I know that the quote, “Hell is other people”, has been incorrectly interpreted to mean that other people are the worst, and you should hide yourself in a dark, lonely room so that you don’t have to put up with them. Of course, this quote comes from the1944 existentialist play by French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called No Exit. The actual quote refers to three people in a play who are trapped in a single room-which for them is Hell. However, for me this misquotation is sometimes pretty much on target. And that is because there are more than a few moments in my everyday interactions where I do feel like…Hell is other people. Welcome to my life as an introvert in a post COVID world. I think before COVID, I was simply a closeted introvert (yes, an ironic phrase). In fact, I would do almost anything I could in order to distance myself from the feeling of wanting to hide in a dark, lonely room, after interactions with people from outside of my comfort zone (which is a large percentage of humanity).
Feeling like an introvert is confusing because it isn’t an all or nothing game. Put me in front of an audience with a few hundred people and I am fine. In fact, I am more comfortable in that kind of “intimate-non intimate” situation than anywhere else. Sit me down in a one-on-one deep conversation and I can enjoy this moment for hours. But five minutes of small talk at a conference and I am the definition of a cognitive behavioral meltdown consumed by my own automatic negative thoughts. My wife on the other hand has some kind of strange superpower, she is like the Gal Gadot of small talk, where she effortlessly flits from one conversation to another smiling and talking about interesting things. Unfortunately for me, when I am in synagogue and the motzei lechem prayer is recited over the challah, signaling the communal meal, all I hear is “let the small talk begin” and this is when I am toast.
I am hesitant to write this but sometimes these awkward social moments which almost always involve small talk (and other similar tortures) make me miss the pandemic. Because in truth the pandemic allowed me to actualize my full potential as the introvert that I never wanted to be… but always was. The lack of social pressure that came with COVID was at times a form of heavenly relief. Lines like, “I guess we can’t invite anybody over for Shabbat dinner because of the pandemic,” filled me with a sense of alleviation knowing that dinner would only be our family in our pajamas. I sometimes felt this was a guilty pleasure because while there was a horrible worldwide pandemic taking place, I was kind of enjoying the situation. And I couldn’t very well post on Facebook: “Loving this pandemic, hoping not to see you too soon.”
Like so many others during COVID I too had decided to go back to school and found myself studying on Zoom. Here I was in the comfort of my own home, wearing my sweats and those ugly Israeli slippers, drinking coffee in front of my computer screen, and loving it. I envisioned myself as the Kotzker Rebbe who was said to never have left his room for the last twenty years of his life or Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai the sage in the Talmud who hid in a cave from the Romans for thirteen years. These were now my heroes of Jewish introversion. However, Bar Yochai eventually left the cave and even the Kotzker rebbe must have left his room from time to time. And as things turned out, I too needed to go back to school in person. After studying in a program on Zoom with the same people for over a year and a half, one can only imagine arriving in the physical classroom. There I was met with an unbearable number of hugs, a plethora of tears and worst of all non-stop kissing. It was like my own personal Jean-Paul Sartre play…truly with “No Exit”.
And yet as the pandemic has been receding, something interesting has begun to happen. I am slowly beginning to see that after two years of intense isolation off and on, I did not magically become an extrovert out of gratitude for the reopening of society. Rather I have simply begun to embrace and accept this introverted part of me with both its advantages and disadvantages. In fact, the pandemic had given me both the time and the space to observe these anxious thoughts as they arose, the emotions they brought up and the behavior that resulted from these interpretations. In a way the pandemic served as a form of exposure therapy. By allowing me to experience the ultimate form of isolation and somewhat enjoy it, I realized that Hell doesn’t have to be other people, being an introvert is just a part of who I am. And with that I think I may have found my Exit……