Several years ago, during the dawn of the Social Media Age, I ran into someone I knew ever-so slightly from the blogging circuit at one of the nerd conferences people on blogging circuits tend to run into each other at. A kind of a celebrity-hero of early Web 2.0, albeit an accessible one.
Many of us were new to the internets back then, but I was also a neophyte in the ways of networking. As I got out from behind my keyboard, along with the introverts, freaks and social misfits I’d been expecting, I also discovered these odd hybrids: pseudo-nerds, or nerd-friendlies, who in their previous, pre-Internet lives had picked up the interpersonal skills I’d somehow managed to avoid acquiring in over 40 years as a human being. These people were upbeat and genial and welcoming, and I always sank gratefully into their company. They knew what to say and what to do; they were able to move through the world with at least outward confidence while putting other people at ease.
So of course I paid attention to the things they did and said, absorbing and parsing constantly: What things did they inquire about? What things did they offer up? How did they introduce mutual acquaintances? Or new topics? Or sustain a conversation? Or exit one?
It was exhausting, but useful.
I began engaging people this way myself, with…unusual results. My heartbeat would speed up. I’d feel dizzy, like the world got wobbly or a haze suddenly descended. It was a little unnerving, sure, but I wrote it off as inexperience, change is hard!, and resolved to try, try again.
Which is where I was at when I finally met my kind-of celebrity/hero: nervous, but trying. Awkward, but trying. I screwed my courage to the sticking point and said “hello.” Clearly not one for small talk, he generously put up with my wobbly attempts at it. Until finally, when I had wandered so far of the res of my own groundedness that the room was practically spinning around me, I asked the question that was so foreign to me just the thought of saying it could trigger an out-of-body experience:
“So, (Celebrity-Hero of Web 2.0), tell me: What can I do to help you?”
Whereupon he sighed, rolled his eyes, and said, “Seriously? ‘What can I do to help you?’ Seriously? This isn’t you. What are you doing?”
I froze. And then two things happened.
First, I wanted to disappear. Because I was humiliated and angry and humiliated. This produces in me an urge to make everything go away, starting with myself.
Second, I wanted to throw my arms around his neck and kiss him. Because he was right, and I was free. I never had to ask that stupid fucking question again as long as I lived.
* * * * *
Before the rock-hurling and/or tribal shunning commences, let me make myself very clear: helping is a good thing. I am pro-helping. I help people; you help people; Celebrity-Hero of Web 2.0 helped (and probably still helps) people. We’d better all be helping each other, or every last one of us is doomed.
There’s also nothing wrong with asking what you can do to help someone, if that is what it takes for you to really help someone. Asking is a marvelous way to gather useful intelligence with which to shape your loving and generous impulses. I mean, who hasn’t gotten a crappy graduation gift from Uncle Fritz, right? Or attended a pot luck with four desserts and no casserole?
Where it gets tricky is when the helping is “helping”: asking how you can help as your secret judo way of soliciting it for yourself, or asking when you have zero intention of following through. This is the kind of “helping” that gives helping a bad name, and unfortunately, it’s as rampant as hollow, meaningless inquiries into the state of one’s health.
Additionally, let me say that the first two people I heard ask me this question meant it. 100%. Short of my asking for a pony or other unrealistic deliverable, they would have agreed and come through (and possibly never asked for anything else, ever.) Both of them are people who are much in the world, who have exceptionally large hearts and energy to match. They are hardy. They are robust. If they have hidden agendas, they’re being served with scraps from the main table. It works for them.
I, on the other hand, don’t work that way. And by that I mean I seem to shrivel up with too much giving, the same way I do if I have too much social interaction. I have to be judicious in my offers of help if I want to make good on them, which I do, if only because violating Agreement #1 makes me feel so rotten. So I am careful about how I offer help, and to whom, and when. It is not as much as some people would like, and it is even less than that on Twitter.
Do I wish I could do more? Oh, yes.
I also wish that I could be 5’9″, eat anything, and sing like Ella Fitzgerald. I don’t think those are going to happen anytime soon, either.
* * * * *
People love to make a great noise about the importance of hewing to your path. There is a fair amount of literature out there on the noble struggle involved. But rarely do we get into the gruesome details of how doing your own thing will make you feel on a day-to-day basis.
Like crazy, for starters. Alone and crazy. Mean and crazy. Selfish and crazy. Stupid and crazy. Wrong and crazy.1
Part of the reason you feel these things is because people will intimate that you are these things, if they don’t say it outright. Most of the time they do this because it makes them feel less crazy, less alone, less mean and selfish and stupid and wrong and fallibly human. On a good day, I can get down with this and even approach something I suspect might be what compassion feels like. On an average day, I rise to the bait, real or implied, and beat myself up. (On a bad day, I attack…and then beat myself up.)
The other part of the reason is the always-on, 24/7, city-that-never-sleeps effect of the Internet. That thing that brought you together with fellow travelers whose existence you only dreamed of before Usenet or AOL.com or whatever point you plugged into the matrix can also make you feel very alienated from the rest of the world. Here, someone is always up, always happy, always shipping. It’s a dangerous place for comparing insides (yours) to outsides (theirs) and subsequent mimicry. It gets loud up in this bee-yotch.
* * * * *
Right now, I am liking this definition of help: love, externalized. Love in motion, love in action. One reason I like it is that it takes help out of the land of tit-for-tat transactions. I grew up with both plenty of love and plenty of help, possibly more than my fair share, but trust me, a strict accounting was kept at all times.
Today, I am having fun, actual FUN, noticing how help flows out and shows up. As free guest rooms and rides to the airport. As secretly-picked-up tabs and comped coffees. As database advice and emotional support, as quiet letters and cheery introductions, as tomatoes and tips, as labor and hilarious jokes. Maybe someone with a very, very high up view could make sense of this strange economy, but down here, it starts to look like magic.
Am I done forever with mutual backscratching? Probably not. I wouldn’t even say there’s not a place for it, again, my view is myopic and low to the ground.
But I am increasingly in love with the idea of love flowing from each of us according to our abilities, and to each of us according to our needs. This is the kind of help I want to give and to get: love, communist style.
I think it can happen in business. I think it can happen on Facebook. I think it could make for an amazing world to live in, if can let each other let each other.
If I can let myself be myself.
This piece was inspired in part by an incredibly helpful and well-written little book by Bindu Wiles about how to write for the Internet. Yes, really. As I read it, I kept saying “Yup” and “Yup” and finally, “Well, I guess now I don’t have to write an incredibly helpful book about writing for the Internet; Bindu already done did it.” And it’s yours for the price of an email address. See? Helpful.
1And I’m not talking about the big things you might be called “crazy” for, like leaving a marriage that isn’t working, or quitting a good job to go out on your own, or sailing across the ocean on a sandwich bag. Do something that’s big enough and people will at least applaud your audacity while they call you crazy. As with most things, the devil is in the details. Boring, stupid, unseen, important daily details.