We like to talk about the village. Back then, we say, people were closer to one another. Back then, people knew their neighbors. Back then, people relied on each other for favors, for help, for impromptu childcare, for a ride to the store or a borrowed cup of sugar.
We miss that now. Our internet friends may mean more to us than the people we see in real life. Some of us, especially stay-at-home moms, may go days without meaningful adult interactions. Many of us, really. Our friends are scattered and busy. No one asks for anything because they know they’re busy, and they know we’re busy, and who has time for anything, anyway? But all of this really adds up to us missing something crucial, missing the same thing, missing one important component of being human: we miss the chance to be there for someone else.
I had a dear friend call one night and ask to use my printer. Who does stuff like that now — who calls a friend and says, “Hey, I need to print a plane ticket, and my printer’s broken, can I run over?” No one; they just run to UPS, and in fact he told me he’d do that if I wanted. I told him to come over. We ended up talking for a long time, until late at night, about a lot of things — things on my end and things on his. When we parted ways that night, we were both steeped in gratitude, not that someone had listened to us, but that we had listened to someone else. The gift we had given each other wasn’t the listening ear, but the problem it heard, the chance for one person to be there for the other. Not to be helped, but to be helping.
The chances to really be there for someone else are few and far between.
Yes, we’re there for our children. We’re there for our spouses, our significant others. We’re there for our bosses and coworkers; we’re volunteered into obligations. But our children need us; our spouses need us. We get paid to be there for bosses and coworkers. The chances to offer what we don’t have to give are few and far between. Call it a lack of time, name a measure of distance. We give money instead of ourselves. We pick up litter instead of helping our neighbors.
We simply don’t have the opportunity to be there for others. It doesn’t arise. No one asks it of us, and that absence of asking makes for a deep well of loneliness. If no one asks us to be there, we must not be needed. If we are not needed, we are unimportant, disposable, meaningless.
One day, about two months ago, a friend asked me to listen. I sat with him — yes, over the internet — and we talked. By the end, he felt better, and he thanked me. I tried to thank him, but the words came tied-up, confused. Thank you, I tried to say, for giving me the chance to be there. Thank you for making me feel valuable today.
Do we understand what a gift it is to lend a lawnmower? To be there, in a small way, with that knock on the door, the conversation in the driveway. The laughter of trying to shove the mower in the small car. The constant phone tag to pick the damn thing up, the dinner plans made because why the hell not, if you’ll be here anyway? These small rituals make a life. And yes, it’s a pain, and no, it’s not objectively convenient, but it’s fulfilling in a way that “me time” simply isn’t. That simple chance to be there makes a friendship, makes a relationship, weaves a tapestry of life richer than one small family against the universe.
The chance to authentically help is a gift. It opens you, it changes you, it makes you vulnerable. If you hand your heart to someone, it will inevitably break; when you take the chance to be there, you open yourself to hurt — when you go to a funeral, when you listen to a friend with a sick family member, when you offer condolences, when you visit the sick. You will feel someone else’s pain because you will keep them company in it.
Maybe this sends some people screaming. But it shouldn’t. How can we learn sympathy if not by learning others’ pain? How can we make sure that someone will not be alone if we are not there? That chance to be there is a gift in disguise, a hidden gift: another point of connection. Another thing that binds us together, that brings back the village, that gives us a chance to matter in a world that shouts at us, through terabytes of information, that we do not.
We complain, often and loudly, about the endless drain of children, of housework, of jobs, of spouses. And those things drain. That drain is real; that drain is its own terrible kind of misery. And yet, where would we be without the children, without the spouse, perhaps even without the job? This isn’t to say we should suck it up, buttercup, #blessed, and move on. But perhaps we should — and perhaps it would help — if in the midst of that harried misery, we took the time, just once in awhile, to seek the authentic connection that comes with the chance to be there.
To sit with a child while they draw.
To play a board game.
To ask our spouse about their day while we load dishwasher, and to listen.
To remember a coworker’s birthday.
Do something, do anything, that fosters an actual connection, an actual being-there. We don’t get enough of it. We crave the chance to be there. We want to matter. We want to help. We want to love.
Life catches us, and we forget. We forget to be there. We forget what a gift it really is, in the midst of our selfishness, which comes only from our exhaustion, our protectiveness of our own time with our own family. We can’t be blamed for it.
But we can step out of it. We can be there for someone who needs us. When we are, we’ll be struck with remembrance, with gratitude: that wasn’t so bad, we’ll think. We need to do that again.
And we will.