Author’s note: The privacy and confidentiality of individuals found in this narrative was safeguarded, by modifying identifying details.
I’ve been meeting with Beth and Arnie for a number of years, on issues related to parenting, shared responsibility and intimacy. The two are insightful, articulate and able to access humor, in ways that reduce tension and allow for playfulness.
Beth and Arnie are particularly remarkable in that he is openly and visibly religious, whereas she is not. Arnie arrives wearing dark pants and a white shirt; he is bearded and sports light brown side curls. Beth typically arrives, dressed in jeans and a tee shirt; her jet black hair is short and spikey.
In related fashion, Halachah/Jewish Law is Arnie’s guiding light. For Beth, Halachah is just one of several factors she considers in making a decision. Arnie is, thus, concerned about upholding the laws of Shabbat, in all their intricacies; Beth may or may not make it back from work, before sundown. She does experience a deep sense of connectedness, when she lights the Shabbat candles, and they both heartily enjoy the Shabbat meal.
Arnie and Beth, live in a gated community; they are not within walking distance of a synagogue. On the Sabbaths that Arnie stays home, Beth stays home with him. When Arnie spends Shabbat with the Rabbi of their synagogue, Beth, still based at home, may slip out in her car and go on errands. She does not broadcast the fact that she is violating Shabbat, at least by Arnie’s standards. In fact, the two generally uphold a “Don’t ask; don’t tell” policy, with regard to the gaps in her Shabbat observance.
On the rare occasions that Beth does speak about her “lapses”, we note that she and Arnie did not start off their relationship being observant. It was Arnie who increasingly accepted the yoke of the Mitzvot, with Beth following at a “safe” distance. Beth, it can be argued, is simply conducting herself as she always has. We’ve additionally discussed how rule breaking, of one sort or another, is one of the ways that Beth tries to gain mastery over, what was, for her, an unpredictable and, all too often, terrifying childhood.
Beth and Arnie recently tried something new. Beth accompanied Arnie on a Shabbat outing, the two being hosted by a family, within a larger community. Arnie was excited that Beth would have the chance to witness Shabbat being observed “as it ought to be”, from beginning to end. Beth looked forward to the spiritual experiences that would be afforded them in their hosts’ home.
When we spoke, afterwards, about their outing, Arnie beamed. Beth smiled, but there was also an uneasy look in her eyes. When I noticed this, she stated that she was unwilling to speak about her uneasiness. She did not recall the exact name of the Jewish prohibition for speaking in negative manner about others, but she did know that such speech was off limits.
I found Beth’s reticence a little surprising, inasmuch as that both Beth and Arnie, over the course of our work, have shared sensitive and painful information about their families of origin. Perhaps, given their focus in therapy, the relevance of speaking to their childhood experiences of instability, unsafety and unworthiness was clearer to them than was debriefing on the discomfort of this solitary Shabbat experience.
Later in session, Arnie wondered whether, given the generally positive experience they enjoyed, Beth would be inclined to accept a repeat invitation. Beth waffled. I suggested that this might be connected to the discomfort she earlier showed. Beth took a deep breath and spoke:
“You know, our hosts are truly a lovely couple. They put together a beautiful Shabbat table. I will be honest, though. I felt really tense in the hostess’ presence, particularly when we were in her kitchen, preparing the dishes to go out. She gave me very specific instructions on how to slice the vegetables and very detailed directions on how to arrange the kugels on their trays. She shared her instructions with a serious, maybe even urgent, look on her face. I felt as though were I to deviate, ever so slightly, in carrying out our hostess’ orders, I would be violating her Shabbat. So, it was beautiful, but it was also nerve wracking. I don’t know if I want to experience that again.”
At this stage, I wondered aloud whether aiming for Shabbat table precision may have been the way that her hostess tries to contain her own anxieties. Beth looked surprised: “My hostess did share with me – toward the end of Shabbat – that she had suffered through a very chaotic upbringing and that she appreciated the structure that observance brought to her life.” Here, Beth paused before continuing: “In a way, my hostess’ childhood was not all that different than mine, even as she has a different way of working through it. Maybe that is why I felt so uncomfortable in her presence.”
It is not uncommon that, when we encounter someone who shares with us a similar set of experiences from the past, something inside of us starts to resonate – sometimes even before we become consciously aware of our parallel tracks. We are likely picking up the aura of vulnerability that surrounds the other and it feels familiar, perhaps in an unsettling manner. Stated differently, our own discomfort around some people (assuming that they are not actively violating our boundaries) typically tells us something important…about ourselves.
I don’t know whether my clients will return as a couple to their Shabbat hosts. There are multiple factors working both for and against a repeat visit. I do sense, though, that when Beth mentally revisits their shared Shabbat experience, that she will be more compassionate toward her hostess and herself.
As Beth, Arnie and I closed that day’s session, we playfully chose the term Lokshon Hara to reflect the tangle of issues present when navigating the question of potentially negative speech/Lashon Hara, the discomfort surrounding shared vulnerability, and, of course, the precise presentation of Noodle (Lokshon) Kugel.
Photo credits: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5/