I think she has a drinking problem, she can be nasty even when she is not drunk. She’ll say awful things and behave badly. She has three children — two daughters and our son-in-law. One daughter lives in California (I’m sure it’s no coincidence; she probably had to get as far away as possible from her mother) and the other daughter doesn’t speak to her mother. So every year, when we make our Thanksgiving plans, I tell Mindy that we can’t invite her and ruin another Thanksgiving. Mindy insists that we can’t allow her to be home alone for the holiday — it’s just too sad — and that it will be OK this year. I knew it wouldn’t be OK, but I went along with it and, of course, last Thursday night was no exception. There probably wasn’t one person around the table who wasn’t offended at least once!
As I think back on last Sukkos, I’m reminded how Mindy insisted on inviting our single neighbor, whom she feels sorry for, for two meals. He’s not great company. He’s grumpy, inappropriate, and such a downer to have around. But Mindy couldn’t imagine not having him since we’ve been doing it for so long. He somehow sucks the energy out of me!
It’s not only holidays. Mindy’s had some experiences with so-called “friends” who haven’t treated her all that great. They left her off their invite lists, weren’t particularly nice to her at times, and didn’t treat her right. I’m always trying to encourage her to walk away from people who don’t appreciate her, or from people who aren’t good company. But she has this way about her that is totally accepting and lacking in any judgment whatsoever.
I know everything I’m saying about Mindy must sound nice. She is amazing in her general love for everyone. But when other people have to suffer on account of her inability to see the obvious, it gets to be a problem.
After our disastrous Thanksgiving, we had a bad argument. I told Mindy that from now on, she can’t invite anyone I don’t feel is healthy to have around. Mindy thought I was being mean-spirited and lacking in compassion. My question to you is the following: Do I have a right to insist that individuals who I can predict with certainty will ruin our celebration be crossed off our invite list? Or is Mindy correct in her assertion that I’m mean-spirited and I have no right to object to opening our home to anyone who needs a place to go?
Dear Fed Up,
Mindy certainly does sound like an amazing individual. If the world had more Mindys, it would be a much kinder and gentler place. Her ability to tolerate and also quickly forget about disastrous moments is a blessing for her and the people she engages.
On the other hand, as I visualize your cringe-worthy Thanksgiving dinner, with your drunken mechuteineste, I can feel your pain and concern for all the other guests. Though perhaps a silly comparison, I’m reminded of the times I find myself driving behind someone who is probably the most relaxed and generous driver on the road. Though he clearly has the right of way, he magnanimously stops and allows car after car after car to get in front of him or turn in front of him, as if he has all the time in the world. I often think to myself that it would be nice if he considered the fact that his generosity is causing me to be late for work, the driver behind me to miss an appointment, etc. Wouldn’t it be nice if he checked with me and asked me how I felt about letting a slew of cars hold me up when I also have the right of way?
Maybe that isn’t the best analogy, but there’s a point to it. While it’s a true act of chesed that your wife invites lonely people who have already proven that they most likely will sabotage an otherwise lovely dinner, should she be concerned about the experiences of the other invited guests? I never fail to be in awe over the capacity one person has to impact dozens of other lives. The reality sometimes is that “one bad apple …” Then again, everyone’s tolerance level is different.
I’m curious to know how the other guests around your table feel about these difficult individuals. Is it possible that they are more tolerant and accepting and that perhaps you are the only one suffering? It might not be a bad idea to get a sense about this. It is possible that your daughter and son-in-law, despite their discomfort, appreciate your wife inviting his mother over for Thanksgiving dinner. Though you consider the event a total disaster, other guests might actually feel kind of good about it because they realize that this sad woman is someone to be pitied rather than judged. Bottom line: is she terrorizing young and old alike, or is she possibly enabling people to learn important lessons in tolerance and kindness?
Maybe if the easygoing driver in front of me would take a survey of all the cars behind him, he might possibly find, to my chagrin, that most, if not all, of the drivers are more than happy to let other drivers get in front of him. Even if it has made me late, there could be a lesson for me to learn (slow down, be more gracious, and leave home earlier!). In the same way, rather than concluding that your celebratory meals turn into nightmares year after year, see how other family members and friends feel about Mindy’s generous soul, and possibly there will be an inspiring lesson for you to learn as well.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals and couples. Together with Jennifer Mann, she also runs the “Navidaters.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.