How to Train Your Wife

1.5       Yose ben Yohanon, of Jerusalem, taught:

Open wide the doors of your home and make the poor welcome as members of your household; do not engage in small talk with your wife. (Now if this be true for one’s wife, how much more does it apply to the wife of a friend! Our sages derived a lesson from this: One who engages in small talk with his wife harms himself; he will neglect the study of Torah and in the end will inherit Gehenna.)

I’m like, Huh—what?

So I’m tempted to say this one’s worth skipping since I will never have a wife, so it doesn’t apply, but if I’m truly to learn anything (and I hope I’ve already learned something), I have to realize that even the most far-out teachings can still have a lesson hidden somewhere in them for everyone. Going back to the precepts we began with a month ago: Be cautious in your decisions.

I guess a good place to start would be the end: Gehenna. For those unaware (and I’m only half aware, so I’m a marginally reliable resource), Gehenna is similar, at least as I can gather from Wikipedia, to a kind of purgatory, or spiritual place of purification for the dead, where the wicked go after death to spend twelve months being purified, or else being utterly destroyed.

Good outlook, eh?

All for small-talking your wife.

Guess that brings us back to the beginning. Open wide your doors…or, really? In today’s world? I’d rather not. But at the same time, we can always be welcoming without endangering ourselves. We should volunteer places where we can safely help the poor as members of our “greater household,” members of the same community and same species, the same planet even. We can go to soup kitchens, outreach centers, anywhere! And to truly open our doors, we can treat everyone as equals. No squeamishness, no uneasiness, no withholding handshakes for the fear of the person whose hand we’d be shaking. Having open doors can be as much a frame of mind as it can be an actual action. Treating all with dignity and respect sums it up nicely.

So now we have wives. Or some of, at least. Ha ha ha. I feel like hiding now.

But hoping the danger of that comment has passed, I’ll return for the time being.

So. Gotta love that word. As a proud introvert, I can attest to the horrors of small talk. Perhaps an example is due? This’ll be fun. Let’s observe a typical conversation:

Me: Good afternoon. I’m Darren.
Them: It’s nice to meet you. I’m Them. (This is all make-believe, alright?) How are you?
Me: I’m good, thank you. And how are you?
Them: Good, good, thank you.

Two hours later.

Me: Really? That’s fascinating.
Them: Thank you. What’s your major again?
Me: Oh, I’m majoring in math.
Them: Really? That’s fascinating.
Me: Thank you.

It’s painful to read. It’s excruciating to experience. And worse than all of that, it’s condescending. It reduces all of us, and everything really, to a shallow accumulation of bare facts. We, as individuals, are reduced to meager helpings of silt, nutrient-rich surface details that wash away only to be replenished again and again. They might seem like they serve a purpose—and in the scheme of things, they sometimes do—but it’s the same cycle time and again, and no matter how enjoyable it can be on occasion, what it all comes down to is erosion.

Small-talk erodes us away. It scrapes us until there’s nothing left.

Of course, that’s the paradox: All these details seem like they’re everything, but since they go no deeper than the surface of the surface, they’re closer to dead skin cells than to what’s really on the inside.

This is where I scrap the wives. Not literally (though it wouldn’t bother me personally, I suppose), but figuratively, in the sense that if we take Merriam-Webster’s definition of “a female partner of marriage” and expand “female” to include “male” and understand marriage in its loosest sense of any enduring partnership, such as Merriam-Webster’s third definition as “an intimate or close union,” then we can take this rather narrow context and expand it exponentially to mean anyone in our lives who is in our lives more than just in passing.

I almost feel like I could restate this better mathematically. However, I won’t.

What I’m trying to say is the excruciating experience of small-talk is not something we should inflict upon anyone close to us (and since we’re in that “open doors” frame of mind, this means everybody). If being in this so-called mindset is equivalent to treating others with respect and dignity as I’ve proposed before, then it’s worth realizing that small-talk, by its very nature, undermines all of this. How can we respect someone if all we do is erode away their lives? How can we treat someone with dignity if all we take interest in is their surface material?

It’s hard to let people in. It’s hard to “big talk” and get deeper than what’s on the surface. Oftentimes, situations don’t even allow for it. But there’s a difference, I think, between treating someone like a shrink and letting it all come out and just being sincere about yourself. Add a little emotion. Add a little personality. Small-talk doesn’t have to be small if you’re sincere about it. Think of it like this: Instead of letting others in, you’re letting yourself out.

Imagine the dialogue from before, this time “enlarged” just a little bit:

Them: What’s your major again?
Me: Oh, I’m majoring in math.
Them: Really? That’s interesting. How’d you decide that?
Me: It wasn’t intentional. I had a really good math teacher and she made me fall in love with it. Once it all made sense, I just couldn’t get enough.
Them: Now that’s amazing. Me and math? Not so much.
Me: That’s what I used to think, too. And look at me now? A math major!

Queue laughing and further discussion.

Much less painful, right? In a sense, it’s the same thing, but in reality, it’s so much more. A little bit of feeling, a little bit of honest sincerity, and it’s something entirely different.

Back to the basics: Wives are close to us. At least, one should hope spouses are close, or that they never got married in the first place. But by expanding this as I suggested, we’re not diminishing the importance of who we’re small-talking. On the other hand, I’m saying how important it is to avoid small-talk all together. If you live with someone, or see them every day, or work with them five days a week, then you want a good relationship with them. You have to open up to them and show a little of your inner self. To small-talk them undermines both of you. It condemns you to a fate as bad as hell. Is that not cause enough to be a little more sincere? To open your doors just a little wider? I think so.

(Title in reference to this article by Amy Sutherland in the NY Times.)

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