Why are you the way that you are?

“Free soup for the holidays!” I called, holding out a steaming hot bowl of fresh chicken soup to people passing by. It was so cold my breath rose in a cloud and the tip of my nose was numb, but it was worth it to know that my volunteer work was helping to keep others warm.

“There must be something wrong with it if you’re selling it for that,” a man snapped irritably at me as he stomped on by. I wasn’t the only one who heard him. My friends all turned to me incredulously; one even took a couple steps in the man’s direction before giving up.

“Um, what?”

“What did he say?”

“Why did he say that?”

A moment of scattered, confused titters, before we all got back to work. We weren’t just giving out chicken soup. We had vegetarian soup and latkes* with apple sauce as well, and people were free to take as much as they wanted. There was no spiel people had to listen to to get the food, no self-promotion listserv they had to sign up for. The food wasn’t even labeled with the organization we were part of. Anyone could just come right up, take some food and leave, no questions asked. I couldn’t think of anything farther from selling short of literally paying people to eat.

For the rest of the evening I was met with small smiles and wide grins, quiet thanks and startled delight. Given just how cold it was and the rate at which people were hurrying from one warm building to another I was pleasantly surprised by how many people stopped for a quick chat and some lovely affirmations- thank you for your great work, this food is delicious, you have a great holiday too, keep on doing what you’re doing. 

Those words made me feel warm in a way the soup couldn’t. But by the end of the night, I was still thinking about that man.

It wasn’t that I was mad at him, or upset by his abrasive tone. It wasn’t like his comment was even that extreme. I just couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that someone would take time out of their day to be mean to someone they didn’t know, doing nothing that affected them personally, doing something that only could affect others positively.

“I’m great at complaining about a lot of things,” I told my friends as we packed up, “but free, fresh, hot food on a cold night? I’m having trouble finding the negativity in that one.”

His words followed me to the train, past the turnstyle, through the tunnels. They floated beside me as I hastened home, eager to get warm at last. As I rounded the corner to my apartment I was reminded of a quote from The Office, of all places:

“Why are you the way that you are? …I hate, so much,
about the things you choose to be.”
–The Office, Episode 22

Was it a choice to be harsh? I wondered silently, thinking of my experience as a mental health counselor. That evening’s stranger could have been going through any number of things that caused his mood to dip, his outlook to darken, his instincts to turn towards immediate suspicion. None of that could have happened by choice. But he couldn’t have been forced into the decision to share that pain out loud with me, surely?

Could it be that he just needed an outlet, and my presence served as one? Did he want someone else to hurt, so he wouldn’t be in pain alone? Did he want someone else to hurt, so he could feel more powerful, more in control of his life?

Or was he just genuinely worried about the soup?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

It’s the sixth night of Chanukkah, and as I hold the shamash** I puzzle over this holiday’s meaning. Shechinah*** brought us light for eight days once, but it is our obligation to keep that light going. I’ve been a pessimist about a lot of things this year; I’ve been somewhat ill, I’ve been very busy, and most of all, I’ve been living in America under Trump. In the way that I used to mock-grumble ‘Thanks Obama’ I now honestly mutter ‘Fuck Trump’ and that negativity permeates even the positive news that comes my way. It’s easy enough to make physical light. Spiritual, emotional, metaphorical light? Much, much harder.

I want to be more cheerful, more hopeful, more light. So I can’t help but ask, why are we the way that we are? Can we choose another way to be?

And even if I, personally, could become a more positive, giving, optimistic person, should I automatically assume that others have the same capacity of choice as I do, or more, or less?

I don’t believe the human mind is built to be able to constantly comprehend all the possible choices it has. I get overwhelmed with more than three ice cream flavors. What with all the little decisions we must make day to day it’s much easier to narrow our choices down, pick automatic responses, and follow well-worn paths of behavior rather than think about all the potential rewards and consequences of our briefest, smallest actions.

But still. Maybe the first choice I can make is deciding to believe I actually have a choice at all. It seems better to try to change and fail than never to try where I could have succeeded. Maybe I can turn away from just one commonly traveled path of grumpiness and snapping and defeatism and push my way past all the weeds and trees, all the ‘long shift at work’s and the ‘but my body hurt’s, to forge a new path of hope and joy- or, if not that, at the very least kindness.

My Rabbi asks me to make a toast after lighting the candles. It’s not easy making an unexpected toast in front of a big group of people, all of whom up until this point have had no reason to think of me as a bad toast-maker. I think about turning him down. I think about making a choice.

I raise my glass.

“This has been a dark year in America for many of us.
But it is an undeniable fact that light shines more brightly in the dark. May we all continue to shine our lights, our advocacy, our activism, our being true unto ourselves and unto others, more brightly than ever in the times to come.

–Davy Ran, Episode 1


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