by Frank Pauc
This first appeared in Frank’s blog on October 28, 2017, as “A Human Touch.” It is republished here with the author’s permission. This first appeared in The Havok Journal on March 23, 2021.
I arrived at the shul quite late. It was after 11:30, and the Shacharit was nearly finished. The synagogue was almost full. This made sense since it was the rabbi’s last Shabbat with this congregation. He and his family are preparing to move to London, England, very soon. They will be starting a new life in a new country. Everybody wanted to give the rabbi a fond farewell.
I found a space in a pew and took part in the service as best I could. I didn’t plan on bothering the rabbi. It was his big day, and he had many people to meet and greet. Rabbi Andrews is a good man, and he has a big heart. He had helped me in the past when I was hurting. He knows about my struggles. The least I could do was to be present for him. I needed to be there with the rest of the community.
We were all seated during one of the prayers. The rabbi walked past me to put a book away on a shelf. I didn’t notice him again until he sat down right next to me and put his arm around my shoulder.
“How is she?” he asked.
“She’s okay… for now.”
We were both quiet for a moment.
Then the rabbi asked, “And how are you?”
I struggled to speak. “I’m… I’m a mess.”
We were quiet again.
Rabbi Andrews smiled gently, and then he said drily, “That’s understandable.”
He squeezed my shoulder, and then he stood up. He had things to do up front.
It’s strange. I was/am deeply moved by the actions of the rabbi. He didn’t do anything extraordinary. He didn’t solve any of my problems. He didn’t have any clever answers or profound insights for me.
He was simply and sincerely human.
I hate it when people ask how I am. Often, a person will ask the question almost unconsciously, as a matter of habit. Somebody will come to me with a smile, and breezily ask, “So, how are you today?”, and then they start talking about themselves before I can say anything. I find that offensive. I would prefer that the person greet me by saying, “I don’t care if you live or die.” At least it would be honest.
I am also uncomfortable when a person asks how I am, and they really do care. That forces me to feel, and I don’t like to do that. If I am hurting, and I tell a person how I feel, it is like I am bleeding in front of them. I don’t know if I freak out the person asking the question, but I know that I freak myself out. I find it difficult to accept sympathy and compassion. I don’t know what to do with it. It’s somehow scary.
People sometimes feel like they are required to say something to “help”. I do that on occasion. I usually wind up saying something that sounds stupid. Words are clumsy. Often they are all that we have available, but they are still blunt instruments.
I have had people say things to me like: “It’s all part of God’s plan”, or “Look on the bright side”, or “Don’t worry, it will get better.” I understand that they say these things with the best intentions. They want to help.
I nod and smile at the person, but inside I am screaming, “Shut the fuck up!”
A person who is wounded generally does not need somebody to solve an intractable problem for them. The person doesn’t need words that provide a soft, fuzzy, Hallmark kind of solace. A suffering person needs somebody else to listen, and just to be there. That’s it. That’s all. That’s enough.
By the way, hugs really do help.