by guest blogger Renee James, humorist and blogger
Not long ago, I noticed a trend in my neighborhood shopping areas: Card/gift stores that had been in business in the same locations for decades had closed their doors—disappeared. It made me sad, but not because it was another sign of a challenging economy. I was sad because 99 times out of 100, people shopping in a card store were there because they cared about someone else. That’s kind of lovely and amazing, and I can’t think of anywhere else that’s true. So with the shops going away, I found myself wondering if we just don’t care about each other as much as we used to, or whether the sentiments found and purchased in a card store were a charming but decaying anachronism of the 20th century.
One of my favorite gift-shop rituals every year was the minutes I would spend in the Mother’s Day aisle, eavesdropping on young fathers as they helped their preschoolers pick out greeting cards. Hearing those men read card after card to their kids, helping them find one Mommy would cherish—those conversations captured everything that’s sweet and true about raising children: innocence, guidance, love…. Now what? How will mommies read their children’s scrawled signatures on cards they don’t get from stores that don’t exist? (And yes, homemade cards are precious, but you take my point here.)
And what about any other occasion you can name? Maybe we post a “Like” or an emoticon and leave it at that. Maybe all the card shops have been replaced with coffee shops, where we meet and post pictures of our lattes and scones on Instagram so we can share the experience with everyone who is not sitting across the table.
The second thing in evidence these days is that many people are very, very keen on taking charge (of almost anything), or at least appearing to do so. Scan a newspaper or newsstand or a Facebook feed or home page and you’ll trip over the lists of ways you can control everything from your cholesterol to your closets. You’ll learn how to release your inner child and your outer badass. You’ll get a plan to help you dream, achieve, and empower your way to a more fulfilled life.
Look, I’m not exactly opposed to any of those notions, although I’m pretty sure most of them require a little more effort than simply claiming them. I’m troubled by what seems to be common in this ubiquitous advice: solitude. Due to a confluence of disparate things in my life and among the people I love, I find myself thinking about the concept of autonomy or “control” versus the idea of welcoming or lending support. But like the card stores of yesteryear, the idea of appearing vulnerable and the notion that life’s challenges might “take a village” to resolve them, at least from time to time, seem to have gone the way of the West African black rhino.
I’m not buying it. Sure, we all want to achieve our “destiny,” but not everything is a one-person job, is it? The question is how does one know when claims of self-sufficiency or of being in control, made over and over again, are really nothing more than code for “I’m drowning”?
I have no idea. These days, it’s harder than ever to know when someone is sad, confused, overwhelmed, or unsure of the path to take. How could we? Everyone is endlessly posting selfies celebrating another personal “victory” (“Laundry: folded and put away! Whew!!”), and the closest we come to offering support is an inane Greek chorus of “You got this!”
Well, let me say this about that: What if you don’t got it? It may be that you’re facing a challenge much more formidable than a jumbled basket of socks and underwear. And by disclosing that challenge, by admitting, even for a half-second, that no, you’re pretty damn far from “got this,” you risk your virtual “stature.”
You may be needing a lifeline that never gets tossed your way.
So I’m back to my closed gift shops. Even the small things we used to do to maintain contact and that thread of support—things like sending a card—are missed that much more acutely these days. Maybe in the past, we wrote a note of sympathy or selected a heartfelt message to extend our condolences. We sent cards or wrote notes to help celebrate milestones; we hoped to cheer people up, make them laugh, or share our gratitude. We sent greetings of the season. A few times a year, those old-fashioned pieces of paper conveyed, “You matter to me.” Maybe that little tradition made a difference. Now we post, “In my thoughts and prayers.” Or worse, just “HBD.” Touching.
In our eagerness to be our best inner selves, we seem to have abandoned the idea of looking outward. In our quest to display our achievements to the world, we’ve forgotten to be a real part of it. And now we have all those darkened stores in our neighborhoods to show for it.
Renee A. James works at Rodale Inc. and wrote an award-winning op-ed column for The Morning Call, the Allentown, Pennsylvania, newspaper, for almost 10 years. Her essays were included in the humor anthology, 101 Damnations: A Humorists’ Tour of Personal Hells (Thomas Dunne Books, 2002), and are also found online at Jewish World Review and The Daily Caller. She invites you to Like her Facebook page, where she celebrates—and broods about—life on a regular basis, mostly as a voice in the crowd that shouts, “Really? You’re kidding me, right?” (or wants to, anyway), and she welcomes your suggestions, comments, and feedback to the mix.