What Happens When You Don’t Have a Big Enough Heart

When I was in my twenties, I believed I was my brother’s keeper.  I marched in anti-nuclear demonstrations.  I did backstage security for Peace Sunday.  I recycled my newspapers, even though it was terribly inconvenient.  I gave money to the homeless.  But to me, it came down to individuals.  It was important to help out people who were in trouble.

At the time, I was working on Shape magazine, and they worked us very hard.  Shape was just starting out and had not established itself yet, and there were only three people on staff to put out a monthly magazine.  It was hard mental work and it gave me a lot of anxiety.  Sometimes, I felt short of breath; other times, I had an intense pressure in my chest; still others, I couldn’t get the knot out of my neck.

ImageOne evening after arriving home, I passed by a new tenant on my way to the front door.

“Hey dude, whassup?” he said, his eyes fuzzy with that familiar agricultural glaze.  “I jus’ moved in.  I’m Tony.”

I stopped to shake hands, but at the same time, felt the gravitational pull of things I had to do.  Still, he was quite a talker.  He talked about kung fu movies and marijuana.  He said he was a Vietnam War vet.

“Hey, come over sometime and I’ll show you some martial-arts moves,” he said, and then struck a Bruce Lee pose.  “Hai-ya!”

“Yeah, sure, sometime,” I said.  “Listen, I gotta go.”

I believed in reaching out, but I was torn by Tony’s offer of friendship.  I had been similarly torn in the past.  As a child, a boy named Mark had moved in two doors down and our mothers had urged us to play together.   After five minutes of playing, I was intensely bored.  He was smaller than me and had horn-rimmed glasses that seemed to render him blind.  In fact, he was blind in a lot of ways.  He wasn’t nearly as sharp as any of my other friends.  He didn’t have any of my same interests.  When we played wiffle ball, he played like the worst kid on any team I had ever been on.

Age 11 swinging a bat in our backyard

Age 11 swinging a bat in our backyard

Still, I felt an obligation to keep Mark company.  He was the new kid.  He was lonely.  He had a bully for a stepfather.  But the friendship didn’t last, and I sometimes felt guilty that I had shirked my responsibility.

In fact, guilt seemed to me the defining state of adolescence.  I was always feeling guilty about something.  When I read the novel Demian, by Hermann Hesse, at age 16, I had an Aha! moment.  An adolescent begins stealing things, and then feels guilty for the thefts for the rest of the novel.  I had never seen this portrayed in print, and it pierced my heart.  Later, I began to wonder whether guilt was just an adolescent stage rather than an indication of culpability.

So 15 years down the road, when Tony repeatedly asked me to get together with him, I was clearly carrying some excess baggage.  Still, I turned him down.  I was so busy with the magazine.  This, after all, was my brilliant writing career I was working on.  I was giving it 110% and it was taking its toll.  I was learning about deadlines and crunch week and em dashes and pagination and galleys and all of the minutiae that would qualify me as a working professional editor/writer.  Indeed, three years later, I qualified for the prestigious American Society of Journalists and Authors (to which I still belong) and started writing for Mademoiselle, Harper’s Bazaar, Psychology Today, and other august national and international publications on four continents.

But one Sunday morning in my apartment, I heard grunting and clanking downstairs.  I looked out my window to the open garage below.  It was Tony, working out with his numchuks.

“Hut!  Hut!  Hut!  Hut!” he grunted every time he made a move.

Tony looked pretty stoned, but he was still giving it a go.  I thought about going down and saying hello, but I had work to do.  Sunday wasn’t really a day off for those in the publishing business.

The following Tuesday, I came home to a strange sight.  Jenny, our elderly apartment manager, was crying uncontrollably on the sidewalk.

“What is it?”

“It’s Tony….” she started in her cigarette-grizzled voice, pointing to his apartment.

It was then that I noticed the police tape stretched in front of Tony’s apartment door.  Several days earlier, on the first of the month, Tony hadn’t paid his rent.  Jenny had knocked on his door, but he didn’t answer.  A few days later, worried that something might have happened to him, she used her master key and entered his unit.  She noticed a foul smell coming from the bathroom.  She tried to open the door but it was blocked, so she stuck her head inside, then screamed.  It was Tony’s corpse.

Police later told us they found a zip gun next to the body.  He had shot himself in the head.

Just five years later, at my 20th high school reunion, I learned that Mark had committed suicide, too.

In the years that followed, I’ve tried to make sense of it all.  There were so many people in trouble, it seemed.  Both of these had reached out to me for something, and I had tried to give it to them.  But I was far more interested in myself.  I reflected on my responsibility to others, but also on my low threshold for boredom.  My heart had bled for Hiroshima victims, a fashionable concern, but not for my literal neighbor.  I had marched with Harvard and Yale grads for an abstraction but hadn’t had time to share an illegal smile with a lonely Vietnam vet.  My friend Gretchen would have befriended them.  She seemed to have had a greater ability to suffer troubled souls gladly.  In comparison, I was a bad person.

Thinking about it through the years, I have hung my head a lot.  At first, I put it into the box labeled, What Happens When You Don’t Have a Big Enough Heart.  Then I put it into a box labeled, Troubled War Vets.  Then I put it in a box labeled, My Father Was a Troubled War Vet, Too, and My Mother Healed Him with Love.

These days, however, I put it into another box.  It cuts me a lot more slack.  It makes me feel better.  It’s the box labeled: There Is So Much Trouble in This Sad Old World.


9 thoughts on “What Happens When You Don’t Have a Big Enough Heart

  1. I never really know how to feel after I read one of your stories. Your writing is beautiful but your stories are often so heartbreaking. I think you probably have a very large box labelled ‘I feel too deeply’. I suspect you are a very good man.

      • Sorry!!! I didn’t mean to be cryptic. I said I didn’t know how to feel because your stories ‘hurt my heart’. On one hand, I look forward to your stories and I really like your writing style … on the flip side, I just feel so much sadness from your words. Thank you – don’t stop.

  2. It may sound (and be) “heartless” but I don’t believe I’m here to save everyone who I come into contact with who needs saving. I came to this belief after going through similar experiences you did.

    And after trying to help some folks, I realized that some don’t really want to help themselves…they just want you to feel to sorry for them and suck the emotional energy out of you. Kinda like emotional vampires, they are a type of predator.

    What I’ve found is that sometimes the way to “help” people is by being a role model to make them believe in themselves. If you can do it, they can do it. The impact of that is much broader than directly helping a handful of folks on a one-to-one basis.

    In my small (400 or so) private college prep high school, there was a very defined hierarchy. The elite, who were in everything (sports and student government and just about all else), a small “middle class” and the “masses.” I was in the middle class because I had been at the school since Kindergarten and was a contender for class clown. (In college, I realized that being able to make folks laugh is a powerful advantage.)

    One of the nicer “elite” made an encouraging comment in a basket ball game during gym my freshman year: I was fast and if I practiced I could become good. I was always the last picked for a team, so I found that comment…interesting. I wondered why he had made the comment but believed he was sincere.

    That summer, I spent almost the whole day every day playing basketball at the park. On the pickup courts, I went from being last picked to being among the first.

    So sophmore year, I tried out for junior varsity. That surprised most folks. I had a lot on the line, because if I did not make the team, I felt that would “prove” only the “elites” were worthy. Plus, I would have failed in front of the whole school.

    When the team names were posted, I was very stressed to look at the list. Both to my surprise and unsurprise, there was my name. I was 12th of 12 and saw little play time. But, I was one of 12. I had made the team!

    The Friday of (or before) a game, when I wore the warm-up jacket during class, I was amazed how so many of the “masses” wished me well, even though I rarely played. When I was not on the team, I did not wish any of the players well, mostly because I felt they would not acknowledge me.

    Decades later, I learned from friends and class reunions that making the team was the revolutionary act I had hoped it would become. I had shown that someone not an “elite” could succeed and that I had inspired lots of folks to make an effort in some area they had aspired to, not necessarily sports.

    The inertia of that success was unbelieveable. I now took it as fact that I can accomplish anything I wanted to if I put enpough effort into it.

    When I went to a small college of 1,000 where I had no “history” I reinvented myself. By the end of my sophomore year, I was the undisputed BMOC. I was #2 on the college newspaper, which I used to promote my views, and leader of a “radical” faction that swept the student government elections.

    But I always paid attention to everyone because I felt that the only difference between me and another person was how much someone was willing to invest in accomplishing goals *and* having self-confidence. I believe that if I can help them with a push on the latter, they can take care of the former.

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