In a Perfect World
Picture the following scenarios:
- A family is seated at their Shabbos table. As the mother puts various dishes on the table, she makes sure to position a certain kugel near her husband. It’s one that he likes, and she went to the trouble of making it for him even though it’s not a family favorite. At some point during the meal, she notices that he has not touched it. “Would you like some kugel?” she asks. To her chagrin, her husband’s answer is less than gracious.
- Two sisters go to a gemach in search of gowns for a relative’s wedding. Sister A is rummaging through the racks when she spots a stunning gown a bit further on. Unfortunately, her sister is closer to the gown and, as they wear the same size, is liable to snatch it up first. Sister A draws Sister B’s attention to a different gown. “Why don’t you try on this one?” she asks. “This style always looks so nice on you.” Although this is indubitably true, her sister receives the suggestion with something less than full-hearted gratitude.
- A pair of friends are chatting. “I missed you on Sunday,” Friend A remarks. “What did you do all day?” At her companion’s somewhat vague answer, she pushes harder, pumping her friend for details. She is genuinely interested in how her friend spent her day. She is also genuinely insecure and hopes that her friend did not spend last Sunday hanging out with someone else instead of her. Friend B tolerates the questioning for a while before cutting her off in irritation.
Three scenarios. Three hidden agendas. Three mixed messages.
Sometimes a scene, a casual interchange, a snippet of conversation, can serve as a snapshot of a certain dynamic within a relationship. Let’s take each of these three examples and see if we can figure out exactly what went wrong.
In the family table above, our balebusta is feeling under-appreciated. Out of the goodness of her heart, she went to the trouble of making a kugel for her husband. You’d think he’d be properly grateful! However, not only doesn’t he take a portion, but when she offers him one, he responds in an almost surly fashion! She just can’t understand it.
That is our good balebusta’s point of view. But as so often happens with relationships, there is another one.
The husband does, indeed, like the kugel his wife went to the trouble of making. He even feels sincere appreciation whenever she serves it. What he does not appreciate is her question, and what that question implies. For whatever reason—an upset stomach, a decision to watch his weight, or anything else—he’s decided not to partake of the kugel tonight. “Would you like some kugel?” What she presents as an innocent offer, he perceives as criticism. Beneath her seemingly innocent query, he hears this: “I slaved over a hot stove to make you that kugel! The least you could do is take a piece!”
Were the couple to discuss it afterward, the wife might be aghast at the husband’s accusation. “I was being nice, not critical!” she might protest. “I was only offering you some kugel in case you hadn’t noticed it was on the table. What’s wrong with that?”
“You offered a kugel that was sitting right in front of me,” the husband might reply. “Clearly, I saw it. Just as clearly, I didn’t want it.” His wife’s offer struck him as a nudge. And not only a nudge, but a critical nudge. Which explains why his response to her offer was less than gracious.
In truth, the wife may not be lying when she says that she didn’t mean to criticize. She may actually not have been consciously aware of the resentment she was feeling, or the implied criticism that she was expressing. When she saw her husband ignore the kugel she’d made just for him, the surface part of her brain urged her to offer him a piece, “in case he didn’t notice it was there.” Underneath that surface, however, in a place far less accessible to her, was another voice muttering with resentment over her husband’s ingratitude and his lack of appreciation for all that she does for him.
She thought she was sending one kind of message, but he heard another. At best, the message was mixed: a tangled skein of both caring and rancor.
Being in touch with only the surface, caring part, it may be hard for her to acknowledge that she was also annoyed. The reason she’s only able to acknowledge the caring side is because she wants, or needs, to feel that she’s a good person. She is suffering from something that has appeared on these pages before: the “tzaddeikes syndrome.”
Acknowledging our darker sides is frightening. But unless we know that a dark side exists, how can we possibly hope to fix it?
A quick look at our other two scenarios reveals a similar dynamic. The sister who “kindly” urges her sister to try on a certain gown may genuinely believe that the gown will suit her. At the same time, because she has a hidden agenda that is self-serving, her sister picks up on a lack of sincerity in her eagerness to help.
The same goes for the friend who pumps her friend for information about her day. Part of her is genuinely interested, and happy that her friend had a good time. But because there are insecurities and hidden needs lurking behind the seemingly innocent questions, her friend may sense that at least part of what’s going on is not as above-board as it seems. Some of it is about the questioner, not the one being questioned. Such a suspicion can easily lead to annoyance.
We are all made up of light and darkness. The problem is that we want to be all light. We want to be a tzaddik or tzaddeikes, wholly, unequivocally, and all of the time. Unfortunately, being human, such a reality is usually beyond our reach.
The only way we might get there someday is by recognizing the parts of us that keep us from being completely good and sincere. The parts that prompt us to stew in envy or resentment or greed or any number of other negative feelings. Strangely, it is only by subjecting those negativities to the cold, hard light of truth that we can make them shrivel up and go away. But, to do that, we have to first dredge them up from the hidden places where they hide. The places that we keep well covered by our good intentions and highest motivations.
Hidden agendas lead to mixed messages. This is especially true when our agendas our hidden even from ourselves. Emotional blindness can lead to misunderstandings and miscommunications with those we love best. As long as our eyes are closed to our own faults and frailties, confusions and resentments are bound to crop up. But no one can open our eyes for us. We are the only ones who can dive into the deep waters of our own psyches to see what lives there.
Only by digging down and opening our inner eye can we relate honestly and openly with ourselves and our loved ones. And then, after identifying the enemy, we can start doing the work of banishing him… so that we can start delivering messages that are straightforward instead of mixed. Heartfelt instead of self-serving.
And then we will truly shine.