Why I Dislike Likening

Above view of unrecognizable businesswomen discussing in a cafe.We’ve aLL HEARD people who have endured misfortune complain that certain well-meaning souls do more to annoy them by relating their own or an associate’s experience that bears nominal relevance to that of the “captive audience”: “I know what you’re going through.”

Actually, you don’t because you lost a six-week gestational embryo while your captive audience is burying his one true love in life. The death of a loved one is experienced uniquely by the individual. One who loses a loved one simultaneously loses a portion of his or her own future that was to include that specific baby, spouse, parent, sibling, best friend, etc. You had different life aspirations that included different people—not the loved one of your captive audience. You are bereft different hugging arms, adoring eyes, and the never-again-to-be-heard familiar voice.

“My aunt died of [the same illness that afflicts the captive audience,]” Granted, certain diseases carry higher published mortality rates, but not everyone who gets those diseases dies within short order, and not everyone who dies had that specific illness. Multiple illnesses in the same general category manifest differently in individuals, as does the efficacy of treatments. One afflicted with a version of the illness may be rendered disabled and eventually die, while another person with the “exact same” version may survive robustly for years.

“I thought my life was over after my divorce.” That was your experience. I finally slept an entire night, no longer tortured by the cognitive dissonance that the last few years of my first marriage wreaked on my psyche.

I am not writing as a curmudgeon who sees herself as Appointed Corrector of the World; rather I am coming forward as a penitent who has caused others suffering through my own lack of judgment in interacting with those who are hurting. I ashamedly recall a night when a family member took me to task for saying the wrong thing to another family member who was upset. My captive audience was very unhappy with her daughter’s choice of husband, whom the daughter was to wed the next day. I blithely told my captive audience, “You’re gaining a son!” As I still cringe at my own stupidity, I would like to believe I would never utter such inane drivel these 30 years later. I just knew, my captive audience was in tears, and I felt I had to say “something.”

The tendency to over-relate is, in my view, borne of a need to connect to other humans in a positive way that builds or reinforces relationships.

In one recent memory, I think I was the love child of Dumb and Dumber. For the second time, I visited a local Holocaust memorial museum. My first visit, more than a decade beforehand, revealed a Jewish-focused tour. My mother’s extended family was exterminated in Hitler’s death camps, while my former husband—a child of survivors—was raised by parents whom the Nazis robbed of their youth, not to mention their parents, grandparents, siblings and, in the case of my late former father-in-law, his first young wife and two small sons.

My second, recent visit left me more than horrified, but not for the reason you might think. No, the horror was not in more archived records of the camps where the dead and near-dead were caught on film. The shoes and artwork of the children who perished did not send me home in a fit of pique.

Instead, it was the words of a young tour guide who squired around a group of teenagers.

As I passed the tour guide, I heard him advise the group, “Try to relate the Jewish Holocaust to a struggle in your own experience—like the Women’s Movement.”

One might first discount the likelihood that the teens experienced the Women’s Movement, given that they were not conceived, let alone born, as their grandmothers, mothers, aunts, and teachers struggled for equal pay and child care benefits.

The tour guide was not malicious or harshly insensitive toward Jews; he clearly had no sense of the enormity of the Holocaust. Yes, other groups besides Jews were targeted. But to analogize the Holocaust with the Women’s Movement just to make the former more “understandable” does not serve that intent.

Being denied equal pay for the same work is not the same thing as being marched naked through the woods, mowed down by gunfire, being interred in a mass grave, or having a diabolical “doctor” experiment on one’s body as the victim agonizes until his or her last tortured breath. It just isn’t.

If any of the misled teens followed the guide’s suggestion, they would have been denied a better understanding of the Holocaust than one can obtain from a museum tour. Also, remember that the tour group was old enough to absorb the subject, however disturbing. If you think otherwise, get a load of the stuff teens watch—with their parents’ permission—on TV and in the movies. For better or worse, they have a tolerance for assault on their sensibilities.   In this case, it is for meaningful educational purposes.

My late mother, though American born and college-educated, would speak a few Yiddish words to me when we were in public when she wanted to convey something negative about my behavior. The two words, zug nisht, literally mean, “say not” or “don’t say.”

Thing is, I can’t just zug nisht without appearing cold or disinterested. I am neither of those things, but I am self-conscious about saying the wrong thing or asking the wrong question. I know what it feels like when I am the captive audience.

Although I am a penitent, I am an imperfect penitent. Having endured others’ irrelevant analogies, I now proactively, assiduously avoid offering my own. Rather than to just “zug nisht,” I zug nisht my medical, marital, family, professional, and other personal experiences, no matter how much like theirs it seems. I tell them I care for them and then let them know that they are free to tell me as much as they want, and whatever they say is completely private and confidential.

Under the heading of “zug nisht,” I also avoid detailed questions that the captive audience might not wish to answer. “Did you make it to the hospital before your brother drew his last breath?” “Did your husband recognize you before he passed?” “Did you get to hold the baby while she was still alive?” “Did you lose the house?” “Did she cheat on you?”

I think that some of the people who ask those questions are not after information that would simply put them “in the know”; rather, they have gone through a nominally relevant experience and want to comfort the captive audience and/or, themselves, by likening their respective situations through certain similarities.

Ellen Fischer is a contributing writer to Jlife magazine.

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