I’ve written before about my overactive sense of sympathy.
When I see an old lady in the grocery store struggling to reach the Ovaltine on the top shelf or a guy eating lunch alone in a restaurant, it makes me want to cry. (Yes, I do help the old lady and no, I don’t invite the lonely guy to join me.)
I think one of the reasons I feel sorry for people so easily is because I tend to let my imagination run away with me.
The old lady in the store is short, but probably perfectly happy. She most likely has nineteen grandchildren who visit her every Sunday and takes cruises with her bowling team.
But I write this story in my head where she lives all alone on a fixed income in some dingy apartment with no visitors. She has to share her TV dinners with her seventeen year old cat and she never misses The Wheel of Fortune.
And the guy eating alone? Well, the restaurant was his fiancé’s favorite. They used to eat there frequently and he was there waiting for her on the night she was killed in a car crash. That was five years ago and he eats there alone every week, trying to mend his broken heart by ordering her favorite foods.
It’s no wonder I want to cry for them.
Of course, he’s probably a just construction worker in his lunch break in reality.
I create stories like that for inanimate objects too.
When I was in college, I found a teddy bear on the clearance shelf of a Hallmark store. He was off-white and had a strange wooden face. One side of his wooden snout was scratched. That must have been why he was on sale.
I had to buy him because I felt so sorry for him, sitting there with jellybean scented Easter candles and chipped picture frames. Poor little guy. What was going to happen to him if I didn’t bring him home?
I named him, quite unoriginally, Wooden Face Bear and he still sits on one of my bookcases. Whenever I go through a purging binge, I think about donating him to Good Will, but I worry that no one will love him, so he stays.
I don’t think I’d last very long on the Island of Misfit toys. I’d have a nervous breakdown or pack them all up and ship them to my house.
I can almost understand personifying stuffed animals. They look like real animals and are designed to be cute. But I do the same thing with books and music.
I believe that every book written and ever CD recorded has a little piece of the author/musician’s soul in them. At the very least there’s a lot of time, energy and talent involved.
So when I see a book or CD that I love in a sale bin or in a used book/music store, I want to buy it. I want to make sure it goes to a home that will appreciate it as a work of art.
This can be expensive, so sometimes I try to subtly convince others to buy them.
Every year there is a huge used book sale in my area. It’s a benefit for five colleges (Mt. Holyoke, Simmons, Smith, Vassar and Wellesley) and almost fills the first floor of our local high school. Fiction is in the cafeteria, nonfiction is in the gym and the hallways are lined with genre specific tables. It’s a book lover’s dream come true.
If I’m browsing through the fiction and find a book I’ve read and enjoyed, I announce in a loud voice, “I can’t believe someone would give this book away. It’s one of the best I’ve ever read.” Or something like that. Then I walk away a few steps and hope someone heard me and picks it up.
The atmosphere can be a little like a clearance event at Filene’s Basement at this book sale, so my comment usually does the trick, relieving me of the responsibility of buying the book myself.
But sometimes I’m the only one that can save these books from a life of loneliness.
Last weekend I went to our local Borders for their going out of business sale. The deals were great, even though the loss of Borders is sad.
In the sparse “literature” section, I came across three books by authors who attended the Books on the Nightstand Retreat last April, the same retreat where Matthew Dicks encouraged us to write, which prompted me to start this whole writing project.
Even if I had just read the books and hadn’t attended the retreat, I would have felt sorry for them. They were good books. But I felt even more responsible because I had met the authors. I had listened to them read from their books and speak about the creation process.
These authors weren’t anonymous writers whose books effortlessly poured out of them and were instantaneously published. They were real people who worked hard to get that book into bookstores and people’s hands.
I tried to resist. I told myself it was foolish to buy books that I’ve already read because they looked sad on the shelf and I had fleetingly met the author.
It didn’t work.
I left the store, but had to go back. I was haunted by those poor, unread books.
If you’re reading this and usually get a Christmas gift from me, expect a book this year. One written by a Books on the Nightstand Retreat author. But trust me, you won’t be disappointed.
And if you’re lucky I’ll happen onto a CD sale and you’ll get some great music too!
I suppose there are worse things than feeling sympathetic toward every person who looks a little sad, every ripped teddy bear and every book that stands alone on a shelf.
I’d rather be like this than never feeling compassion at all.
But I think apathy might be easier on my wallet.