I’ve been trying for ages to write about a friend from many years and cities and jobs ago, and the questions that have always trailed out from his story are, What do we owe our friends and family? What do we owe to the people we love? What kind of difference can we make in their lives?
This friend had a troubled upbringing that included time in jail, but when I met him he was in his late forties already, and we both worked in the same retail store. He was my supervisor, and despite the drudgery of the job, he dressed better than any of the customers we worked for; and despite it being the kind of job where customers could (and did) condescend to us on a daily basis, and despite how demeaning that could be day in and day out, he came to work early all the time. The customers that weren’t assholes knew him by name, and he seemed to enjoy dressing like a king and strolling through the store he was in charge of.
I was the exact opposite, getting to work right on time and not staying a minute late. From what he told me about his past, I seemed to see a kind of sadness in him that he would never talk about, and so I felt bad for him, since I assumed that this job neither of us really liked was also one of the only sources of pride or ritual he had outside of home. My own sense of meaning, I knew, was always elsewhere, and I couldn’t imagine getting much else other than a paycheck from the place.
For years now, though, how I’ve remembered him has really been the story of my own guilt at not trying to find out what that sadness was, of perhaps helping him out. I always stopped myself from asking too many questions, though, because I thought it might do him more harm than good. But as I began to write a post about my own guilt and sense of conflict, it was pointed out to me that the real reason I shouldn’t have pried into a part of his life that he didn’t want to reveal was because my assumptions were condescending as well, the idea that I had the power to do good or ill to anybody, as if my own life was so much better, or that I had some wisdom to dispense with. I actually had no way of improving his financial or occupational situation, or his home life; and if I was being honest with myself, I had nothing but a guess that anything was wrong at all. My heart was in the right place, but not much else was.
All of this is a long way of saying that sometimes the best empathy we can offer, and the best help we can offer, is not the assumption that we can fix anything. Sometimes the best love we can give is just a good night at work, is just to befriend this other person, or to laugh when one of us gets their tie stuck in a laminator, or to joke about another horrible customer. And if there really was something awful in my friend’s life, something he never felt comfortable enough to share, I had no business believing I could fix it or that, by trying to pry it out of him, that I would accidentally make his life worse. I had made my concern more about my own ability to influence his life generally, than in how I was actually (hopefully) making both of our lives a little better every night by being decent to each other.
If I’ve said elsewhere that we are an awfully hyper-critical society nowadays—everyone required to have an opinion and judgment about everything—I wonder too if we aren’t a hyper fix-it society as well. A focus on various “issues” has made us want to solve everything like a bureaucracy would, when in many ways (as at a homeless shelter) handing out food or passing a good word is enough. If that’s the case, I hope the friend I haven’t seen in years remembers more than a few good words we passed, back when we worked together. I certainly do.