For college, I attended a small liberal arts school whose introduction I always preface with “you’ve probably never heard of it,” and then I tell them the name of the school (Truman State University, very formerly Northeastern Missouri State University) and I watch as their expression tells me that yes, they have indeed never heard of it.
And why would they have? This little gem of an institution is nestled in the middle of absolutely nowhere Missouri (Kirksville, population 17,505), reachable only by two-lane highway, that staple of rural life. Woe to the student stuck behind a tractor or other slow-moving vehicle, for there are large swaths of road where the yellow line is only double, and there shall be no passing for a good long while.
The campus was gorgeous, full of serious-looking brick buildings, enticing green spaces and its own legend and lore (The gum tree! The sunken garden where you might just get proposed to someday!).
The main reason I ended up at Truman State, besides its picturesque campus and excellent academic reputation, was because I got a music scholarship and it was free. Free is good. Free is actually great.
The downside (and also upside) of attending such a small school was that I ended up with basically no competition, and as a freshman I found myself the principal clarinet of both the wind symphony (that’s a group of woodwinds, brass and percussion, no strings) and the orchestra (I’m gonna assume you know what that is).
One obvious benefit to being the first chair was that I got a lot of experience playing juicy solos, and that is a lot of fun. One downside that I didn’t realize at the time was that the lack of competition made it incredibly easy to get lazy, and also to become an absolute ego monster. Always being number one lends itself to the belief that I was, you know, better than everyone else.
Due to an implosion of my personal life, I left school during the middle of the first semester of my sophomore year. When I eventually returned to Truman, at the beginning of my junior year of college, I wasn’t able to just mosey back into my plum position. I regained first chair in the Wind Symphony fairly quickly, but the orchestra director chose to keep someone else in the principal position. I had to play second clarinet (typically a thoroughly unexciting experience).
Now, I didn’t initially begrudge him that decision. I had, after all, left in the middle of the semester rather abruptly and then returned with blue hair and a fervent, if somewhat superficial, dedication to a punk lifestyle. I was a bit of a wild card. I don’t know what I would have done with me.
The problem, well, one of the problems, is that the poor girl who was now sitting principal wasn’t, well, as good as I was. She would make mistakes on the solos that I knew I could play with my eyes closed. And I had to sit and listen to pieces I was dying to play be played badly.
The catty atmosphere of the orchestra didn’t help. One of the trombone players would regularly tsk tsk to me that it was so clear that I should be principal and not her. Ditto with the bassoon player. Really, though, it’s not like it took a lot of egging on to push me over the edge.
Righting this wrong became an obsession. I would practice the solos, her solos, during warm-up or break (this is not a nice thing to do, don’t do this). I would note how she wore lipstick to a performance and give her such side-eye, long before I had ever even heard of side-eye.
I would focus solely on her flaws. Her flaws as a clarinetist, sure, but I didn’t stop there. Everything about her was fair game. Her personality, her taste in clothing, her social life. I openly referred to her as my nemesis, my arch-enemy.
Looking back it’s so painfully clear how horrible I was being. How unbalanced, immature, petty, and many many other unflattering adjectives. But at the time it was so obvious to me. I was the hero, she was the villain.
After I became frum and looked back at this part of my life, the shame I felt at my behavior became motivation for me to never be so awful again.
While I think (I hope??) that I have worked on myself enough to not suck so much, the hero/villain mentality has lingered for certain challenging experiences.
Maybe you know how it is, when telling a story about some difficult situation, one that was challenging and frustrating and maybe even a little unbelievably ridiculous, there’s a tendency to gloss over some areas of the story that maybe don’t paint me in the best light and maybe shine a really, really bright and unflattering light on the areas of the story that highlight the other person’s inherent badness.
The idea of venting about a frustrating situation (in a halachically appropriate way guys, don’t freak) is usually to provide some sort of relief or empathy, or, if you’re lucky, advice. Some situations, though, are beyond advice and just require support.
It’s more satisfying to get support and empathy for a situation in with there is a plainly good side and a bad side. Where right and wrong are clearly and cleanly delineated.
“Can you believe her?”
“Who does that?”
“What was he thinking?”
I had a chilling thought recently, though, which was: What if I am the villain in the story of the people who I always considered my villains? It’s not like I’m doing anything particularly villainous, not like I was back in my college years with that poor clarinetist (I’m so sorry Allison, wherever you are), but that doesn’t mean that my actions aren’t viewed as villainous to someone else, even if it’s inadvertent villainy.
Or to put it in a different context, I can’t predict when Hashem might use me as a shaliach for growth for someone else through some thoughtless or insensitive or awkward thing that I do.
That shifts the whole hero/villain paradigm for me. Because the characters in my life who I might have chosen to view as villainous in a way that made it emotionally easier for me to process, they were, and are, really just vehicles for my growth.
Listen, I’m going to keep trying to grow and grow so that I will hopefully not be other people’s villain, that I will hopefully only be a vehicle of growth through positivity and not pain.
If I can internalize this, maybe the growing pains won’t sting quite as badly, and perhaps instead of seeing a villain, I’ll see another human being, someone who maybe is very flawed, who I might not want to have much to do with, but who is human nonetheless.