Robert (gurdonark) wrote,

Paying dues, being there.

"There's a sadness hidden in that pretty face
A sadness all her own from which no man can keep Candy safe"
--Springsteen song

Lately I think of how hard it is to help anyone with anything. No defeat succeeds as well as self-defeat. My new Chess Life Magazine came in yesterday, a much thinner issue than usual, telling stories of stark financial trouble for the US Chess Federation, which has been around since 1939. For years, now, dissident groups have filled the internet with attacks on this volunteer-driven non-profit. The attacks always seem to resemble debates of alternative cosmology within something like the Flat Earth Society--they start with reasonable issues, and soon degenerate into conspiracy theories more complex than the JFK/UFO Trilateral League by way of Havana theory. The real story, of course, is a matter of economics and "business model"--it's usually a good idea to take in more money than one pays out, and to encourage people to actually enjoy hosting and playing in tournaments, instead of foregoing paying dues, and just going to an internet chess server and playing 5 minute chess from one to two thirty in the morning. Also, it's probably a good idea to focus on people who really love chess, play chess, and pay dues, instead of worrying about how to cater to people who feel that chess owes them a living merely because they are talented (so many times in life, I find I owe people things merely,they tell me, because they are more talented than I am). But it's so much easier to "help" with nostrums from the outside, than it is to run a chess tournament, or help a worthy thing stay worthy.

But my topic tonight is not "should the USCF sell more chess books?" but rather the sheer difficulty of helping anyone change about anything.

Do you ever notice that you have ideal spaces in your mind into which certain people "fit" for odd reasons? I think of the old college friend, who, for years, phoned me to tell me about his problems. He'd call very late in the evening, spend hours on end via long distance telling me about his trials and tribulations, ask me what I thought, and then, when I weighed in with what I would now call "gurdonarkian" advice, would assure me that I understood absolutely nothing of what he was going through, and then ring off. For years this pattern went on, which did not really bother me, because in real life, I am sometimes one of those people whom people wish to confess to (or at least discuss what they are going through), but I always rather thought I was the one who gave benefit in these conversations. After all, what could be better than a friend who will both listen for hours on end, and then sit by complacently while you tell him that he has the understanding, to paraphrase and distort, of a newt? But when I had not heard from him for some time one year, after years of these calls, I found that I rather missed him. I phoned him up. He spoke for a moment, and then headed off the phone. He no longer really needed someone who didn't understand him. I realized, then, I had actually enjoyed this curious conversational pattern.

I read that sometimes when a longtime addict actually does stop doing the thing s/he was doing, this places great stress on his/her family members. The co-dependent patterns, apparently, adapt to a drunkard/drug user/gambler,etc., and cannot easily flex to deal with someone less dysfunctional.

I do not spend much time channel surfing the cable religious broadcast stations, as my tastes for living satire get sated in other ways, but I do like those faith healers who have tons of people come up to them for healing, right there on the show. The ill stand patiently in line, as no doubt everyone realizes that patience in line is probably a virtue when one gets to Heaven. Then, when their turns come, and they step up (or sometimes, hobble up or wheel up), the minister touches each ill person's forehead. As if by the touch of a divine force, the healed faints--to arise all brand new.
This is almost as cool as the notion that if one holds palms outstretched and waves arms in the air, the Spirit enters one easier, because, apparently, palm pores seep grace more easily than forearm pores. I hold my palms open sometimes, as if it works. I also touch thumb to forefinger, as if this makes me more meditative.

I work in one of the "service professions". I like to help people. I wish I helped more people than I do. When people asked me, when I was in college, what I wished to do for a living, I had the usual "starry eyed" response--"I just want to help people". Lately I wonder what profession I would do if I burn out on law. I wonder if I should get an independent study master's in public health. I think that the decay of our public health system is an issue not only of national morality (or lack of same) but also of national security. I imagine that helping people get access to treatment, or immunizations, or protection against whatever is raging rampant, must be a good thing. Besides, if I never used the degree for an independent job, I suspect it would be a useful set of knowledge for the practice of law. I became a patent lawyer three years ago, by way of analogy, after sixteen years of regular law practice. Although I don't help people apply for patents, even with the license to do so, I find the training extremely valuable with certain commercial litigation and transactional issues with patent fringes that come my way. Maybe my next quest should be an MPH. I love education, for its own sake, and wish I had more advanced degrees--in anything. But maybe I could train for the time, five years down the road, when I will be fifty and say "hey, I am not sure I want to litigate twenty more years". I love being a litigator--but it is a life with its own stresses and confrontations. Something tells me, though, that I have more to do before my life is done than go to court for people.

I love to help people with problems. Of course, I'm sure that part of this is the proverbial "let's help you with your issue so that I can avoid dealing with my own". But part of this is my thinking that people have to step in to bridge the gaps where self-interest does not pay off, and that this is one of the few ways to connect with people in any meaningful way. But here's the rub--ultimately, with most people, all one can really be is there.

I am not all that current on the literature, but I'm always intrigued by the statistics suggesting that for people with mild neuroses, professional counseling, while a positive thing, is not really much more successful than having a close friend with whom to talk. Of course, sadly, people with a profound and real set of needs for help--which therapy seems better able to address--sometimes rely on these stats to justify not seeking help. So no good statistic goes without punishing.

What interests me in life, though, is not having the kind of relationship with people in which childhoods are delved, and pat theories as to why people dysfunction as they do are tied down like so many marbles in a Chinese checker board.

I tend to think that people hold the key to their own prisons on lots of emotional things. I like to help people with concrete things--career advice, pragmatic possibilities for how life is actually lived. But I am not one of life's faith healers. Ultimately, all one can be, even in this pragmatic way, is a resource room--one's friend must decide whether there are any volumes on one's personal shelf worth reading.

Jane Austen's character "Emma" gets her comeuppance when she determines she knows best how to help people, and then tries to contrive matchmaking which all goes awry. I always liked that character, and the gentle satire about the egotism inherent in believing that one can "fix" another's life singlehandedly. I learn as the years go on that people are not like automobiles, matters of simple "fixes" and good gas mileage.

So, really, all one can say is "I'm here for you" and "I have some resources and ideas that I'd be happy to share with you, if you ask" and sometimes even "please pardon me for jumping in, but have you considered this?". It's so tempting to believe that one can touch foreheads and heal affliction, but the reality is that one can sometimes only be a friend indeed rather than a cable TV minister.

I posit, sometimes, that the main problem many people have are imagination and courage. Some people, myself included, literally cannot imagine how to make real, material change in their lives. Sometimes they wallow in their changelessness. Sometimes they make impulsive, self-destructive change instead of addressing their true needs.

I always like that saying that it's easier to become president if you're from a small town, because you imagine you can do anything when you're from a small town, while city folks tend to have the optimism beaten out of them day to day.

People do cool stuff all the time. Life is not just a big mousetrap. This week two paleontology hobby guys in nearby Arlington found a huge duck-billed dinosaur fossil on some future tract housing lot. Wonders are everywhere to be discovered, if only one has faith that one can find them.

As I see age 50 hovering on a horizon only 6 years away,
I try to learn two things--1. I can change, and will; and 2. I cannot be the engine of another's change, but I can be "there" for people anyway. If I learn these two things, then maybe I can then focus on how to save the United States Chess Federation, one four person tournament at a time.
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