Friday, November 8, 2013

Strangers in the Nail Salon

Yesterday morning was about an eight (out of ten) on the intensity scale, so naturally I found my way to a manicurist's chair before work in the afternoon.

Everyone has their own sanctuary. Luckily I have several, and one is the nail salon. The ones I go to are serene, clean, and quiet. And I'll be honest - freshly painted nails help me think clearly.

Around midway through my manicure I heard a woman walk into the salon. My back was to the entrance, but she was loud and noticeable. I mean, I noticed her. You couldn't not notice her.

She was going on and on about being a physician and not being comfortable in that space. "Give me the hospital! Give me an operating room! Give me my stethoscope!..." she kept repeating. It was weird. I was confused. I couldn't turn around to see the source of the voice, but I could see the other women in the salon looking at each other with those eyes. You know, the "who is this lady, is she for real?!" eyes. The partial eye roll, partial sideways glance. I know the look well.

This went on for a few minutes until, out of nowhere, she snapped at someone: I can wear my wedding rings on my right hand, okay! I can wear them how I want because my husband is divorcing me and I can do what I want! I can do what I want, okay? Don't tell me what to do!" 

Instantly, I felt nauseous. I couldn't see this woman's face, I had no idea who she was yelling at, but .. I got it. Things clicked.

I maneuvered my body to get a look at her and when I did, I felt even more nauseated. She was stunningly beautiful, poised, put-together, and looked ... I don't know ... regal? Maybe in my head I thought she'd look terrible. I figured she'd have mascara running down her face or something. But, no. Not a hair out of place. Not a drop of mascara beneath her soft almond eyes.

I listened to her go on and on throughout the rest of my mani. She trashed her husband, insisted that she made a huge mistake marrying him, didn't want to hear one single word about the fact that she was still wearing her rings because they were on her right hand, okay!? and then stated she was "super nervous" about walking a red carpet that night. It was such a bizarre confluence of predicaments.

I listened to this woman, this stranger. I watched the other women in the salon - ostensibly strangers to each other - giving one another looks, then nodding in her direction. Even the manicurists were gesturing to her and making faces, speaking in Vietnamese, perhaps trying to make sense of her. She seemed completely oblivious to it all.

My heart ached for this woman. I wanted to go up to her, ask if she needed a shoulder or a listening ear, see if I could help her in some way. Of course I didn't, because that would have been totally weird and invasive. Just as the nail salon is my sacred space, it was hers, too. Maybe she would have responded well, or maybe she would have smacked me across the face. Who knew?

I left the salon wondering, what was my obligation to this woman? Why did I feel compelled to talk to, protect, or help her? Why was I so invested in her well-being? Couldn't I have just ignored her, rolled my eyes along with the rest of the posse, or gone about my day just as oblivious to her as she appeared to be towards everyone else? The answer is no, obviously, because here I am blogging about it.

Kabbalistic Judaism teaches that we have a mythical, mystical group of people known as lamed-vavniks. The tradition goes as follows: there are 36 (in Hebrew, the number is lamed-vav) truly good souls roaming the earth. These tzadikim, or righteous individuals, are strangers. Not only to us, but to one another and to themselves. We don't know who they are or when they will appear to us; they too don't even know who they are! But they are here, and their role is to reveal the purpose of humanity through words and actions. Their purpose is to help make the world a better place.

It hit me when I was in that nail salon that this poor woman stuck in her own personal hell might actually be a lamed-vavnik. It was a bizarre thought to have. Truly. I can't remember the last time I thought about the lamed-vavnik tradition. I have no idea what religion this woman was, whether or not she cared about anything other than her jewelry or her soon-to-be ex-husband. All I had was that small picture onto her. And yet ... I was still thinking about it throughout the day. (And, coincidentally, my mentor SCR brought up lamed-vavniks in our meeting today)

It dawned on me that whether or not this woman was actually a righteous tzadik just having a really, really bad day or not, she was still human. And human beings sometimes get themselves into nasty situations, willingly or unwillingly. Sometimes they act out. Sometimes they don't. Occasionally they'll be open about why they're in such a dark place. Most of the time, they won't be.

What I had for this woman was empathy. I cared. I wanted to help. I wanted to give her a hug. Now, I don't think I'm some sort of tzadik myself for feeling, owning, and sharing that. Rather, the exchange got me to think about the hidden agendas and unknown identities of all those we encounter in our day-to-day lives. Perhaps the strangers we meet - those kind and gentle souls and those difficult, loud, hard-to-ignore ones, too - are in fact lamed-vavniks whose purpose is to usher in an age of peace, kindness, and goodness for all humanity. We'll never know.

But, in the meantime, we can certainly extend our own warmth, compassion, and kindness to them. For we never know what the impact of goodness can be.

Shabbat shalom to you and yours.

With love,

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