What do you owe a long lost friend you haven't seen in 40 years who finds you on Facebook and begs for help?
That was the moral crevasse I fell into one morning looking through email. At first, I was happy to see R's name in my inbox. Amazed, to be honest. I am still in awe of the power of the Internet to connect us to people we no longer know. Mostly, these phantasmic rapprochements are harmless and casual but R's note had a different tone. "Please call me. I really need to talk to you," she wrote, adding a phone number with an Oklahoma prefix.
I could have ignored the note. After all, R hadn't crossed my mind in decades. We had nothing to do with each other's life. I could not imagine what urgent thing she could possibly have to tell me. Unfortunately, my caretaker's conscience would not allow me to click DELETE.
I dialed R's number with trepidation. When she answered, I almost remembered her voice; then, without missing a beat, R launched into a 15-minute litany of everything that was wrong with her life. She'd been an unhappy, isolated, fellow fifth-grader with adoptive parents and no friends the last time I'd seen her. Her life had only gotten worse, it seemed; the tales of woe that R related included sagas of betrayal and disappointment, professional disaster and romantic malaise. R's most recent boyfriend had left her that month — she'd never married — and she was at the end of her rope with no job, no health insurance, no prospects and no apartment. I felt terrible for R, truly, as you would for a stranger in distress, and did my best to offer some practical solutions, which she brushed off like so much dandruff. Then she got to the point.
"I really need some money," she said.
I was speechless at first. In five minutes, a woman I hadn't seen since elementary school had put her survival in my hands. Her welfare was now my problem, it seemed — thanks to Facebook. In the best of circumstances, I'm not great at saying no; with R, now, I felt I had no choice and offered her a few hundred bucks for food, expecting her to be hugely grateful.
Instead, there was silence on the phone. A long, disappointed pause. "Well, OK," she finally said. "But that's not going to do very much."
I hung up the phone in a minor rage. It reminded me of the time on 14th Street in Manhattan when I gave a homeless guy a quarter and he threw it back in my face. "What am I supposed to do with that?" he had the gall to ask.
R was so absorbed in her own pathos that she'd never asked me how I was or who I might have become between fifth grade and male pattern baldness. She couldn't have cared less. Adding insult to you've-gotta-be-kidding, R insisted that I wire the money that day. As I made my way to the bank, grumbling non-stop, I wondered what the hell I was doing.
What did I owe this long-lost friend? There must be a statute of limitations on assumed affection for characters from our previous lives? Alongside these questions ran a stream of self-doubt. Was I really as hard-hearted as I felt? This gave me a creepy, right wing sensation, the same one I feel when barreling past homeless folks on the street, changing channels on world disasters, and failing to make a contribution to public TV that I watch all the time.
When he was president, Ronald Reagan kept a quote by Emerson close to his desk in the White House. It read, "ARE THEY MY POOR?" Though Emerson had meant this to be a goad toward self-reliance — not a mantra for the 1% — I understood that sentiment now. Thinking of R, I asked myself, "Is she my basket case?"
I wanted to feel more compassion for her but all I felt was conned. This led to a personal aha moment — even though I'm a pretty good person, I'm not that good.
I still want generosity to be voluntary. And I want what technology's robbing us of: the ability to move on without being traced, to shed less-than-essential people, affiliations, and romps down memory lane, the chance to let time do its natural work of winnowing, narrowing and making authentic the group of souls with whom we choose to mate with for life. Facebook unlocks too many doors and lets in the past where it doesn't belong.
I tried to give R another chance. Hoping that I was wrong, I called her two weeks after sending the money just to see how she was doing. R was in exactly the same state as the first time — whiny, self-absorbed, uninterested in solutions and indifferent to my state of being — a stone-cold narcissist trapped behind a one-way mirror.
She mentioned needing me to send her just "a little more" money, which she would pay back, of course, just as soon as hell froze over. I hung up the phone on the pretext of work and decided that that was enough. I needed to cut R loose.
When she calls now, I let it go to voicemail. I feel bad but not bad enough to answer. I've got my own basket cases to care for. The truth is: I'm not that good.