I saved a spider today.
I was just about to lie out on a cot I have set up on my apartment balcony. Since I live on the third floor, I almost never get bugs or critters in my actual apartment, and I had swept out and washed the entire balcony near the beginning of summer. But as I prepared to lie down, headphones donned and podcast having already started, I noticed a huge collection of webs in the corner, mere inches from where my feet would’ve been. My first instinct was to abandon the balcony and never return, but, swallowing that fight-or-flight response, I instead calmly headed inside and filled a liquid measuring cup with some water to drown out the webs without hitting it with a broom and making stuff fly everywhere (including whatever spiders and/or prey might be trapped in it). Sure enough, eventually, a spider came scurrying out from the crack underneath my balcony railing where it had been hiding and got washed a few feet into the middle of the balcony, where it eventually came to rest.
I could’ve squashed it easily. I could’ve tagged it with some Raid that I have under the sink, or trapped it under a cup until it died. On the other end of the freakout scale, I could’ve just let it be. Not disturbed its web, or let it run to wherever it would run and build a new web (closing the door so the web wouldn’t be inside my apartment, obviously). But I didn’t want it dead. The poor thing was probably starving, as I didn’t see any bugs caught in its web (like I said, being on the third floor does have its perks when it comes to insect problems), and it wasn’t its fault that a huge creature hundreds of times its size just wanted to listen to a Midwestern sci-fi podcaster talk about the Jurassic Park novel for half an hour while enjoying the summer air. But my fight-or-flight response wouldn’t allow me to relax when a giant spider’s nest was mere inches away from my cot.
So I compromised with it. Using a process involving an overturned cup, several sheets of too-flimsy paper, a discarded frozen dinner box, a pair of dusty work gloves that were mostly for security theater purposes, and a nerve-wracking walk down three flights of stairs with a tight grip, I finally set it free out in the lawn of the apartment complex somewhere, free to do whatever it wanted. Sure, the process ended up taking like fifteen minutes and I had to restart the podcast, but I was finally able to lay down and relax, knowing that the problem had been solved, not only for me, but for the terrifying yet helpless creature I had relocated.
I was furloughed from my job (I work in audiovisual doing conventions and parties at a hotel) back in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with the expectation that I would go back once the virus was under control (the first early estimates were for May, though that quickly got pushed back to September). Since I live alone, this meant losing my only regular means of social contact until then. As an introvert it wasn’t too bad; though the first week was rough because nobody knew what was going to happen and we were all adrift in a sea of uncertainty, due to a combination of timely Zoom meetings and twitch.tv streaming, I was able to connect with some friends and gain at least a measure of relief from the intense cabin fever. And with a combination of judiciously employed vacation time, unemployment insurance with the federal COVID stimulus, and simple financial saving, I was able to establish a plan that would let me ride out the spring and summer months until I was able to return to work in the fall.
However, with things still not under control, that scenario was looking less and less likely, and finally this past week I was contacted by my work to discuss the situation. Long story short: there aren’t enough meetings/conventions/parties/etc. happening at the hotel to sustain even one full-time A/V employee (let alone an entire department) so as of October 1st I will be moving from furloughed status to on-call status. This means they’ll call me if they need me (which, according to my boss, probably won’t be much: the most optimistic estimate he gave me was still a single-digit number of times before the end of the year). This also means that, after September, I will be losing my full-time employee status, which means, among other things, I will no longer qualify for my company’s health insurance (including therapy, which I was finally able to start contemplating financially) or retirement plans.
So, you know, there’s that.
Sure, I was hurt and angry. Sure, I had no idea how to proceed, since my plans had evaporated. I still don’t quite know what I’m going to eventually do to deal with all this. But that’s not what this blog post is about, ultimately.
I reached out to a few people privately to explain the situation before posting anything publicly about it (which I eventually did on Facebook a few days later). As someone whose needs often get misinterpreted, I attempted to also outline what type of attention I wasn’t seeking (money, advice, generic job suggestions) and what I did need (understanding and emotional support). I guess I worded it wrong, though? Because all I ended up getting was acknowledgements that they had received the message, a couple of generic job suggestions (and, to be fair, a specific one that applies to my skillset and was appreciated), and one who told me (paraphrased) that their reaction was “Whoa, Jeff, chill out!” but later apologized by way of telling me that they weren’t all that good at expressing verbal empathy, which, y’know, fair enough, I guess.
This particular situation was nothing new. I’ve found, in the past, that when I express a need for help and support, I often receive it in a way that doesn’t really help or support me in the way I need. When I try to be more specific, however, I end up getting none at all, and it usually amounts to awkward silence on the part of the people I reach out to. I don’t fully understand this, though maybe it’s because, since I rejected their first instincts to be “helpful”, I’m a hopeless case or a masochistic curmudgeon. Or they’ve got other things to worry about than figuring out what I need. Or, like what happened earlier, they’re simply not good at expressing empathy. (That, by the way, was not an insult. Someone who knows themselves well enough to make that statement is showing a remarkable sense of self-awareness, and if everyone were that forthright about what they could and could not do, emotionally and mentally, then we’d probably all be in better places with people who complement us instead of those that just compliment us. Or maybe I just thought of that wordplay halfway through that sentence and wanted to shoehorn it in. You decide!)
It’s probably far more likely, however, that I’m unable to express exactly what I want or need in a way that would make those who are willing to help understand what they can do. This is especially a problem when what I need isn’t the stereotypical solution, or the easiest, or the one that comes to mind immediately. And people get their hackles up really quickly when their intended charity isn’t immediately accepted with tears of gratitude, even when it’s only because they were offering a helping hand to someone who just needed a foot. (Don’t, uh…don’t pick that metaphor apart.)
For example, let’s say somebody lost their job because the economy was in a place where it was virtually obsolete. They’re hurting and they want support. So you have a few people who respond to this. The first expresses sympathy by sending them job offers, or money, or flyers for night classes so they can learn a different profession, or other types of tangible support. Sure, the job offers are for things they aren’t interested in or good at, the night classes are either expensive or also in fields they’re ill-suited for, and the money is temporary at best and possibly creates a power imbalance between the two, but hey, at least they tried. The second simply ignores the problem entirely. Sure, they privately sympathize with the person who is hurting, but they don’t know the exact right solution, so they don’t do much of anything except maybe sending an emoji of a smiley face hugging a heart. They might interact with the person, but they pretend nothing is wrong and that life is grand all around.
Do either of these help? Not really. Though they do assuage the conscience of the giver, happy in the knowledge that they either tried to help or at least did their best. That might be a bit cynical, as often people’s emotional wells are drained doing other things and you can only spread yourself so thin being a caretaker. (This is probably another reason people react poorly to rejected charity: someone offers something they believe is helpful for what they feel are selfless reasons, and when it doesn’t help or is rejected that’s mental and emotional effort down the drain that could’ve been used for somebody who would’ve appreciated it, thank you very much.)
So what does this person need? I don’t know, but if I were to guess, I’d say they need some self-esteem. They need somebody who will validate them, that just because they’re currently unemployed or otherwise underperforming in life, it doesn’t mean they spent their life pursuing something worthless, that their ability to bounce back from their current bad situation is something they’re ultimately capable of doing. And they need to truly believe this, to have it come from a person or source that has credence in their life. Somebody who isn’t just spouting platitudes because they hope it will somehow make the situation better (and make the giver feel like they’re a good person), but who knows the sufferer well enough to read them, to know what’s important to them and why they’re invested in it, and to use that knowledge to draw connections between who they are and who they are capable of becoming. And to do this with enough effort and persistence that it will eventually pay off. If the sufferer doesn’t believe in themselves, then no amount of sympathy, emojis, or job suggestions are going to do any good. But if they believe they can bounce back, and have that belief reinforced by their friends and loved ones in effective ways, then eventually they will.
In other words, they need the impossible.
This type of attention is needed most by the people who look like they deserve it the least. The ones who get mad when they have different ideas of help than you do. The ones who want support but can’t even articulate themselves what kind of support they need without sounding incredibly selfish. They’re just spiders on the balcony, trying to eke out a simple living where there are almost no bugs; certainly not worthy of the time and attention it would take to put on gloves, take terrifying stair-walks, and miss an entire Jurassic Park podcast just to help them into a better situation when it would be so much easier to squash or ignore them.
It also doesn’t have to be anything particularly spectacular or complicated. I went to dinner recently with a friend I hadn’t seen in years (don’t worry: we were outdoors and socially distanced and all that), and the topic of conversation turned briefly to Undertale (because of my necklace). I started talking about it at length but caught myself before going too far (if you want to know just how much I can talk about it, see the previous blog post and the 10-12 hours of Let’s Play videos it links to), even though she at least seemed interested. She remarked that she didn’t know much about Undertale but it was nice to hear me talk about it because my face “lit up” when I started talking about it, and seeing how much passion I had about it and how important it was to me made it interesting to her. That was a statement that was possibly a throwaway one for her, but it stuck with me. That kind of positive reinforcement was one I didn’t even know I was missing until suddenly I had it for a brief moment. And though that dinner was kind of a one-off thing due to circumstances, it was nice to exist there even for a second, and it’s a behavior I want to emulate.
This is a little thing, but it can solve big problems that would fester otherwise into uncontrolled disasters. At the risk of alienating some people, let’s offer one more different solution to the “guy who’s out of a job and down about it scenario.” Sick of hearing about what he needs to do to be better from others not in his situation, receiving no help from those who ignore the problem, and unable to find anyone willing or able to put in the time or effort needed to help him cope and adapt, a fourth voice comes along. A voice that promises that he doesn’t need to worry about adapting or finding a new job. A voice that doesn’t say “I believe in you” but instead says “If you believe in me, I will fix everything for you. I will make the world bend back to where you can go back to the job you love and everything will be perfect again. I know things aren’t great, but it’s not your fault, and you can’t do anything about it, so give me the power and control I need to…let’s say…make it great again?”
Even when this voice offers no evidence that their (OK, “his”, it’s obvious who I’m talking about here*) promises are even possible, let alone that he is able to keep them personally, the prospect is so tantalizing to someone who doesn’t see another way out of their situation that they pledge their loyalty to him and refuse to budge. Belief is such a powerful motivator that it often overrides everything else, whether that’s a belief that an orange man can fix all of their problems, or just a belief that nobody thinks they’re worth the effort to listen to and/or work with so they can get better; that they’re just a weird-looking spider who just wants to eat some bugs and who would apologize profusely for inconveniencing any afternoon naps if they could, but they need to eat still, y’all; sorry if that’s selfish, sorry I’m not cute and cuddly, just don’t squash me and I’ll go back under this crack and starve to death in peace oh crap now I’ve implied that you’re not as generous as I need you to be and you’re frustrated don’t hurt me or leave me.
I don’t know if this whole metaphor makes 100% sense, but the point is still valid. I cannot expect anyone to help me. I have been burned too often in the past hoping that someone will magically appear who has the time and capability to help me with what I actually need emotionally (as opposed to what they think I need, or what they would need in my situation, or what they can spare given that everyone’s life is hard right now), especially since I don’t even know what that is until I suddenly get it (like with that dinner). Maybe therapy would help, but if you wanted that to be an option for me, well, you shoulda voted for Bernie.
And, honestly, maybe the solution would be for me to look outside myself and be the person to others that I want in my life. I do try to do this, with friends or family members that I know well enough to feel like I can make a difference, even if I don’t hear it from them. But I don’t know you, hypothetical reader who needs my help, so you’ll have to tell me what you want or don’t want; otherwise, we’re just looping back to the initial problem with with the roles reversed. And if you don’t know what you need either…then, well, maybe we can just commiserate together. That does help sometimes.
Thanks for making it this far. This was possibly an emotionally exhausting post to read; I know it was to write. These can get pretty raw sometimes. I can’t hope it will change anything, but I hope it will at least help you understand a little better the mind of a socially anxious yet fiercely independent and overanalytical man who spent the last four or five months in near-solitary confinement before basically losing his job. I don’t want to alienate or insult anyone at not doing what I need (not everyone has a cup and paper, after all), so I apologize if I’ve come across as passive-aggressive; I don’t mean to. I don’t know how to be honest without coming across that way. And I know these posts often vacillate between “somebody saaaaaaaaaave meeeeee” like I was the theme song to Smallville, and “I don’t want to make you feel bad for not saaaaaaaaaaaaving me” like how most people feel about Smallville, but that’s the struggle I always have going on in my head.
I’ll be fine. I always am.
Speaking of Smallville, in closing, to lighten the mood slightly, here’s a picture I’ve randomly had on my hard drive for like thirteen years:
*it’s Trump. I was talking about Trump. I say this because apparently there was some confusion among some readers.