Helping Hands

Near my home, there is an intersection of two busy roads where people beg for money. I drive through at least weekly. It is a rotating cast of characters. You have the disabled veteran, or the older guy who has “lost it all,” or the woman with the multiple kids she must feed. I can’t tell if they’re drawn there because it’s a particularly lucrative spot, or if panhandling has now reached the suburbs and intersections are the new street corner.

Only occasionally do I give some money. But I am always moved. I just don’t know how best to respond.

Sometimes what’s needed is a helping hand. Sometimes what’s needed is a hand to hold.

Often, it’s hard to tell, at any given moment, which is needed more.
Helping hands

Last July, a friend of mine lost her partner to cancer. They’d been together only a few years, and both were married before. Essentially, she had stopped communicating during the last month of his life, and in the months following. I struggled to discern whether she needed help, and if so, what kind? What was the right help to offer?

Recently, a couple I know who are the parents of one of my son’s friends were struck by a car while crossing the street. When I first heard, my reaction was to be a part of their support network. But as each day led to the next, and the struggles of my own life claimed my attention, their need became less pressing. They have mostly recovered now, and I didn’t even stop by their house. Was that the best thing to do?

Twelve years ago, my life derailed when my wife suffered a ruptured aneurysm while carrying our second child. I’ve written about this before, so I won’t repeat the details. With hindsight, though, I can see that during her recovery, I was facing  grief, traumatic stress, the normal demands of raising small children and earning a living, and serving as my wife’s primary care-giver, all mixed together. My needs changed constantly, even several times a day. I could never, while immersed in it, say with any certainty whether I needed a helping hand or a hand to hold. Honestly, at times it was probably both simultaneously, while at other times neither. Often, when people asked if there was anything they could do, I couldn’t say because I just didn’t know.

What is the “right” response? How can anyone tell what another person needs, and when they need it?

In the book How Can I Help? Stories and Reflections on Service, authors Ram Dass and Paul Gorman say that while it natural to want to help, compassion is not without complication.

“We needn’t go deep beneath the surface before we encounter our ambivalence,” they write. “We note the interplay of generosity and resistance, self-sacrifice and self-protectiveness…. There are clearly many ways in which we hesitate to reach out or we get confused when we try.”

In spite of the complete mystery of it, sometimes people do do the right thing. That December, when it all began to unravel for me, my wife’s former employer brought us a Christmas tree. I could not have said at the time that I needed it, but I deeply believe now that it was exactly the right thing for us.
Holding Hands

Contrary to what many may think, the helping transaction requires something from each party—both the helper and the helped are giving and getting. I was very bitter and angry when I was in need of help. I probably asked for less than I needed, and was less gracious than I could have been.

In contrast, I see a cheerful gratitude in the couple recovering from the car accident. They feel lucky to be alive, which says so much about their approach to the event.

What had I to offer them? Maybe very little. Should I have done something? Probably.

Action is required, and compassion, and luck. “On this path we will stumble, fall, and often look and feel a little foolish,” say Dass and Gorman. But in the end, we’ve done what we could, and we “trust the rest to God, to Nature, to the Universe.”

My Facebook Experiment

A few years ago, I joined Facebook. Reluctantly.

The members of the band I was in at the time thought that social media was a good way to publicize our gigs. Everyone else in the band was already on Facebook, and I thought it would give the wrong impression if the bassist were the only one who was not. Up until that point, I didn’t see the value of it. Facebook

So I joined. But I had one condition.

I felt that if I had to be on Facebook–if it wasn’t my idea–then I would do it on my terms. And my terms were these: with a few exceptions, I would not initiate friending anyone; I would wait for them to friend me.

I thought it would look phony if, after having dismissed social media, I suddenly joined and started friending everyone I could think of. Also, and more importantly, I wanted to gauge the level of other’s interest in being connected to me. One way to do that was to wait and see.

And you know what? Very few people have friended me. The usual suspects have–I could have predicted with 95 percent confidence the small number of individuals who would friend me–but a surprising number have not. For example, there are some people with whom my wife is barely acquainted–but who I have known for years–who have friended her, but not me.

I have to wonder what that means. Does that say something about me, or about them?

I would like to blame Facebook’s automated “find your friends” feature, which mines your address book and friends everyone whom you may have, at some point in your life, listed an email address for.

But, more likely, it is that I have some fundamental misunderstanding of the rules of social media, because they are essentially the same rules that govern social interaction in general. It has something to do with how attractive you are, how talkative you are, and how comfortable you are with the medium. Things like intelligence and humor do not come across well on Facebook.

And if that feels like high school, it’s because…well…it is like high school. In a recent article in New York magazine, writer Jennifer Senior points out that research indicates that all our social skills–the ability to pick up on cues or fail to do so–we learn as adolescents. Quoting work by Gabriella Conti, she says ” ‘Adolescent popularity,…it’s about interpersonal relations. High school is when you learn how to master social relationships—and to understand how, basically, to play the game. ” Or don’t.”

Underlying all of this is being able to effectively interact with people and make yourself interesting to others. This is a skill that is, for the most part, independent of media, although Facebook does amplify the extent to which one has mastered it, thus requiring the refinement of one’s social toolkit to avoid being annoying.

I’ve heard people say how connected they feel on Facebook, but these are people who were already connected in the real world. For me, Facebook has not upped my feeling of connection. Rather, it is one more avenue of communication that I suck at. Most days, instead of updating my status with some inane personal detail, I find myself thinking, “Why bother?” and “Who cares?”

The bottom line is that social media is little different from any other social situation. Those who understand the rules are rewarded, and those for whom the rules remain mysterious are marginalized or even penalized. I know of a number of people who’ve tried Facebook but have since deactivated their accounts. “It just didn’t work for me,” one guy told me.

I continue to use Facebook on occasion. Often I go more than a week without even logging in. Sometimes I wonder why I use it at all.

The Virtue of a Pigeon

I pass the same pigeon on my way to work each day. Her plumage is white with brown patches the color of wheat toast. When I approach her, she does not startle and bolt, or dodder around goofily like most pigeons.  She just calmly keeps doing what she is doing, pecking and scratching for whatever bounty city grass might provide.

Photo: Alexander James Stock Photography

Photo: Alexander James Stock Photography

But all pigeons are the same, you say.  They look the same and they act the same.  They even seem to think the same, with a collective consciousness that, like The Borg on Star Trek, give them no identity, no individuality.  But this one is different.

She has a beau, I think.  He’s a typical black-grey-and-white pigeon who is always nearby.  He’s the one who looks ready to burst into crazy-eyed flight when I walk past, but not her.  She’s the sensible one.

As a species, pigeons (Columba livia) suffer from a bad reputation.  Originally imported to this country for food, they’ve now become naturalized citizens, inhabiting the gritty spaces of urban America. A biology professor of mine once called them the rats of the bird world.  In some cities, peregrine falcons hunt them as a means of population control. People are happy to let this happen because falcons, after all, are much cooler than pigeons.  When I lived in Burlington, Vermont, in the early 1990s, the city government decided to poison the town’s pigeons but underestimated the dose.  For several days, dazed and dying pigeons wandered the streets like intoxicated homeless people.

Such malice arises from a contempt bred by familiarity. But if you can see beyond it, you’ll find that pigeons have their virtues too. For instance, they are amazingly skilled flyers.  Watch them slicing through narrow city spaces, under bridges and around cars, and you’ll know what I mean.  Also, they have the ability, thanks to their fantastic breast muscles, to become airborne from a standstill.  Imagine suspending your entire weight in thin air with a single downbeat of wings. It sounds impossible, yet pigeons do it every day.

That is not to say they are particularly smart.  In Burlington, a pair of pigeons would nest on the stone window sill outside the office where I worked.  The nest was spare, so their egg would essentially sit on the stone.  If the egg happened to roll off, they would just lay again in the same place.  Another time, in Oakland, California, my soon-to-be-wife and I were entering the courthouse to purchase a marriage license when we heard a dull thunk from above.  A pigeon flying full-throttle had collided with the large windows above the entrance, dropping dead at our feet.  We chose not to take it as an omen concerning our marriage.

Perhaps if pigeons were smart, they would become dissatisfied with their station in life and we would have a great pigeon revolt on our hands.  Cities the world over would have to mobilize to quash the rebellion.  Overnight, squab would become a featured entrée on restaurant menus.

But my pigeon seems happy.  She looks healthy, and perhaps that is happiness to a pigeon.  She has companionship aplenty in this town.  In addition to her suitor, pigeons by the scores socialize at virtually every public space with a statue where birds can congregate.

My pigeon most likely was born in this town and will die in this town.  She will raise a few babies and scratch out a living.  She will do what she can to stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter, but her life will pass quickly by, not remarked by anyone.

Anyone except me, that is.  I’ve noticed her, and perhaps she has noticed me.  Each day, we nod greetings to each other and then go our separate ways.

Note: It has been several years since I first wrote this. My pigeon is most likely long gone.


Imagine that you were transported to a world where everything around you seemed improbable. Where what you saw and what you heard seemed distant and alien. Where both your sorrow and your happiness felt bizarre and unexpected, and unexplainable. You would look around yourself, at all the things you were doing and that were happening to you, and you would wonder if they were actually occurring, or whether it was all just a product of your imagination, a beautiful or horrible dream.sidewalk

So you would search for clues, some kind of confirmation that this was really happening. You would search for words on a page, the touch of a stranger, the knowing look in another’s eye that would say to you “Yes! I feel it too—I am experiencing what you are experiencing. You are not alone in this strange and bizarre world.”

And you would never rest—no matter how weary you became, or how many obstacles you faced—until you found the evidence that what you were seeing and hearing and feeling were real.

Because you would know that if you ever came to believe it wasn’t real—that none of it ever really happened—then you would invalidate your experience. You would invalidate your very existence. You would cease to be an individual and would forever doubt the reasons why you ever lived at all.

Do not deny the improbable.  It may be all you have.