I’ve been living in the neighborhood for close to 20 years. During this time, I’ve always felt like I was in the midst of things socially. Maybe my husband and I weren’t the most popular people in town, but we certainly had friends and created our own social network, which included having people over for Shabbos meals and being invited back. It was something we enjoyed and appreciated, and it gave us a nice anchor in our often-complicated lives.
Some of my very close friends knew that I had issues going on in my marriage. Frankly, a number of them shared with me their own struggles with their husbands. We talked, we comforted each other, and we gave one another advice. Due to truly unbearable circumstances, I’m the one who finally got divorced, over a year ago.
When I thought seriously about taking the plunge, I obsessed over what it would look like for my children and me in the long and short run. One of my considerations was whether I would stay in the neighborhood or move to somewhere new where I could get a fresh start. But what kept me in the neighborhood was the realization that I had many good friends here and that I would never be alone. I felt that, come Shabbos and yom tov, I could count on my friends — and even neighbors who I wasn’t necessarily all that close to — to think about me and realize I would appreciate being invited to their homes for meals. After all, though my marital status would be different, I certainly wasn’t any different!
Shockingly, in all this time, I’ve been invited out exactly two times. Had people told me before my divorce that this would be the case, I never would have believed them. How is it possible, I wonder, that the same people who are super-friendly to me when they see me during the week and give me a big and sincere hug totally forget that I’m alive when it comes to Shabbos? Have they no sensitivity or awareness of what it feels like for my children and me to be home alone week after week? Have we become invisible to them on this seventh day of the week?
Maybe even worse are the people who have said to me on occasion, “Hey, if you ever want to come for a Shabbos meal, just let me know.” What kind of an invitation is that? Frankly, it’s worse than no invitation at all. It’s demeaning. Do I have to beg to get an invitation? Is it really too much for them to actually pick up the phone and invite me the same way they would invite a married woman? Am I so very different now? My personality hasn’t changed. I am still the same person they loved sitting around the Shabbos table with before, except that now I am without a husband and, if anything, could use some extra kindness and consideration.
Despite my hurt feelings, I continue to be as friendly as ever to everyone I meet, never wanting to appear as a downer, as someone they need to avoid for any reason. I do sometimes find myself getting angry and disgusted at this situation. I’ve always been the type of person who is able to intuit the needs of others and help people when a situation arises that could benefit from my involvement. Are people really so blind that they can’t see what it’s like for those who are not included just because we are not married? I really don’t understand what is prompting such behavior. Everyone seems so busy doing chesed, running to shiurim, so aware of their Yiddishkeit or just their very humanity, and yet…
Though I would love for you to explain to me how this could happen, I know that would be asking for a lot. I’m sure there is no way for you to get into the heads of others, people you don’t even know. I would appreciate it tremendously if you could publish this letter so that people can read it, and if you have some comments that would open people’s eyes to my situation, it would be great if you can add that perspective.
Dear Feeling Excluded,
Let me begin with what I believe to be a powerful saying that is applicable to your story and many others. We’ve all heard it many times before, but I think it’s important enough to warrant everyone taking a few moments to sit with it and process it — “There but for the grace of G-d go I.”
From moment to moment, life offers no guarantees. One day you’re taking a helicopter ride with family and friends, and in the blink of an eye, your physical essence is no more than a smoldering pile. One day your life feels solid and secure, another day it doesn’t. One day you’re rich, and one day you’re not. And one day you’re married, and one day, for various possible reasons, you’re single and alone. Change happens to most everyone.
People who live in the comfort of their safe little bubble, believing that they are immune to the possibility of their own lives ever turning upside-down, are not only foolish, but, even more tragic, are unable to empathize with others whose lives have taken a major blow. Sadly, they make no attempt to consider the realities of those individuals whose carefree lives have become compromised. Perhaps it is because they don’t feel totally comfortable around such individuals or maybe they no longer find them relatable. Or, as I’m sure is the case with many people, they are so busy worrying about their own issues that they have lost their ability to look beyond themselves, thereby diminishing their capacity for compassion and outreach. Disturbingly, they are living limited lives.
One might stop and wonder how this can be. How can we, a compassionate people, fail to feel the pain or simply the needs of others whose lives have become different and difficult? Are we so self-absorbed and blinded by our own needs that we just tune out and look away? If so, it’s time for a major wake-up call.
No one is immune from real life, and so it’s time for people to open their eyes and widen the net of their sensitivity skills to include imagining what it would be like to walk in the shoes of another. Someday, we may become “the other.” Even if we are spared from life’s hardships, nevertheless, there is no greater joy than showing up for others. A sense of fulfillment and purpose should be enough motivation in and of itself.
So I would like to ask all of my readers to take a little time and go through three steps that I feel will bolster you emotionally.
- Step 1: Think about what your own life would look like if you suddenly found yourself alone. Go deep and sit with the feelings of what a Shabbos would look like. What would you hope for and even expect from your friends and neighbors for yourself and for your children? Would you like to be left alone, or would you prefer to be included in Shabbos and holiday meals? Would you prefer that people retreat from you or take the time to think about you? How would you feel if you never got an invitation … ever?
- Step 2: Look around your neighborhood. Who among your neighbors and community are single, divorced, or widowed? If you look long and hard, you might be surprised to find that there are quite a few men and women who fall within these parameters. And then ask yourself how often you’ve hosted them. I’m hoping and wishing that the number is quite high — that you can confidently say that your home is always open to those who would appreciate and enjoy the invitation. I suspect that for some of you, the answer might actually be that you can’t remember the last time you invited anyone over who does not fall within the category of a “typical” family. What a shame that would be.
- Step 3: Get busy! Again, look around and see who among this population would be appreciative of your awareness and action. As some of you reading this column right now may possibly discover firsthand at some point in your lives, finding yourself single doesn’t suddenly make you any less interesting, engaging, or excellent company!
I’m so glad that I’ve been given this opportunity to get a little preachy. We all need to be reminded occasionally about how to let our best selves shine. I know you’ve all got it in you. Now just do it!
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.