The other night, I was having a meandering conversation on the phone with my friend Katya, when I remembered something. “Oh! I have great news!” I said suddenly.
“What is it?” She sounded excited, likely anticipating an update on a writing project. But, no. My great news was not, in fact, mine. I told her about a kid that had stopped me on the street a few weeks ago and asked for help finding a job. It’s a longer story, which I am writing about elsewhere, but the essence is that, once I said to him, “Sure, I’ll help you,” the hunt for work became my side project. For three weeks, I kept receiving calls, nearly every one of which included him saying repeatedly, “Can you help me find a job?”
Though it took a while, eventually, after reaching out through friends-of-friends-of-friends, I did, in fact, find him work.
Katya said, “Suz, do you really have time for this?”
“Actually, helping him helped me,” I said. I meant it, explaining that, when I met him, I was feeling a lot of stress with my work. Thanks to inspiration provided by recent travels (wandering through medieval towns and historic chapels) I had become overwhelmed with creative ideas. My mind was racing. As often happens during these times, it’s not a single project I get taken with, but three. (Yes, three.) I know I’m lucky if one sees the light of day, yet I can’t ignore the all-out push. This is a perennial conundrum of mine: artistic inclinations, at least in the beginning, bring an unwieldy enthusiasm: vital, yes, but not so easy on the nervous system. When I met T, I hadn’t been sleeping.
His phone calls—and persistent request—had given me a purpose outside of myself, something I hadn’t realized I needed. Sleep returned. The whole experience was grounding.
“That’s true,” said Katya, sounding unconvinced.
“Actually, though, the best part is that he was so happy today,” I admitted. His voice, which had started to sound defeated in the last week, had become completely buoyant. “I am so happy!” He'd said it over and over, “So, so happy!”
His happiness became mine. I actually cried, and then cried again when I told Katya.
When I told this story to my friends S + D over the weekend, D, rolled his eyes and said, “Oh, great. Now I guess I have to go help someone to feel good.”
Funny, but also true. The line between giver and receiver is so fine.
Case in point: five years ago, I was in Park Slope, when I saw Matthew, a homeless man. I’d met Matthew a few years prior, through my friend Steven, who had been in the habit of buying Matthew a roasted chicken every Tuesday night. Matthew asked me about Steven, but I had no news. Steven and I fallen out of touch following his drug relapse. Though I didn’t mention Steven’s issues, Matthew said, “The last time I saw him, I was real worried. He didn’t look right. Will you tell him I’m thinking about him?”
That night, I emailed Steven: Matthew sends his regards.
Steven replied, Most people have friends in common like ‘Bob from the tennis club’ or ‘Laura from the local bar.’ But our mutual friend is ‘Matthew the homeless guy.’ What’s wrong with this picture?
I laughed, but the exchange belies a deeper truth: the current of connection, of mutual receptivity, is always active, moving quite vitally in two directions, whether we value this or not. A few years ago, I was bawling my eyes out on the subway when a gruff-looking man eating a burrito said softly, “I sure hope you feel better, lady.” While I can’t hear the word “lady” without thinking of Julianne Moore in this scene, I appreciated his kindness, more than he could know. A friend later commented, “Maybe your ache did him a favor.”
I don’t know about that, but it’s true that our stories, including our blip-on-the-radar-screen dramas and our exquisite, infinite joys, are constantly intersecting with the lives of others’, expanding (hopefully) our capacity for empathy, and, by extension, the ability to create original, authentic meaning in our own lives.
In this light, being of service is not necessary being "selfless," but sharing your true essence openly, however that may look. In the case of T, I happen to love making connections. He definitely asked the right person. I do so all the time, often unprompted. (I've even gone so far as to introduce people I've never even met, if I sense fertile ground for collaboration.) A friend once said, "If you could bottle that gift, you could make a million dollars." For me, though, the fun of making links (especially when it goes well) is, in itself, rich. For others, that essence could look like organization or research or making people laugh. There are so many ways to be open, to forge the link between the real you and the rest of the world--that's an art in itself, finding the right way to do so.
Many moons ago, I went to a wedding, where I didn’t know anyone. Not even the warm, gregarious crowd could puncture my shy mood. I spent most of the evening feeling awkward, until the reception, when the bride announced there was a costume chest she wanted everyone to pillage. In the chest, I found a short wig and old glasses, and mindlessly put them on. Once I got a glimpse of myself in the mirror, I had to laugh. I looked like Napoleon Dynamite. This absurdity was staying. As the night wore on, my wig and I became popular, very popular. A few months later, on a gloomy winter day, I emailed some friends and attached a photo of myself in the wig, saying, “I’m sure someone out there could use a laugh today. Here you go!” I’d sent it to my my mother, too, with the note, “This reminds me of your hair in the 80s!” (Her reply, I believe, was, “Thanks a lot.”)
The point is not giving to match convention, but giving in a way that feels good, joyous and above all real. Else, why do it?
Just before T got hired, his uncle called me. “Suzie, Suzie, you are helpful person. Can you help me get an apartment?”
I thought about it. Could I?
Then, I had to laugh. Actually, I did have the number of a really nice landlord.