Some of you might be saying, “Quinn, caring isn’t a problem. Many of the social ills of the world can be attributed to caring too little”.
Some people with the same kind of twisted historical knowledge I have might recall Kitty Genovese, the poor Manhattan woman whose 1964 death was heard or witnessed by thirty eight people who did virtually nothing to stop the crime. The brutal significance of this atrocity and its aftermath led to what psychologists have dubbed “The Bystander Effect” -- if too many people see a crime, no one will do anything, because everyone thinks someone (meaning, someone else) will do something. And while I would nod and agree, I would like to add an addendum to that page of the Manual of Mental Disorders: the Cummings Effect.
The Cummings Effect describes a pathology whereby one individual thinks everyone else is well-meaning but disorganized, or is much busier than she is, or possibly feeble-minded, and that only she can prop up the charity, the neighborhood watch group, the species threatened with extinction or the struggling developing nation.
I am a handmaiden to the bitch goddess Responsibility, and her less attractive (but more vengeful) sister, Guilt. If I see a gap in the social system, I must offer to fill it, and I must continue to offer until I am accepted. If my offer to, say, drive across three counties to pick up incontinent toy poodles for rescue isn’t accepted, I must twist in guilt. And why am I twisting in guilt?
Because now those poor poodles will have to wear their doggie diapers in Kern County for three extra days until someone else picks them up.
Because I know, deep down, that I would have done a better job of driving them.
Because I know way deeper down, I really didn’t want to do it.
Yes, readers. That’s the worst of it. I offer to be helpful; I beg to be helpful; I look mournful until I am helpful. And once my offer of help has been accepted, I sulk. It’s only in my head, no one else knows about it, but it’s in there. For want of a better phrase, let us call it the Martyr’s Mantra:
Am I the only person who can see the trash at the rescue cat place needs to be taken out?
Couldn’t anyone else take the seven-to-nine a.m. shift at the fund-raising garage sale? It’s not as if I am some freak who likes dragging out popcorn poppers and twenty-five cheapo waste baskets while batting away early-birds who keep asking me how much I want for my shoes.
Oh, please let me be the one to arrange the decaf for the fundraising meeting. Sure, I don’t drink coffee. Sure, the decaf drinker never seems to be around when we’re chipping in for snacks. But far be it from me to compromise someone else’s sleep.
This impulse has actually put me in harm’s way on at least one occasion. About fifteen years ago, I pulled up to a notoriously long stop light, which gave me enough time to watch the drama unfolding at the bus stop. There was a woman and a man, fighting. I guessed this wasn’t a fight between strangers, nor was it the first fight they had ever had. It had the polished look of a much-beloved bedtime story. Suddenly, the man stood up, pushed her backwards with both hands and grabbed her hair.
Let me explain something about domestic violence situations. Cops hate them. Hate. They come in to save the injured party, and suddenly the injured party is attacking the police officer for arresting their beloved life partner. I remember reading somewhere that domestic violence situations got more cops injured than any other kind of arrest, and the injuries usually came from someone other than the person being arrested. Any sane person would stay out of one.
But this was a problem, so it was my problem. I pulled over quickly, leaned over to my passenger door, flung it open. The couple, not expecting company, stopped whatever degree of battery was going on and stared at me.
I said to the woman, “You want a lift?”
She shook her head mutely.
I pressed, “You sure?”
She nodded. I’m not sure how much English she understood, but in that moment, I noticed several things about my newfound problem:
1. Her partner was closer to my open car than she was,
2. He could easily jump in and explain to me why my help wasn’t required,
3. While not large, he was certainly larger than anyone I want explaining to me in an enclosed space why I was wrong to meddle in his family affairs and,
4. My door had swung so far open that closing it might require getting out of the car and coming around to close it. Perhaps I could ask the man to close it, but I couldn’t see that as being anything but socially awkward.
They stared while I shimmied across the passenger seat, simultaneously closing the door and feebly waving to the cars I was blocking behind me, all of whom knew this light stayed green for twenty-four seconds every two hours. Fifteen years ago, I had no cell phone, so there was no way of calling the cops. Besides, one of the vehicles behind me was the bus; I noted as I made a right-hand turn that they both got on. I drove for many minutes feeling the smug glow of responsibility met (“I stopped a spousal batterer…Briefly!”), the undertow of guilt (“Should have done more. Must always do more.”), and the toxic vines of resentment (“What? Was no one else on that whole block capable of doing what was needed? I’m 5’3”. It’s like they volunteered Kermit the Frog to break up a knife fight”).
Only hours later did it occur to me that a problem, which became my problem, could have been the lead in my obit.
Yesterday, I heard a story on the radio about American families who host kids from Chernobyl during the summer. These kids, all of whom are suffering health effects from the blast twenty years ago, get to have six weeks of bicycling, beach trips, and copious amounts of ice cream. The families talked about the struggle of finding room in their houses, but what a terribly wonderful and moving experience it has been for their whole families for up to ten years now.
I sat there in the car and writhed. I wasn’t hosting a Chernobyl child! Because of my unforgivable sin of not knowing this program even existed, some Russian child with a glow-in-the-dark thyroid had never tasted Chunky Monkey! Once again, the world’s utter lack of humanity fell squarely in my lap!
Let the record show, there was no mention in this story about how they needed more host families. There was not so much as a hint those sick children many thousands of miles from me were lacking in wholesome American fun. But, since I had heard about a situation, it automatically became a problem, which involuntarily became my problem.
Let it be understood that I’m not trying to puff up some saintly aspect of my character while claiming it as a flaw. Actually, it’s arrogance, plain and simple. Only I can see the depths of the problem, only with my hard-working nature and naturally sensitive temperament will the problem be solved. My goodness and decency is the only thing holding back entropy and anarchy, not to mention overflowing trash cans and understaffed garage sales.
The more awkward truth is that I can help in this world, but only as much as I can. Other people will help, as much as they can. Some solutions which are very good simply won’t make it, either because there wasn’t enough money or enough people or, more maddening to me, the timing was wrong.
But if I keep taking on everything, someday a wonderful solution will fail because one person can’t solve everything.