I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately. About my life, sure, but more broadly, about my role in other people’s lives, and in society in general. It’s hard not to, given the culture nowadays. With our now seemingly limited capacity to consume vast quantities of horror from all corners of the globe, and our still very limited capacity to address them individually, it’s easier than ever to feel overwhelmed, powerless, anxious and urgently compelled to swing for unreachable fences. I feel that way sometimes. I imagine you do, too … and that’s okay.
With that in mind, I want to tell you a little story about a recent book-signing I went to. See, a friend of mine I met over the Internet back in 2012 rolled through Austin on her book tour last week. Her book, Choose Wonder Over Worry (available in hardcover here) is the culmination of an international, interdisciplinary journey paved in doubt, fear, determination and passion. It’s a breezy read if you want it to be — a bone-rattling one if you invest your whole self in it. (I recommend the latter.)
We texted before her arrival, and even after, and I recommended some restaurants and bars and whatnot to check out, and she asked me to call in a couple favors — namely, finding a slamming slam poet to close out the event’s proceedings. That poet was fucking incredible, here’s a taste of what she did:
The author and I met, for the first time, and it was warm and radiant. Hugs were involved. Dad-jokes were made (by me, of course). Passion projects were revealed. (Somewhere, an editor read this paragraph and gritted her teeth at my repeated use of the passive voice.)
Toward the end of the evening — an evening in which she breathlessly and joyously read from her book, recounted course-altering stories from her past, and fielded softball questions from everyone except me (the next softball question I ask of a friend will be my first) — I mozied on up to the desk to get my copy autographed. I waited until I got home to read her message. Here it is:
“John, you are a FORCE. Thank you for who you are and how you show up.” — xo Amber Rae
I tell you all that to tell you a story about Twitter.
On December 31, 2017, I stopped Tweeting. The Buffalo Bills had finally broken their 18-year playoff drought, I was sick of the burbling din of outrage permeating the app, and just felt I could use a cleanse. That lasted for a while … until the World Cup came along.
I love the World Cup. There is no single sporting event I enjoy watching more. Yes, I am aware of FIFA’s impossibly rampant corruption, but at its heart, the World Cup is 11 players from one country, facing off against 11 players from another country, in a joyous competition that’s both the biggest event in the world and the zenith of their lives. I love the games, and I cheer for every country. And I tweet about all of it.
The World Cup started on June 14, and by June 20, I had devolved into a raging dystopian mouthpiece due to my front row seat to the death of democracy. By the time news of the babies alone in concentration camps broke, I became unhinged — an f-bomb-dropping town crier on a whiskey bender — and I realized I had to stop and engage in some self fucking care. I feel things too deeply, and I’m not kind — to myself, or to others — in moments when I do. I shut my Twitter back down, and I began to reassess some things. Here’s, I think, what I’ve concluded:
As a child, I would often write pretend books — a sort of fan fiction about my life. In each of them, I never cast myself as the hero, but, instead, as a supporting player semi-detached from the central conflict. I always saw myself as a narrator, an oracle-type figure or audience proxy: someone who was a force for good in its fight against evil, but never as the good itself. A sort of benevolent sage who, in many cases, either died before the battle was won, wasn’t human at all, or was buried below the marquis. Think of Rafiki in the The Lion King, Edward Burns character in Saving Private Ryan, of Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet, Hurley in LOST, Alfred in Batman, M or Q in James Bond. I never won the prize. I never got the girl. I never saved the day. I was not a hero — merely a connector, a thinker, a motivator. I like people in those roles … they’re looked up to, vital to narrative, only appear when necessary and even steal a scene or two.
I say this because that’s very much my lane, still, especially today. I write little think-pieces, articulate tiny observations, help people solve their problems, and show up when called upon. I make lower-case change, so that others can make the all-caps CHANGE we really need. I’m not a George Washington or Benjamin Franklin or Alexander Hamilton. I’m a Thomas Paine — and I’m more than okay to settle for that.
It’s only when I step out of this lane that I get run over by oncoming traffic. (Generally by demons inside my own mind.) In a way, the words Amber wrote to me in her book are as instructive as they are illustrative. John, a force for good: a humble, curious and empathetic supporting player, who shows up with his ideas and words and presence when called upon. That’s the role I was always cast in, and it fits me well. Why do I tell you this? Why should you care? Because I want you to know that it’s okay to act small in big moments, so long as you come up big in the small ones. The queen needs the worker bees to keep the hive alive.
You don’t have to be the hero in the story of “us.” You can be a bit player, if you wish, and if that’s where your talents lie, and if your actions are good and kind and just and fair. There’s something to be said for people who go about their work with intention, grace, gentility, enthusiasm, and an attention to detail. The world still needs its writers, poets, musicians, scientists, researchers, designers and architects. Your craft is your best weapon … wield it the way you know how. Supporting actors can still get awards. They can still be forces. There’s a lot of work available to them, and they often get the best lines.