Around 6-7 years ago, I went through a bunch of experiences that made me extremely wary of other people.
Long story short, Hashem arranged for pretty much every relationship I had at that time, from the most serious to the most casual, to explode in my face in an extremely traumatic way.
Clearly, I had a lot of work to do on my own bad middot (character traits).
Clearly, other people also had a lot of work to do on theirs, too.
Things got so bad, that I kind of took the equivalent of a social vow of chastity: no more friends! No more Shabbat guests! No more making an effort with anyone outside my immediate family!!
It was just too hard to have a relationship that didn’t seem way too complicated, exhausting and toxic, back then.
Thankfully, the last 2-3 years, God has slowly been moving me out of that space.
A lot of the improvement came when I stopped trying to be a ‘fake frummer’, and playing a part that didn’t suit me, and pretending to be something and someone I’m not.
I realized that for as long as I was secretly yearning for my life in London, that was translating into very harsh judgement calls against people who hadn’t (yet…) made aliya.
And, for as long as I was missing reading secular books and watching secular movies, I was so ‘anti’ all those people who felt they could combine the ‘ultra-orthodox’ or ‘chareidi’ label with massive i-Phones, Youtube and subscriptions to the National Enquirer.
Today, I read some secular stuff, non-fiction, and I’m trying to find a way of serving God with my yetzer hara, as well as my yetzer tov.
But the real breakthrough came as a result of my children, my teens.
My two precious girls who combine their father’s sweet personality with my ability to argue.
These girls have taught me so much.
They taught me that lashon hara even counts (or maybe, especially counts) in the home, and that’s there is no heter, or permission, for slagging people off behind closed doors.
They taught me that often, the very best girls, spiritually, are doing the weirdest things with their hair, clothes and nose-rings.
They taught me to stop holding the whole world, including them, including myself, to ridiculously high, unrealistic standards, that no-one can ever really get to, or maintain, at least, not before 120.
And the last, but perhaps most precious thing they taught me, is to not take things so personally, and to keep looking for reasons to play down issues and forgive other people.
Dear readers, that so was not my way, my derech, before these precious girls took me in hand.
In the past, I excelled at finding a million reasons why people are unfixable psychos, or ‘erev rav’, or toxic relations, or religious hypocrites, and once I’d found that out about them, I couldn’t speak to them or like them anymore.
And then my girls came along, and held a big mirror up, and I started to realise that sometimes (often…) I was also acting like an unfixable psycho, an erev rav, a toxic relative, a religious hypocrite.
And so many times, they forgive me for not treating them so nicely, or making their life difficult, and we worked together to try to turn things around.
And that taught me the importance of not taking things so personally, when people say things I don’t like, or act in ways that hurt me.
Sure, I don’t have to stand there while someone slaps my face because they’re having a bad, or tries to make me feel bad just to make themselves feel good, but now when that happens, I don’t automatically put that person on the ‘unfixable psycho’ list.
I take sensible measures to protect myself, and stay at a safe distance, but then, I try to understand where they’re coming from, and to see how ever-so-easily, if I didn’t have Rabbenu, and hitbodedut, and big tzaddikim like Rav Berland in my life – I could act in exactly the same way.
And more, sometimes I do act in exactly the same way.
Because I’m not perfect, and neither are they.
And then, I don’t hate that person in my heart anymore (which is not to say I automatically like or love them. If they have pronounced emotional issues that they are in denial about, I still do my best to steer clear of them.)
But even then, I don’t hate them, and I can even still find reasons and occasions to enjoy their company.
And so, the door to the social dungeon I’ve been in for well over 5 years is slowly starting to creak open again. And what’s oiling the hinges is Azamra, Rebbe Nachman’s lesson of seeing the good and focusing on the good.
First in ourselves, and then in others.
And above all, in our kids and spouses.
Challenging as they can be, my teens have been the biggest blessing in my life, and they have taught me – almost single-handedly – how to like people again.