Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Compassionate Thought

I was reading Mishpacha Magazine in my sister's house a few weeks? months? ago, and I found this preface to the edition by Bassi Gruen a must-read: 

This week's MatchQuest question is disturbing on many levels.

It's painful to hear a daughter denigrate her mother, upsetting to hear her describe her mortification at her mother's look and fuming at the way her mother's shlumpy appearance is hurting her chances at shidduchim.

It's easy to get outraged over this harsh judgement of a parent and seemingly shallow approach to shidduchim, but before we let the flames of our righteous indignation climb higher, it may be a good idea to ask ourselves a single question: Where does this attitude come from?

Let's flip the mirror inward. What do we think when we see a woman who "is overweight, dressed in a plain, washed out t-shirt, with bad teeth, an unkempt sheitel, and not an ounce of makeup"? Would we want to befriend her? What would we say if called for shidduch information about her family? Would we want our child to marry her children?

Are we squirming just yet?

In a similar vein, there were varied reactions to the Table Talk column we ran on [a] nutritionist . . . two weeks ago. Some enjoyed getting to learn more about . . . her approach. Others were horrified that we profiled a woman whose goal is to help other women become slim. Is that where our values are? Shouldn't we just want to be healthy; why are we promoting being skinny?

Here, too, it's easy to go charging into battle against "the insidious influence of the outside world, a misplaced focus on the external." But I'm willing to bet that if I'd walk into any gathering of frum women, selling a pill that would instantly make you ten pounds thinner with no side effects whatsoever, I'd be able to retire the next day.

And most people would not buy enough pills to reach a healthy weight, with a BMI of 23. Most would buy that extra pill—or two—so they could be skinny. Because bottom line: we do care about our appearance. Overweight people get less respect, while slim ones make a favorable impression. Just think of the reactions when you do manage to drop ten pounds.

But it shouldn't be that way! I can imagine the anguished cries of readers across the globe. Frum Jews know that the body is but a garment cloaking the soul, and looks will not matter one whit after 120. We know that good middos are what Hashem wants from us, not tiny waists or flat stomachs.

And all that is true.

Yet looks are not entirely external. Every time I watch my weight I'm amazed at how the constant need for self-control, the delaying of gratification a dozen times throughout the day, impacts other spheres of life. The woman who can reach for a muffin—and then pull her hand back, will often have an easier time closing her mouth when she's ready to yell.

And when someone walks around in faded clothing and an unkempt sheitel, she's often broadcasting a message. Her middos may be golden, but something is festering inside.

There's an uneasy dance between our external state and internal state, between our desire to view those around us as neshamos and the fact that all our eyes can see is their bodies.

And to simply sputter in outrage when the magazine reflects that realty, is to ignore the complexity of the issue.

—Bassie Gruen, Mishpacha Magazine

The girl in question wrote of her belief that her mother's slovenly style was tainting her by association. Permit me to clarify: The mitzvah of kibud av v'eim has few loopholes (if any), and I believe that it is impossible that there could be any negative connotations to filial piety. If she can somehow focus on respecting her mother as opposed to blaming her (however difficult that may be), her reputation can only glow, and her bashert will be a prince.

Yet, and yet, we have to take a hard look at ourselves. Many of us are quick to judge others, not looking at ourselves for that same failing. Is there any out there who hasn't struggled with kibud av v'eim?
Our knee-jerk reactions to a young girl's plea for guidance cannot be recrimination, especially when her admission cuts a little too close for comfort.  

As Gruen uncomfortably reminds us of our own prejudices as well. It doesn't take much to prod our biases into action; how tolerant are we of those who appear outrageously ill-kempt? We're judgmental about everything and anything, not only this. Women are also accused of being too put-together, of being too concerned about appearance. We all have our sore spots.

I am currently gobbling up the books of Brené Brown (must reads!), and any form of judgement and blame is bereft of compassion. As Jews, we claim to be empathetic; let us practice it.

If someone steps forward and admits a difficulty, it is easy to forget where we stand, our own struggles. We all have our demons to slay, but my dragons aren't yours. Compassion means we can still connect on that level of shared struggle; our joined quest is to improve, ethically and spiritually. 


Sweet Profusion said...

It seems that your interest is in being compassionate to the original letter writer, not critiquing the response, BUT my reaction to all these ugly ugly ugly snippets is to be thankful that my marital state has probably left my son out of this whole stupid ugly ugly ugly process. Truly, thank you HaShem, my children will be forced to look for mates who, for their own reasons, did not fit this "sidduch-eligable" standard!

Princess Lea said...

Which response? Bassi Gruen's, or MatchQuest's?

From my recent reading (I am now advocating Brene Brown's books to everyone; please check them out at the library), compassion means that we find a way to relate others as opposed to blaming them. We have to be honest about ourselves and our reactions; what we say on paper does not always reflect reality.

We like black-and-white, but life is mostly gray.

"Shidduch-eligible" is subjective. The girl in question FEELS as though her reputation is being compromised; it doesn't necessarily mean it is. But she is worried and is voicing her concerns, which can be soothed away or escalated.

This current process is not a blanket state of being; it is simply the loudest heard as every stupidity is printed to take up paper space. We, as individuals, don't have to give it any validity.