Tikkun Olam (Hopefully Without Feeling Like a Creeper)

In the lead-up to my birthday last week, I found myself thinking about what I want to achieve this year. This wasn’t like making new year’s resolutions, since I loathe those with the fire of a thousand suns, and for various reasons: my illustrious history of sacrificing my well-being in pursuit of a goal (please refer to exhibit A: high school and the college admissions process), the fact that most resolutions are things you could choose to do at any point in the year, the fact that the whole idea of new year’s resolutions is a weird, fabricated, and artificially-imposed social construct that people seem to do because they feel obligated to participate…well. Suffice it to say, new year’s resolutions — to quote Austin Powers — aren’t my bag, baby.

Given that my stance on new year’s resolutions falls somewhere between “how I feel about migraines” and “how I feel about Nazis,” it’s probably surprising that I was thinking about what I want to achieve during the next year — but, as it turns out, I do really like finding an over-arching goal or purpose for my next trip around the sun.

The more I thought about it, the more the answer became clear as that still, small voice in my head repeated: tikkun olam. To explain what this is, here’s what I posted to Facebook that day:

A Jewish philosophy translated as “repairing the world,” tikkun olam is a long-standing love of mine. Human history is littered with astonishing levels of cruelty and destruction, and although I believe we’re moving in the right direction, we have a long way to go.

So, my hope is this: that we can all work towards building empathy instead of judgment, compassion instead of intolerance, creativity and repair instead of destruction, and patience instead of anger. Let’s give more hugs. Let’s do more charitable work, whether through donations or volunteering. Let’s make each other laugh. Let’s cut each other some slack, because everyone, whether you know it or not, is fighting a hard battle.

Let’s contribute to repairing the world, in whatever way we can — because each contribution, each random act of kindness, and each moment of empathy is important.

As it turns out, my efforts  to do this are a bit more awkward than I’d hoped. (I’ll pause here and express my amusement about the fact that I’m continually surprised by my own awkwardness. This should’ve stopped being surprising to me a looooooooong time ago, but somehow it always pops up and leaves me going “Wait, WHAT? Awkward? Me? Well…yeah. That’s actually quite plausible. Ok, it’s highly likely. Upon further inspection, it’s basically inevitable.”)

On my birthday, I’d planned to use the free birthday drink loaded onto my Starbucks card to purchase a drink for a random stranger. But, as it turns out, the random stranger has to be there, in the flesh, and ordering their drink in order for you to use the free drink on someone else. This has potential to be spectacularly awkward and tremendously creepy. There was a dude behind me in line, and when I looked over in his direction to see if I could get away with doing this in a non-awkward, non-creepy way, the look of apprehension on his face quickly answered that question for me.

So I bought myself a marshmallow dream bar. (For those who may be wondering, they’re both gluten-free and delicious. It didn’t do anything to help repair the world, but it did make my taste buds happy.)

marshmallow_dream_Bar_starbucks
Not my photo – via misterbelly.com

Then a few days ago, I was getting a cup of tea from a coffee vendor near my office. The two women in line behind me were having a long conversation; one had apparently just broken up with her live-in boyfriend, and she was understandably upset. Just as I was paying for my chai, the newly-single woman broke down into tears.

Y’all. I think most of us have been through wretched break-ups. I think most of us can agree that they’re abjectly miserable, and that having an acutely broken heart makes you feel like you may never breathe normally — let alone laugh — ever again.

Before I could think about whether or not this, like my Starbucks attempt, would make me look slightly insane, I turned around and offered to buy her a coffee. “I’ve been through bad breakups too,” I said, “and I know how much it sucks. Please let me buy you a coffee.” I told her that it’s awful now, but that it gets better — and then I felt like I was probably being weird, so I decided it was time to walk away.

As I walked back to my office, I started to reflect on the situation. At first, I worried that I might have come across as a hideously weird old lady. But then I realized: who cares if I did? I’d rather do something nice and look like an idiot than not do something nice at all. Random acts of kindness towards strangers are precisely that: interactions with people I’m probably never going to see again. If they think I’m weird for doing something nice, then so be it.

That also led me to wonder: what is it about modern culture that makes niceness so suspect? Why am I even in a position of feeling like people might think I’m creepy or mildly insane for offering to do something nice? It’s not like I’m standing there, wild-eyed and desperate for human interaction, while I offer to tell them about my latest surgery and 27 cats. If that were the case, apprehension would be totally understandable. But it’s not (to the best of my knowledge, at least) — and yet, I got really self-conscious about it.

So, I’ve decided not to worry about whether I look like a complete fool in my tikkun olam efforts, because the fact is, this is something that needs to be done.

So, tell me: have you ever been in a similar situation? Do you feel like strangers doing random nice things for others are greeted with suspicion or gratitude? Or is this just a DC thing?

Writing Exercise: Do You Rehearse Phone Calls Before Making Them?

Last week, The New York Times ran a Modern Love column that, as far as I can tell, garnered more attention than any previous Modern Love column has. In it, the author writes about how she and her now-fiance decided to test-drive a set of 36 questions designed to make people fall in love with each other. (As you may have deduced, it worked.)

The Times later provided that list of questions, and I thought some of them would also make nifty writing prompts. To be clear, I’m not out to make any of you fall in love with me – hence why I don’t plan to write answers to all the questions, nor do I plan to stare into anyone’s eyes for four minutes – but a handful of these made me think “Heeeyyy, that could be fun to write about!”

And that’s how I make decisions.

So, without further ado, the question: Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?

Oh God, do I ever. I don’t do this for all my phone calls, but when it comes to the calls that make me nervous, I not only rehearse, but I write out a note card with talking points. I’m not even kidding.

I’d love to be one of those unflappable souls who remain calm and collected under pressure, but I’m not. One of my lesser qualities is that if I’m nervous, there’s an exceptionally good chance that I’ll get completely flustered, discombobulated, and forgetful. If I don’t have notes in front of me, I’m liable to lose my train of thought – or, worse, have full command of my train of thought but be unable to be even minimally coherent, thus leading to all the words coming out in a jumbled heap of nonsense.

When that happens, I get even more flustered, which makes my voice go up at least one octave. And when that happens, I start thinking of the scene from 40 Year-Old Virgin in which Steve Carrell says that his girlfriend’s daughter, who’s having a total meltdown and becoming increasingly hysterical, sounds like a tea kettle. And then I get even more flustered, if that’s possible.

So, to prevent this generally wretched scenario from happening, I sometimes bust out the note cards and rehearse their content.

I vividly remember the first time I did this, too. It was the summer before I started 9th grade, and I liked a boy who’d been in my English class the previous year. We’d gotten all googly-eyed after dancing together at the spring formal at the end of the year, so I was very much in like. And, because I was a Sassy, Independent Young Woman Who Didn’t Think Traditional Gender Roles Did Anyone Any Favors (note: I maintain this stance), I decided to call him and ask him out.

I was wringing my hands about what to say when I called, and that’s when my dad suggested writing out what I wanted to say on a note card and rehearsing it a few times before picking up the phone. This was a brilliant idea!

I did just that, and although my hands were shaking when I picked up the phone in my parents’ basement (this was in pre-cell phone 1995, and I needed privacy in order to make this very important phone call), I got through it without sounding like a concussed tea kettle. And, not only that, but he said yes!

We never wound up actually going out, because our vacation schedules didn’t mesh and then I wound up changing schools, but still: NOTE CARDS AND REHEARSAL FTW, YOU GUYS.