IN A PERFECT WORLD
Your neighbor is making a simcha just a few days after yom tov. No, not the single mom who lives down the block and is having a hard time coping with her three little ones on her own. And not the hapless neighbor two houses down who doesn’t seem to be able to get her act together even in ordinary times. For either of those two, you’d have no second thoughts about lending a helping hand. It’s been a particularly difficult yom tov season, an endless loop of shopping, cooking, baking and serving, and you know that both of those women would be abjectly grateful for your assistance.
But the neighbor in question is neither one of those. She is your capable neighbor, the one whom others point to with awe and a touch of envy. Her house is always in order, her children are generally well-behaved, and she seems to navigate the various ships of family, community, and job with aplomb. She, too, is up to her neck in keeping up with the crazy yom tov-prep cycle, with a simcha to prepare for on top of that… but there’s no need to invite her family over for a meal or offer to take her kids for an afternoon. Naturally, you’ll contribute the standard neighborly kugel or fruit platter on the eve of her simcha, but other than that you have no worries. Your capable neighbor will be just fine without your help.
Here’s another scenario: your sister-in-law calls to ask if you want to come to a local Chinese Auction with her. Not your newest and rather shy sister-in-law, the one who came into the family so eager to please and whom you love to take under your protective wing. This is your popular and distinctly un-bashful sister-in-law, the one who has a whole troop of friends to serve as potential companions. You don’t know why she chose to call you this time, but you know she won’t be at a loss if you say no. You were planning on having a comfortable evening at home and you see no reason to change your plans.
Here’s another one: you are in the store, when you see a woman walking up the aisle ahead of you. You recognize her at once: she is the well-known orator who delivered a firecracker shiur the other night which really inspired you. You have an impulse to go over and tell her so, but something stops you. That “something” is the thought that she’s probably already heard such accolades a thousand times before. She is doubtless well aware of how effective a speaker she is. No need to extend yourself to tell her so yet again.
Or about this: You see someone who recently played the star role in a play you adored, or wrote a book you devoured, or did an amazing job as one of your daughters’ teachers last year. Again, you feel an urge to say something; again, you refrain. Why heap coals on an already blazing fire? If she were just starting out, unsure of herself and what she has to offer, you would behave differently. As it is, you’ll reserve your praise for those who really need it.
We all like to give, but there’s no question that giving can be taxing when you already have so many balls of your own up in the air. We all enjoy offering a word of praise in its time, but a compliment can seem redundant when the recipient has presumably been showered with so many of them before. So we make our judicious choices. We choose not to waste our resources on those who seem to be doing just fine without any input from us. We will allocate our giving to those who really need it.
This is a fallacy, and I’ll tell you why.
There are people whom we place in the category of “needy” in one aspect or another. The neighbor who generally finds it hard to cope, or who falls apart when life becomes extra stressful. The friend or relative who can use a guide to navigate society’s demands. The struggling new artist or speaker or teacher. When we put people in this category, we feel good about giving because we know that our help is necessary and that it will be gratefully received.
What we may overlook is the fact that everyone, however capable, talented, or socially adept, can use a helping hand at times or a good word any time. While not chronically “needy,” they are human beings and are therefore needful.
Your oh-so-competent neighbor may be feeling overwhelmed by the myriad responsibilities of feeding her family over yom tov while also putting together a simcha. She will not fall apart under the stress; she’s not made that way. Instead, she will steel herself to work even harder than usual, mustering every last drop of energy to make it all happen. Don’t you think that, under such circumstances, an offer of a meal or any other assistance would be more than appreciated? Even Superwoman needs a helping hand now and then.
The relative who invites you to accompany her someplace may have already called several of her friends, to no avail. Or perhaps she really, really wants your company tonight. Whatever her reason for calling, you’d be mistaken in supposing that you aren’t needed. She may not be perpetually in want of a social guide and companion, but tonight she is needful. And you have been offered the chance to supply that need.
With regard to teachers, speakers, writers and the like, I can state from personal experience that feedback is not only welcome, but also necessary. You sit in solitary splendor producing your story, or your lesson, or your speech, and then you send it out into the vacuum and hope for the best. There is no way of knowing whom your words touched. You can only guess at the impact, if any, of the message you tried to relay.
When someone calls, emails, or comes over to say a good word, you are suffused with relief and pleasure at the knowledge that you actually managed to reach somebody. That your toil was not in vain. This kind of feedback can be all the encouragement you need to keep on doing what you’ve been doing.
My husband, a longtime mechanech, was once told by a student’s mother that her son considered him not only a top-notch rebbi, but also a role model for life. Is there any way to measure the shot in the arm that a teacher can get from such feedback? Similarly, a reader shared with me that she hung one of my articles on her fridge. She wanted to see it each time she passed, because it gave her such tremendous chizuk. Well, guess what? Her saying that gave me even more tremendous chizuk!
As giving and generous as we try to be, why not stretch the parameters of our giving to include those who are not perpetually needy but are simply needful at times? We can hone our empathy skills to assess a situation which, although superficially under control, can still benefit from a dose of friendly caring. We can remember that everyone can use some chizuk at times.
We can be givers in the best possible way: by stretching ourselves to embrace someone else’s world view. By seeing what they need, even if they don’t make it obvious.