A few years’ back, an acquaintance of mine invited me to come with her to Ashdod, to go and take a look at some exciting-sounding cheap clothing place for kids. It was quite a hot day, and when I got into the car I was already sweltering.
Now, I knew this acquaintance had some ‘issues’ around spending money, but before I got into the car with her on that boiling Summer day, I had no idea how bad they actually were. Two seconds in, I told her I was hot. She opened the windows (half - we were on a motorway) - and that’s when I started to get that horrible, claustrophobic feeling that I was about to have a really challenging couple of hours.
Because while I can tolerate heat to a point, I can’t stand being in a hot car with no air-conditioning in the middle of an Israeli summer. I literally feel faint and want to throw up. But my acquaintance clearly had zero intention of turning on the aircon under any circumstances, because air-conditioning costs money.
I understand that we have to be careful with money, I really do. I also understand that sometimes, there isn’t money for petrol, and there isn’t money for food. And that under those circumstances, you can’t blow it on air-conditioning.
But we weren’t talking about those sorts of circumstances.
On the journey back, I swore to myself I would never, ever get in a car with that acquaintance again, because the lack of control I had over the situation was so distressing for me and I really, nearly threw up a few times. I was tempted - a few times - to just plonk down 50 shekels on the dashboard and to ask her to turn on the aircon, but that wouldn’t have gone down at all well with this particular person.
She could see I wasn’t handling the heat very well, but she was so intent on saving a few cents she simply couldn’t put my need to overheat ahead of her need to save money. And she also couldn’t accept that maybe, it was reasonable of me to want the aircon on in those circumstances, so there was nothing else to talk about.
A few months after that experience, another acquaintance asked me if I’d drive her to the Baba Sali. It was now winter in Israel, and not so hot, but this acquaintance had a very low tolerance to anything resembling heat, and she asked if we could put the aircon on.
Partially, it was because it really wasn’t hot at all in the car, and partially, I was also mindful of the cost of the gas (which she hadn’t offered to help me pay for, despite her wanting to make the trip) and partially, again, it was that lack of control thing.
I turned the aircon on - resentfully - and for weeks and even months afterwards, I tried to figure out why I’d been so upset about doing that. After all, I knew firsthand how horrible it was to feel like you were suffocating to death in a too-hot car. So why was I reacting with such bad grace to this second acquaintance?
After this second acquaintance asked me for a few more favors - like driving her to hospital at 1am for an emergency scan so her husband could stay at home with her kids - the penny finally dropped: there was zero gratitude blowing back from this acquaintance, who was very keen on the idea that people should be committed to the mitzvah of doing kindnesses for others.
Or at least, kindnesses for her, because the kindnesses coming back over the fence were few and far between.
This all happened 5-6 years ago, when I was the height of my process of discovering that so many people (including myself…) are literally crazy.
What makes this a problem is not that people have their foibles, because we all have our eccentricities and our ‘red lines’ many of which are completely illogical but no less powerfully policed.
The bigger problem by far is that we aren’t honest enough about our own issues, so we can’t figure out genuinely useful compromises. If my tight-fisted friend could have explained that she could see I’m half-dying in the heat, but that she simply couldn’t justify the ‘waste’ of money switching the aircon entailed, but she’d be very happy to give me the option of paying to cover it - we’d have both have been happy and that friendship probably would have lasted a lot longer than it did.
Similarly, if I could have been honest with my other acquaintance that I was feeling like she was taking me for a ride, and using me as an unpaid taxi service (like when she commanded me to switch the music I was listening to, because she didn’t like it) - things would have also been much easier, at least for me, and we could have figured out a compromise that worked for both of us.
And if we couldn’t, then I’d have known much earlier on to put this person on my ‘awkward’ list, and to give her a much wider berth.
These days, I generally spot these people much earlier on, mostly, so it’s much easier to avoid getting dragged into all these horrible, complicated situations which really just boil down to a power struggle where you are being forced to do things that you really don’t want to do.
The ‘control’ belongs to God. The ‘power’ belongs to God. The more I can live by that credo, the easier it is for me to get along with my fellow human being, even the really crazy ones. At the same time, I have to recognize that I’m not an angel or a tzaddik, and that I also have my own red lines and wants about how things should be.
If I ignore that side of things too much, I get extremely moody, miserable, stressed and even sick.
Getting the balance right between these two things, so I’m not completely self-centred and selfish, and also not completely spineless and a doormat, is the work of 120. No problem is ever 100% the other person’s fault, but figuring out the percentages is really, really hard.
And as Pesach approaches, this is one of the key bits of work that we all have to do. Rav Ofer writes that true freedom is getting out of all our bad middot and negative desires and behaviors.
And as usual, I seem to have my work cut out for me.