I broke my ankle, and I am suffering. No, the injury’s not painful. Two minor fractures, two ruptured ligaments, and an inflamed tendon – but it doesn’t really hurt (unless you press this one spot just above the bone on the right side, in which case I will scream like a girl and jump three feet into the air, which is exactly what happened at the doctor’s today). And it is very difficult not to be able to walk, and to have to ice it every night and keep it elevated, and to keep explaining to my wife how it happened. But that’s nothing compared to the real suffering.
People are constantly nice to me, and I can’t stand it.
It’s my own fault. I had been engaging in a dangerous stunt, one I don’t recommend anyone else trying, given the serious consequences if not executed perfectly.
I stepped off a curb.
I was on my way to shul, I wasn’t walking fast, the curb wasn’t steep, there were no potholes, and I’ve stepped off curbs before. Dozens of them. But this time, my foot rolled, and I felt in that instant my ankle snapping and crunching and an explosion of pain, and next thing you know, I’m kneeling on the ground, wondering if I’m ever going to walk again, and trying to recall all the colorful expressions I’d sworn off many years ago.
That’s when two elderly ladies jogged by, stopped, and asked, “Can we help you, young man?”
Even as I looked up at them through a haze of throbbing agony, I thought, Wow, I’m actually living the expression, “Adding insult to injury.” So I politely said, “If I have to crawl all the way home using just my arms, there’s no way you’re helping me.” Actually, that’s not true. That’s what I thought. What I said was, “No, thanks, I’ll be fine,” and they jogged off.
They’re all being nice, and it makes me want to scream.
But I wasn’t fine. The doctor diagnosed all that damage and said not to put any weight on the injured foot. None. Then he put me in an immobilizing boot, and gave me crutches. Have you ever used crutches? It’s an interesting experience. You tuck them under your arms, press down on the handles with your hands, slightly lift your body and swing it forward till your good foot lands, push off with that foot while swinging both crutches forward, and repeat. Repeat? I can repeat that maybe 10 times before I have to rest. Did you catch the part about lifting your body and swinging it forward? I don’t know about you, but I don’t weight 20 pounds. It’s hard! And after a while, your hands are sore, your underarms ache, all the muscles you’ve never used before are complaining, you’re sweating and muttering and looking around for savages carrying a litter that you can hop on to.
But I was soon to discover this was not the worst of it.
People actually get out of my way as I clump down the street on the crutches. Women hold the door open for me as I approach my office building. Security guards offer to hold my backpack when I’m faced with the three steps up to the lobby. They’re all being nice, and it makes me want to scream.
I don’t want the help – though I’m grateful for it. I want to be independent. I want to be self-sufficient. I want to be the one helping. “Let me do that for you,” says the young lady, pressing the elevator button for me. “Here, I’ll get that,” says the intern, picking up an envelope I’ve dropped, in the moment while I’m trying to figure out how to pick it up when I can’t bend down and be certain that if I did I could get up again. “Need any help?” asks the senior executive with kind eyes, as I enter the bathroom.
“Back off, sister!” I scream at the young lady. “No!” I yell at the intern, swinging a crutch at his head. “I’m fine!” I shout at the executive, elbowing past him to the stall, knocking him into the wall.
Okay, I didn’t do any of that. But I felt like it.
I’ve talked to others (not just my therapist) about this, and they agree that being on the receiving end of charity is painful. We’re hardwired to dislike it. Jewish thought asserts that we can understand God by looking at ourselves. Well, God is the ultimate giver. Being an absolute unity and perfect, He doesn’t need anything. Therefore anything He does in this world is for our benefit. If our goal in life is to perfect ourselves and be like God, then we should embrace giving and balk at taking.
Not surprisingly, Jewish law supports this philosophical stance. The highest form of charity, according to Maimonides, is to provide for a person’s self-sufficiency so he never comes to need a handout, or to provide a loan, or at least to provide help anonymously. Leviticus mentions two laws for farmers that do just this. One is the mitzvah of pe’ah, which requires that the corners of a field be left standing so that those in need can harvest for themselves; the other is the mitzvah of leket, which requires that ears of grain that fall during harvesting must be left over for those in need. The common denominator is preservation of the recipient’s dignity.
In fact, the whole world is set up for us to earn our way. Yes, God provides a few measly basics like our lives and free will and sunlight and air, but we have to do most of the work. If we’ve done a good job, we’ll feel a sense of accomplishment at the end of our lives.
All of which helps explain why I’m not having a ball right now.
I’m trying to see all this as God putting me in a position to give other people the opportunity to do the mitzvah of kindness. It doesn’t always work. Today, the doctor told me I could begin putting weight on my foot. Hooray! But I still need a cane to navigate stairs and inclines. Finally able to take the subway, I limped onto the Q train, and immediately a pregnant woman jumped up to offer me her seat. Haven’t I suffered enough? But I said no thank you, I would normally be offering a seat to you. The men in the car didn’t offer me a seat, didn’t even make eye contact – they knew the code and wouldn’t risk compromising another guy’s manhood. Or it could be they were just heartless jerks. Jury’s out.
So I’m looking forward to a complete recovery, putting the psychic pain behind me, and taking a break from complaining.
The good news is, after reading this, no one’s going to be nice to me.