Of all the very sad things in our very sad world, the one that never fails to get me is imagining a child sitting alone at a folding table, conical party hat slightly askew, gazing out uncomprehendingly at an expanse of untouched place settings and waiting for birthday party guests who will never show up. I envision the parents white-knuckled, pitying, awash with shame and heartache and anger, willing their emotions into place in order to put on a brave face for their child -- their sweet, strange child who is still far too young to be burdened with the punishments of poor socialization.
I am moved by situations where the distance between devastating and salvageable is a little bit of well-placed effort from the right person. And I’ve been thinking about places where I can be that person.
For the past month or so, I have felt particularly resource-scarce, in part because I am and in part because my mind suddenly got really good at convincing me that meeting new people is exhausting and uncomfortable, and that I should actively be afraid of it. My freshly-birthed aversion to Performing Personability has incentivized me to begin thinking more critically about where I want to exert my ever-shrinking social energy.
Back when I didn’t have as much going on (or at least, had the mental fortitude to hold onto more), my bar for choosing whether or not to attend events was fairly low. Now that I’m in a place where there are more activities that seem promising than I have the bandwidth for, my bar is notably higher. While a past version of myself might’ve been enthusiastic about attending dinner parties where the primary modes of interaction are nodding along to unsolicited takes on AI and politely rejecting bouldering invitations, I now prefer to stay home and busy myself with more important tasks like sitting in bed and watching Puss In Boots: The Last Wish on 1.5x speed. In theory, I really would like to show up to every single event my friends (or potential friends!) are involved with, but the upsetting reality is, I can’t. The reality is, I’m actually pretty tired, and I’m having an unusually difficult time finding the courage to face each day, and I’m finally waking up to the realization that perhaps I am not really needed at any particular gathering. The world spins without me, which is a relief, not an insult.
Aware of the constraints of mortality -- the most notable being time, given our tendency to die -- I am reminded of the necessity of performing triage in every sphere of decision-making, including the social realm. A few questions I’ve been asking myself: Where would my presence be truly meaningful? When does showing up matter, and matter a lot? What are the situations where my timely care might make all the difference?
Here are some guesses.
When it redistributes power
Perhaps it’s white savior-esque of me, but I think it’s important to use our resources to assist those who have few of their own. Even barring a zoomed-out, global perspective, I recognize that I have relative power in certain areas, and I think I should use it benevolently. I can point to several instances where a single crumb of genuine encouragement pushed me across the finish line, which is how I know that all of us have what it takes to make a concrete difference in the lives of others, sometimes by extending just the smallest bit of genuine compassion.
Thoughtful ways to exercise power graciously:
When it’s a good deal, especially at the margin
My co-worker and I were talking about our respective journeys into effective altruism when he shared that the piece of information that most compelled him was learning that you can save a life for just $5500, which struck him as such an incredible deal that he simply couldn’t let it pass. Similarly, I think there are plenty of social situations that offer an extraordinarily high return on investment for what they “cost”.
Interactions that strike me as good deals:
When nobody else is going to do it
People are deterred from taking any given action for two main reasons: 1) low incentive and 2) high risk. If you find yourself in the sweet spot of feeling primed to act despite either, move fast.
Regarding friendship, low-incentive but high-value offerings include: volunteering to be the designated driver, fronting the dinner bill fully accepting that someone will inevitably fail to Venmo you back, or coordinating logistics for a group trip that otherwise wouldn’t make it on the calendar. Basically, if you can do something that benefits the group without bitterness or expectations, that’s a noble use of effort.
Diving into the other side of the equation, the first person who comes to mind when thinking of stunningly risky behaviors is Muntadhar al-Zaidi, the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at former President George W. Bush at a 2008 press conference. I think we can all agree that was a bold, decisive move. Consequential. Though I’m not necessarily advocating for sneaker-related violence against our elected officials (I’m also not advocating against it, to be clear), I am vocalizing my deep admiration for people who do the things that only they can do, even in the face of great personal harm.
Though I listed several potential good uses of time and energy throughout the blog, the most exceptional of them are uncapturable because they are specific to only you. Very few people have the chance to throw their shoes at George W. Bush. Very few people, perhaps none save yourself, have the ability to show up like you can.
What is your shoe-throwing moment? What are you, specifically, best primed to do?
A kindhearted classmate choosing to be the sole attendee at the weird kid’s birthday party fulfills all three of the categories (and is thus a pronouncedly good use of time), which is probably why imagining the scenario in which it fails to occur wounds me so deeply.
For me, the most distressing part of being alive is knowing that it’s going to end. I am not going to get to everything I wish I could, and I hate that so, so much. I am worried I am spending my limited time poorly. Worst of all, I am running out of opportunities to spend it with you, and I’m regretful every single time I have to miss one. But amidst the churn and the dread and the loss, I am hopeful that we’ll still manage to seize the most meaningful of the bunch. If I can’t be here for you always, then I aim to be here for you in the ways that matter most.
If you are ever faced with celebrating your birthday alone, either in the literal or metaphorical sense, please message me instead. You deserve good company, and I can promise to at least be the latter.