I have a big, altruistic family. My parents are big believers in the way that love multiplies, rather than dividing, when you lavish care and attention on a wide circle of people. Throughout my life, this has included family, old friends, guests, church members, foster children, and friends of friends who needed a bed for a night, or a week, or maybe a few months.
To accommodate this wide network of needs, I became independent at a young age. By fifth grade, I was managing my own homeschooling. I learned that the one person who would always come through for me was myself. And I proved that to myself again and again, through moves, mental illnesses, classes, jobs, and years. I didn’t report to anyone else about what homework I had, or when I was sleeping, or who I was talking to. I was my own manager.
In adulthood, I came to realize that I didn’t always prefer being my own manager. Often, I felt more free and more powerful when I was sharing my mental load with someone else. This was new. I had never really believed before that someone else would worry about the same things I worried about, just because I was worrying about them. I didn’t know that someone else could care about my problems.
The feeling was addictive. I did my best to model what I wanted from others, hoping for reciprocity. I tried to love to the point of overfilling, so the people I loved would have room to give some of that focused, attentive caring back to me. Eventually, I discovered the joy of sharing daily life with people who proactively care for you. Sharing my life with someone I could count on felt like playing on easy mode. Everything got less complicated. The math didn’t add up: every time I shared a problem, we both ended up doing less total work. I began to see why my parents had gotten invested in so many people’s problems. The return on that investment was mathematically magical.
But during the self-isolation phase of the pandemic, all my lone ranger tendencies returned. I didn’t want to bother anyone during This Trying Time, so I tried harder than ever to need no one. Intensely lonely, I still couldn’t figure out how to talk to my roommate, so I spent the pandemic in my room, working on my laptop in bed or sitting in my window or watching theater bootlegs. I felt enormous guilt about the help I did seek, from grocery workers and delivery people. I overtipped aggressively, which is always a good idea but didn’t really help with the guilt.
Post-vaccination, I find myself, again, relearning how to need other people and make them feel comfortable needing me. I feel like a newborn, grasping basic fundamentals of human connection as novel concepts. This includes the concept of talking to people about what you’re thinking about.
I tend to treat conversation like an open mic night, where it’s rude to go on too long. If you don’t have good material, you should probably just shut up. But conversation isn’t just for entertaining or caring for someone else; it’s the practice that makes cooperation possible. I had thought that I didn’t talk much because no one was listening. In fact, no one was listening because I wasn’t talking.
This blog has helped ease that pressure. I like arranging these drops, precise slices of what I’m really thinking about and my lived experience. If someone is going to take the time to listen to (or read) what I say, I want to word it as beautifully and concisely as I can. I like, too, the asymmetry of the interaction. In live conversation, you can see the boredom on people’s faces. On my blog, I can drop a post about, like, problematizing Odysseus, and when it gets no reaction I can pretend that everyone just forgot to comment.
I choose to assume that the people I care about are paying close attention, or at least that if I happen to predecease them, they will find this archive of my words a comfort. I know that’s usually not true, but it’s a way to give myself and the people I care about grace. Even if no one’s listening, I can still find pride in figuring out what to say. Every time I post here is a personal triumph, because I make sure that everything I post here is something I’m proud of. It’s OK if it takes months. It’s OK if the vast majority of what I write never makes it out of Google Docs.
Incidentally, I recently learned an animal fact that makes me laugh out loud. Did you know that squirrels never find up to 75% of the nuts they hide? They work so hard to collect and hide them, but they can’t keep track. So when winter comes, rather than asking themselves, where did I hide nuts, they ask, where around here is the kind of place a squirrel like me would hide a nut?
On an individual level, it’s a bonkers system. Imagine if you immediately misplaced 75% of your purchases, on purpose. And the squirrels aren’t even coordinating their efforts. Each of these little amnesiacs is its own manager. But on a collective level, the system works. Squirrels get each other. They know how their fellow squirrels think. That makes it pretty easy to find a spot where someone, at some point, has hidden a nut. And if no one finds a certain acorn, it may grow into an oak tree that produces even more acorns.
I’m determined to keep putting out love, care, requests for help, and excessively confidential blog posts, even if it seems like the majority of my effort – 75%, even – is wasted. The work I do, the words I write, the conversations I have, the dollars I give or spend – all of that effort and caring goes somewhere, even if I lose track of the results.
And if I think empathetically about where to seek my own portion of effort and caring, it seems more and more likely that I might always be able to find some.