I am a fan of helping people. For one thing, I feel that the notion of, “I did it all on my own” tends to be a fallacy. Somebody was nice enough to hire you for that first job which got you that savings account which helped you make money. (Then there are those folks that gave birth to you, fed you, and clothed you; trifling things to be sure.)
At the same time, I am a better person when I focus on the people around me and not myself. It gives other people the support that they are looking for while preventing me from adopting a self-centered view of the world. When you hear about your friends losing their job or having to move into a new place in two days, it puts the latest parking ticket that you earned into perspective.
The trouble with the above idea is that I tend to have a heroic urge to fix things. I like to swoop in, save the day, and make everything better thanks to my being there. It is nice when the boss trusts me to run her store when she is out of town. I liked knowing enough about theater operations to massage an extra person in our group of thirteen into the opening-night of Pitch Perfect 2. My lofty dream is that one day there will be a need for me to use my years of jogging to save the day. (I am not holding my breath on that one.)
My savior-complex can be downright silly. A friend once made up a task for me at her wedding because she was tired of my offering to help. I have a habit of surrounding myself with highly-competent friends. They really do not need my help in the day-to-day. If they did, they would ask.
This week has provided a few opportunities to curb my “fix-it all” nature. A friend was hitting a bump in the marriage road. Turns out navigating a tandem is a little more difficult than a simple 10-speed bike (complete with streamers in the handlebar and a pink basket on the handlebar). One of them is an introvert, the other likes to socialize with young crowds. One is on emotion-numbing medication, the other is feeling a little too much; like everything they do makes the other miserable. I am hardly a licensed therapist, counselor, or even a chemist. What do I have to contribute?
That same day I sat down with a fellow I have interacted with who is currently homeless. (I try to learn the names of people I regularly see that are homeless. It is a lot easier to sympathize with someone who even if you only have rudimentary connection with them.) I greet him by name whenever I see him, he does the same.
A few weeks ago I asked if there was anything specific that he needed. It is getting colder and rainier. Somebody should check in on this fellow. He mentioned a few things that would be nice to acquire, but he was quite clear that he did not want me to be obligated to get anything. A few days later, he asked if we could talk about his views.
So I left my friend, walked less than a block, and went looking for the fellow where he normally hangs out during the day. I found him seated at a table with his clothes drying and his garbage bags underneath the chairs. I asked if it was a good time and pulled up an empty seat.
I would not say that he is entirely normal, though it was a pleasant enough chat. He talked about his favorite movies (big David Lynch fan), past family interactions, and earthquakes. I brought up my dad, being a Quaker, and my desire to help others when possible. I have to admit that it was curious watching him and seeing his anxiety. When he came to a topic that he felt was personal, he would have to rub his arms and chest to keep from hyperventilating. He was aware of it, controlled it, and kept conversing. There was certainly nothing I could do to fix his genetic quirk.
His opinion, as I understood it, was that the natural disasters and state of our society were in direct coupling with how human beings were acting and how we were sinning. I offered up my alternative stance, that it rains on the just and unjust alike, but I did not feel the need to “set him straight” or make sure that my view “won” the conversation.
After that second chat I hopped on a crowded bus. As I stood there, squished and holding on to a handrail, I shut out the dozens of people around me and slipped into a more contemplative mode. I have never fully understood why my life is so blessedly simple while others have immense burdens heaped on them. It seems terribly unfair for me to have a good book, warm apartment, and adorable cat while others struggle with medications, poverty, and life’s’ many tragedies. I did a little praying for them, but continued to wish that I could fix their problems. That is, until I figured my answer to the dilemma.
Maybe when people you care about are having a hard time, all you really need to do is show up.
I know that was what my friend wanted when she invited me to her wedding. She is a savvy person who can plan things just fine without any help. She did not ask me to come because of what I could do. I was asked to come because she wanted my support– in the form of my attendance. I Just had to show up and be there for her on the special day.
My worried friend is well aware that I did not have any miraculous answers to her relationship. She wanted a friend to talk to. There was a solid span of time where the two of us did not talk. I did not feel it was needed and she did not have anything to say in that moment. Yet she had someone to sit beside and know that they were there just for her. Also, she is a tactile person, as am I, so we indulge in long hugging times.
The man who could be labeled as a transient was not desperately looking for a handout. At no time did he ask for money, food, or even the cup of coffee that I offered. He worried constantly about taking up too much of my time or talking too much. As far as I can tell, all he wanted was a conversation; an exchange of ideas. He was not looking for a fix for his situation, so much as a friendly visit.
I have heard Hell described as a state when one is completely and utterly alone. The worst punishment that jailers invoke in prison movies is making a prisoner be by themselves. “The Box”, “The Hole”, “Solitary”; it is a threat that carries many names. However it always carries that same threat of isolation.
If you have ever read Steinbeck’s, Of Mice and Men, then you already understand.
“’A guy needs somebody to be near him’. He whined, ‘A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got nobody. Don’t make no difference who the guy is, long’s he’s with you. I tell ya’, he cried, ‘I tell ya a guy gets too lonely an’ he gets sick’.”
Oh Crooks. I would only add one thing to his lament; it is even better if have the right person to be with. But yes, sometimes a stranger will do just fine. My cat does not talk much, though she is loyal. As I have typed all this, she has been quietly curled up on my lap. That is enough for me most days.
We who number in the billions cannot possibly be as lonely as it sometimes seems. When I know that those around me are not doing great? Well maybe that is the time for me to do the heroic thing and just show up for them.