I just finished reading first installment of ‘Nowhere But Here’, published on The Observer website. (I guess I am one of the few males who reads it online… even after graduating). It was a very interesting piece, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.
I have a question regarding your story about getting a nose ring. You mentioned that the motivation to do so was to make others reconsider the mold they had instinctively put you in when seeing your skirt, your hair, or the name of your seminary. You wanted to force them to think “Wait, the nose ring doesn’t fit my preconceived notion… who is this woman?” You wanted to prove to others that you cannot be known, understood, by a mere once-over. I question that notion.
As much as we try to avoid them, labels are good. When young high school students (or maybe their parents) decide which seminary or yeshiva to attend, they do so by looking for the one that is the “right fit” for them. They want to go to an institution of learning where the teachers and classes will espouse a type of thinking that they believe in and to which they are comfortable committing a year or more of their life. (Many of them may decide to- gasp- not go to Israel. Let’s not forget that label.) The same is true when a person decides to identify as Modern Orthodox or Yeshivish, Conservative or Reform, or even whether to attend YU or Secular College. Our choices carry a lot of weight. They define us.
Allow me, if you will, to ask a personal question. (You did say you wanted this column to be a conversation, one in which I hope alumni can participate.) When you were thinking of getting a nose ring, was it because people were making assumptions about you based on your clothing and seminary that were false, or were those assumptions perhaps a little too accurate for comfort? Was it possible that maybe you fit into that mold too well, and you didn’t like that? Maybe you personally didn’t feel that way, but I am sure many do, that they fit too well into a certain “type” of person.
But here is the truth- that is not a bad thing. There are very few people in your life who will truly know you. A person who has one true friend is lucky. I know that is hard to believe in today’s day of 1,000 plus “friends” on Facebook. But truthfully, though, only your closest friend(s) will actually know who you are, what drives you, what kind of person you are. Everyone else will only have a basic idea.
When you arrived at the gate for your flight to Berlin you thought it was not going to be a very “social” trip. (By the way, was I the guy eating Oreos? I’m pretty sure I was already sleeping on the floor when you got there.) You were then pleasantly surprised. But was that because you had read everybody incorrectly? Or because, despite the fact that you had read us all correctly, even though we were all coming from different places, that didn’t stop us from enjoying each other’s company? It is very difficult to really get to know somebody. Until we take that time to understand someone, we rely on labels. Labels that often work.
You raise some incredibly important points and distinctions in your response, most notably regarding the importance of judging others. Judgment has a time and place, and judging others is a rudimentary part of self-definition.
However, I would like to make a distinction between judging others out of insecurity, and judging others out of the healthy human need to self-differentiate. The litmus test: how you respond to the other. If you respond to the other with fear, resentment, or an attitude of self-righteousness, you have chosen to view another as a threat, judging her to protect your fragile sense of self. If you judge another but are still able to respond to her with respect, dignity, and a willingness to reassess, you are judging others out of a place of security and necessity.
In response to your questions: the problem with judging, labeling, and stereotyping, despite its critical evaluative role, is that it inhibits you from seeing someone else as a complex unit. Both your questions regarding the reasons I personally considered a nose ring and my initial assumptions at the flight gate, presuppose that I, and my trip-mates, fit into one, delineated mold. Your questions ask if this ‘model’ proved true or false.
While it is a good question, I think it overlooks an important part of my message. What I advocate for in this piece, and in my life, is breaking out of this true/false, accurate/inaccurate way of looking at people, and at life. When you allow yourself to appreciate the nuances in another human being, the combination of good and bad that so uniquely characterizes us all, labels begin to dim. The question, “who am I” and, sequentially, “who is another” begins to stipulate less rigid confines.
Judgment results from comparison: how does this person measure up to what I think he/she should be. How does this person measure up to who I am. Appreciation of another brings along no measuring tape. You are able, instead, to simply enjoy another human being, presupposition free.
I hope my response was able to answer some of your questions, and address some of the important points you raised. I deeply appreciate your response, and encourage future writers and thinkers to speak up as well!