In a waiting room recently, I found myself entranced by an oversized fish tank situated directly in my line of vision. I admired the size and colors of its various denizens as they weaved in and out among the gently waving fronds above a pebble-strewn imitation seabed. Most of all, I was fascinated by the play and interplay of the fish in their watery world.
It was easy to spot the different fishy personalities. The boldly assertive fish and the more tentative ones. Those who were comfortable taking up plenty of space and those who shrank away from the spotlight. The speeders and the sleepers. The hungry and the apathetic.
One fish in particular caught my eye. Golden in color like many of its brethren, it was not swimming around in their company but had instead found itself a quiet corner behind some obscuring greenery. Why, I wondered, had it chosen to hide itself away like that? Having asked the question, I immediately began imagining all sorts of scenarios that might provide the answer.
It seemed to me that the bright yellow fish was deliberately keeping away from its fellows. Perhaps, I thought, it had been traumatized in some way and now, afraid, had chosen to skulk in the shadows where it felt safer. Then, noticing how it swam up now and then to nibble at a nearby stalk of green, I revised my plot line and wondered if it wasn’t simply hungry. Having found itself a nice lunch, it was hoping to enjoy it before the others discovered where he was and came to share the bounty.
Or maybe, I thought, getting into the groove, this fish was a loner, the kind of creature most comfortable in his own company. Maybe it felt a bit inferior in some way to the other fish and preferred not to have to compete with them. Or perhaps the opposite was true. Could it be a conceited streak which made that fish behave in such an aloof manner?
Fun speculations, but I have no idea whether individual fish even have personalities. Even if they do, I’ll never get to have a heart-to-heart with that particular one to learn the reason for his or her antisocial stance in the tank that day. When it comes to people, however, the story is far different.
Picture yourself walking into a crowded room at a simcha. Everywhere you look you see knots of people talking with animation, eating together, laughing together. The very air is electric with excitement and joy. You are about to move deeper into the crowd in search of companionship when you notice one woman sitting all by herself in a corner. Perhaps she’s half-hidden behind a potted plant, nibbling from a plate on her lap. You study her face for a moment, hoping to find a clue to her alone-ness.
Is she a shy wallflower? Does she always shrink away from strangers, crowds, and inquisitive eyes? Does she yearn to be part of the crowd, or does the expression on her face show you the opposite: a distaste for the company she’s forced, for the moment, to be keeping? Perhaps she just likes to be alone with her own thoughts. Maybe she feels somehow superior to everyone else in the room and can’t wait to do her duty here and then disappear. Or maybe she’s just really, really hungry and decided slip away to a quiet corner to feed herself before starting to socialize…
The possibilities are many, but the clues can be hard to read. Part of the reason is that many of us have learned how to remain inscrutable in the face of others’ probing glances. The shy girl plants a brave smile on her face, and the timid one puts on an act of feeling comfortable in her own skin. The loner pretends to enjoy the scene, and the arrogant guest condescends to nod graciously at one and all. All of which can throw us off the scent and steer us away from the truth.
A simcha hall is merely one example. The situations in which we need to play this kind of guessing game are myriad.
Take the bochur who comes to your house for a Shabbos meal and heads directly for the bookcase instead of schmoozing. Is he a burning masmid who doesn’t want to waste a second without a sefer in hand, or a painfully bashful young man trying to hide himself away in the printed page? Alternatively, is it possible that, in his self-centeredness, he anticipates being excruciatingly bored in the company you’ve provided and would rather read than connect to anyone in the room? Any of the above? None of the above?
The problem with trying to figure out such things is that we have a habit of projecting our own inner worlds on other people. For example, the sight of that woman sitting in her lonely corner may remind you of yourself when you didn’t know a soul at a simcha. Because the spectacle arouses certain remembered emotions in you, you may unthinkingly attribute the same emotions to the other person.
Similarly, if you’re the type that tends to find most people confusing, difficult, or painfully tedious, you may make the natural assumption that the guest hiding herself away is simply happier on her own than mingling with the masses. Or, recalling a time when you came to a simcha ravenous, you find yourself sympathizing with the solitary eater in the corner without imbuing her with any motivation beyond simple hunger.
How we respond or react to other people, is the result of how we “teitch them up.” And how we do that is helped along by things that we ourselves have experienced or felt. Someone who was once traumatized by a horrific social experience may attribute those same feelings of fear and dread to another who may not feel that way at all. This makes it more important than ever to pay attention to the clues. Otherwise, we may ignore what our eyes show us because our hearts are telling a whole different story.
Sometimes, as we’ve said, the clues are hard to read because they’ve been covered up. I once knew a woman who, as an unmarried baalas teshuvah, felt left out and ignored in shul on Simchas Torah. All the other women had friends, small children in tow, or both, while she stood alone, longing for someone to see her and to acknowledge her existence.
A sociable woman, she would have liked nothing more than a few minutes of pleasant conversation, but not one person there offered her that. I wasn’t present so I don’t know, but maybe that lonely woman protected her vulnerable heart by putting on a face that said, “I’m fine. No need to pay any attention to me.” She made it easy for the others to keep on doing what they were doing: ignore her with a clear conscience. Do we need someone to wear a sign before we take the trouble to reach out?
The next time we see a “fish tank” with a solitary figure swimming alone in the corner, let’s not jump to comfortable conclusions. Let’s take a few minutes to read the signs in that solitary face. Let’s take a closer look and probe beyond them. Let’s avoid the pitfall of making assumptions and actually try to learn the real story.
That lone fish may merely be hungry, or deliberately aloof. If, however, she happens to be a soul in need of friendship, why not hunker down in her corner of the fish tank for a few minutes and get acquainted? You may find it surprisingly rewarding!