Friday, April 25, 2014

Why Bother?

"I don't know why you even bother with these people. There are better uses for your time."

It's the mid-90s and I've just gleefully read aloud my letter to the editor of the NY Press which had been printed that day. It was a satirical response to the prior issue's horrifyingly racist essay bemoaning the "influx of brown people" and subsequent decline of Western Civilization.

My letter was a good piece of writing and I was proud of it. But my roommate just sneered and shook his head: "Why on earth do you bother?!"

I was crestfallen, shamed, silenced.

At that time the NY Press was a free alternative weekly newspaper that became so popular it forced the venerable Village Voice to forego its cover price.

The Press was the conservative answer to the liberal Voice -- and even though I'm a dyed-in-the-organic-wool liberal ... I guiltily had to admit I enjoyed the Press more. It was what Jerry Springer was to Phil Donahue -- mad, incendiary, argument-for-argument's-sake trainwreck entertainment. And I adored it. And it liked me back.

For about a year I wrote letters poking fun at some of the racist, sexist, homophobic rantings of its various conservative authors. Stuff like:  "It was the tone of voice your father used when he told you what girls were for." Or, "How can a man use another man the way he would use a woman," or, in this most recent diatribe, "Masses of brown washing up on our shores" (or something to that effect -- this author quoted liberally from the execrable racist tome The Camp of the Saints.)

Nearly every letter I sent was selected for print! It was exhilarating! 

For years after college I had been blocked as a writer. Even doing stand-up, I was afraid of writing anything down because I was afraid of how it would look in print. It took years of acting in plays before I culled the nerve to write even short plays and monologues, most of which I was afraid even to submit for production.

But now, thanks to the Press, I was beginning to feel bolder and considered pitching a column to the editors ... but after this devastating exchange with my roommate, I went back to questioning myself -- what I wanted, what I felt, what I enjoyed.

To make it worse, he followed up with stuff like, "I'm only telling you this because I care about you and I don't want to see you waste your time."

With a decade of hindsight, I realized that he may simply have been jealous. Whatever else the Press may have been, it had a hell of a readership.

And even if its entire mission was to be one big fat hardcopy pre-internet troll, the conversations it stirred -- about race, sexuality, class, bigotry -- were worth having. And I LOVED having them. And I was good at it.

But that one sentence -- "You're wasting your time" -- deflated my enthusiasm faster than the harshest insult. It was a stealth blade, carving through my defenses with the claim of good intentions.

It echoed my sister, when I told her I was trying stand-up comedy:  "Ugh! That's so stupid. Why would you even want to do that??!"

Or my boyfriend when I wanted to start a fan club for my favorite band, "Why are you even bothering with that? You should do something real!"

Again and again this happened. I'd want to do a thing and make the mistake of telling someone whose opinion I was foolish enough to value, and I'd get: "What for? Why do you care? Why bother??!?"

Needless to say, not one of them had any thoughts about what was "real" or "smart" or "productive" or "worth bothering" over. And if they did, would their suggestions truly have been more "real/ smart/ productive/ worthwhile" than the things I wanted to do?


Because the very fact that I wanted to do these things, that I enjoyed and was drawn to them -- that fact in itself -- made them worthwhile to me!

And that is what counts.

Knowing what we want, what we care about, what interests us is part of who we are. This, and only this, is what makes life fulfilling for us -- whether it's mastering an art or playing video games or getting a degree or getting laid -- if we do what makes us happy, and are able to make a living because or in spite of it, and aren't hurting innocent people -- whose business is it to judge one way or the other??

If we are able to pay attention to, honor, and follow our small, immediate joys, we become able to form larger goals that will be genuinely rewarding for us. That is the only way to avoid the trap of hollow ego goals which, once fulfilled ... tend to be unfulfilling.

Now, we might find an immediate enjoyment in conflict with a larger goal -- like if I want to run a marathon but stay home watching TV every day rather than running. Then a friend might point out that there was a conflict between what I am doing and what I say I want which would need to be dealt with.

But even there, the choice is:  "What makes me happier?" not "Which is more real/ smart/ productive/ worthwhile?"

Ask:  "Do I truly enjoy the TV I'm watching, or am I just staying in my comfort zone? Do I really enjoy running or do I just want to say I've run a marathon to puff up my ego?" (There is more to be said on "authentic goals vs. ego goals," but that is a topic for another essay!)

So the next time you tell a friend or family member about something you want to do, and with irritation they respond: "Why on earth would you want to bother with that??"

Tell them:  "It's no bother to me. Now, why does it bother you?"