One of this morning’s messages caught my eye, it was from a loyal and long-time reader and follower of the blog.
“It is with great fear and trepidation that I send you this information that is well intended and hope that you read it as such.” This nice woman had talked to her daughter, a veterinary student, about Gus’s disorder and her daughter had told her about the Bailey Chair, something I never heard of a few days ago and hear about daily now.
The woman thanked me in advance for not tossing her off my blog for writing me. I want to say I am not angry with her in any way. She is clearly a good-hearted person who just wanted to help. I was horrified by the fear I sensed in her message. Is that who I am?
Over the years, I have written frequently – and quite often in what I saw as humor – about the people who shower me with unwanted advice and who cross what I consider to be the boundaries of my life as an author, who likes to make his own mistakes and learn his own lessons.
Sometimes I need advice and sometimes I take it, but not from strangers online, and not when I am making complex and intensely personal decisions, in this case with my wife and our vet.
The writer E.B. White was a great inspiration for me when I started the Bedlam Farm Journal in 2007. An author and New Yorker writer (“One Man’s Meat) who bought a farm in Maine and wrote about rural life. I wish I could write like him, but cannot.
But he encountered something I have struggled with for years in a different way.
He was taken aback by the mail he received, by the demands on his time and space raised by the volume of his correspondence – people were touched by his writing about life on a Maine farm, and also about his love of dogs and other animals. They gave him much unwanted advice and rattled his sense of privacy, and expected a certain kind of grateful response.
In frustration one day, he wrote a column in which he pleased for patience and understanding from his readers: “There are 10,000 of you,” he wrote, “and only one of me.” He struggled to be patient and accepting of the intrusions and demands on his once private and inner space. It was a struggle he never quite mastered or figured out.
His pleas, he wrote later, were ignored, and he realized his effort to draw boundaries was a hopeless effort doomed to fail.
He decided to deal with the wave of personal and sometimes intrusive mail in a different way. Sometimes he ignored it, sometimes he answered as best as he could. He did not criticize people for writing to him.
I am learning the same lesson. Life does not always go the way you want it to go, and acceptance is the pathway to spirituality and peace of mind. White wrote that many of his readers were terrified of angering or displeasing them, and he decided that he didn’t care to frighten the people who read his writing.
This morning, I got about a dozen messages (many more last week) about Gus and his struggle with megaesophagus. Most of the letters and e-mails were written to inform me about a custom-built chair called the Bailey Chair, which requires the afflicted dog to sit upright in the chair, and which has a table piece in front of it. The idea is to use gravity to pull food down through the swollen esophagus (which is a muscle) and into the digestive tract.
When Gus was diagnosed, our vet told us rsight away about the Bailey Chair, and I went online and read about it. There are dozens of links to sites that build the chair or write about it. I wrote about it at least a half-dozen times and have mentioned it almost every time I’ve written about our efforts to deal with Gus’s megaesophagus.
I link to a Bailey Chair every time I write about it so that other people can learn about it as well as me. I am a published author, which means I can be vain and narcissistic by definition, and I admit it irritates me to be told about things i have written about in great detail. Okay, so many people comment on what I write without reading it. Suck it up.
I also truly am dumbfounded by people who know I don’t want this kind of stranger-driven advice from strangers I do not know, but who blithely and regularly ignore my feelings and send it along anyway. I cannot imagine beginning a letter to someone with the words “I don’t you don’t want my advice, but here it is.” I don’t get it.
But I am not a King, and what is in my mind is rarely in the minds of most other people. And social media promotes the idea that we are all friends and digital lovers, it just takes a click. It is a profoundly incestuous medium.
(All week, I have been getting waves, Emojis, clocks, cut photos and drawings and e-greetings to mark the New Year, I must have gotten 1,000 of them over the weekend. When the Revolution comes I hope they come for Facebook Messenger first.
I don’t understand how anyone could read or absorb them, another challenge of staying sane in the Facebook world. There are 10,000 of you, but only one of me. There are hundreds of thousands of you, but only one of me.
I know it’s my own shortcoming, or perhaps my own swollen ego, but as the author of nearly a dozen books about dogs, and someone who appreciates vets and listens carefully to them and writes about them, it would be somewhat inexcusable if I didn’t know about the Bailey Chair.
I would be guilty both of abuse and idiocy if I didn’t know what a Bailey Chair was after being told my dog’s life could be endangered by his defective esophagus, which controls his ability to eat and digest food. I wonder why people would think me so lazy or blind as to not know things like this, (don’t leave a dog in hot car with the windows closed) when knowing these things is literally how I make my living.
In my young life, I was often called stupid and treated like I was dumb, so perhaps I am just too sensitive to the suggestion.
As it happens, we are not getting a Bailey Chair.
What is interesting about the letter I received today is that the writer knew – and stated herself – that I didn’t want this advice and she was clearly frightened to give it to me. She was afraid do it, so I hope task her why she did.
It is one thing to disagree with people and argue about boundaries – this is an important conversation for anyone who writes online to be having. It is another thing to scare the wits out of them.
But I think I didn’t really realize how powerful some people think my words are, and how frightened they are of my using those words to attack or criticize them. For them, it is just not a fair fight. I have always believed we are all responsible for our own words, and that I have every right to define my boundaries and identities.
But i just didn’t grasp how powerful my words are to many. I just do not see myself as a powerful person.
. I value my privacy and identity, I have worked hard for both, but my discomfort with using my words to scare people is more important to me than getting unwanted advice. Nobody who writes me in good faith – no matter how misguided I might feel they are – should feel fear and trepidation about sending me a civil and well-meaning message like the one I got today.
What I take from this is that I can continue to raise the question of boundaries and privacy and dignity online, but I cannot continue to frighten people.
Like E.B White, one of my literary mentors and guides, I realize that my frightening and scolding people doesn’t work. It’s a hopeless task in the digital age, when everyone feels entitled to remark on everyone else’s life at any time, and when the reigning ethic on social media is that if someone puts him or herself out there, the bullseye is on their back, and they forego any right to privacy, identity, or conventional boundaries.
This is the way it is, and I can be the problem or the solution. I don’t wish to frighten anyone with my words, and I apologize for failing to grasp their power. When I argue with someone, I presume we are equals, and that we can be candid and direct with one another. That is sometimes true, most often not.
There is an imbalance of power between a published author who uses words to make a living, and someone out in the ether approaching someone they see as a kind of celebrity and authority figure whose words and persona can be very frightening.
My irritation at getting a message like this is minor compared to my sorrow and unease at using my words to frighten people. That is just not who I want to be.
I am sensitive to my identity, I have worked hard and fought for it, and an important part of identity is taking responsibility for my life, not turning my decisions over to other people. It is my job and Maria’s and our vet, to treat and diagnose Gus, not anyone else’s. It is my job to care for my dog and l earn what I need to know. If I need help, I know where to go to get it.
I am responsible for me, you are responsible for you. Please don’t take on my troubles because I share them with you. That is the boundary by which I l have learned to live.
If you tell me you don’t want unwanted advice, I will respect you and your dignity and not give it to you. For me, it is as simple as that, the end of it, no matter how crazy I might be. No means no.
But it is not as simple as that, I have learned.
My approach isn’t working, not if if frightens people. Time to change.
i asked Maria this evening if she found me frightening.
She looked up a bit shocked.
“No!,” she said. “Why do you ask?”
“Because it seems that some people find me fearsome…”
She burst out laughing. I can tell you the woman I live with is not frightened of me in any way. Today, I went outside in the cold for too long and was turning blue, and she grabbed by the collar and ran me right into the house.
“No,” she said, “they are not afraid of you, they are afraid of your words. When you go after someone, even if you mean it to be humorous, it can be very frightening to them, especially if they have been reading your books and blog for some time. They know what you can do with words…”
I was very careful in responding to the woman who wrote me that message about the Bailey Chair. First, I thanked her for writing me. Then, I said i knew of the chair and didn’t want one, and I added I appreciated her concern for me and for Gus. I skipped my usual ranting about unwanted advice and assured her that i was not angry with her.
She wrote back and thanked me for being gracious, she said she was busy and hadn’t had a chance to read the blog in the past few days. I have no idea what she learned from the exchange, but I know what i learned: words can hurt and frighten people, and I have more power in these exchanges than they do.
I felt good about that.
My goal in 2018 as a blogger and write is not to frighten anyone, apart from my own sometimes disturbing life and demeanor. I can keep some of my powerful words to myself, or as the Roman General said, carry a light sword.
An interesting idea, for me, and honestly, a new and fairly deep one for me to consider. Above all, I don’t wish to be a source of fear, there is cable news for that. I think I will follow E.B. White’s lead and ignore the messages that bother me, and graciously answer the ones written in good faith.
If I have frightened anyone with my words in 2018, I will fail. If I can manage to write about this with humor and grace, I will have succeeded.