The Jewish Book Council is delighted to publish a continuing blog series in partnership with Ask Big Questions, an initiative out of Hillel International aimed at getting people to talk about issues of heart, soul and community. Each month, Ask Big Questions will feature a JBC author on their blog, shared here on the JBC ProsenPeople blog page, and in campus programming reaching over 10,000 college and graduate students.
Jessica Lamb-Shapiro is a fiction and non-fiction writer, currently touring through the 2014-2015 JBC Network with her memoir, Promise Land: My Journey Through America’s Self-Help Culture.
“To bother” is an odd verb. I usually think of it as synonymous with Why make an effort? It has come to mean that, but it also has a more specific origin. The verb “bother” dates back to the 1700s, and means to trouble, worry, or pester. It can also mean “to trouble oneself with thinking.” To make a fuss, to be troublesome. It has a meddlesome quality.
As children, we’re often told not to bother people. When children bother, they ask unending questions, or poke their sibling in the eye. “Stop bothering me!” says the child or adult who is fed up beyond politeness. How do adults bother? We both bother to dress and do work and fulfill responsibilities, but we can also protest and meddle and irritate. When we see injustice, we can still poke at it. Instead of fingers we use words, our thoughts, our physical presence.
A quick survey of the last few weeks of news are enough to make even the most resilient of us run for the fainting couch. The repeated failure to indict police in the prevalent shootings of unarmed black men. The unravelling Rolling Stone UVA rape story, which threatens sexual assault victims’ future credibility in the future and shifts attention from the serious and real issue of campus rape. I saw a fake New York Times issue where the lead story was titled “Everything’s Fucking Awful”. Headlines included “Seriously You Get Punished More for Jaywalking Than This Asshole Did for Shooting an Unarmed Kid”; “Oh, and Don’t Even Bother Escaping to the Arts Section, That Loveable Comedian We Grew Up Watching Basically Raped Everyone For Fifty Years”; and “Pizza Causes Cancer”.
Oh, and since I wrote the previous paragraph, 148 people have been murdered at a school in Pakistan, most of them schoolchildren.
It’s hard to feel like anything one might do would matter. Multiple distresses and disappointments have a way of piling on, and making one feel overwhelmed. Being meddlesome takes time and effort, and as we grow we understand that our time and effort is limited.
Every day, we make choices about which things to bother with, and which things to leave alone. Today I bothered to take a shower. I bothered to eat three meals and walk my dog. I read the paper. I did some work and I talked to a friend on the phone. The roof leaked; I put a bucket under it. Those things are normal and expected, but could we apply the same logic to larger issues? What is the bucket that we could put under this particular leak?
For a second I actually believed I might answer that, but the truth is I have no idea. I do think it involves bothering. It involves, at the very least, troubling ourselves with thinking. It may involve being meddlesome and troublesome. That behavior may look different on different people. This is how I bother: I write things. It feels useless and futile sometimes, to be sure, but I do it anyway.
Children understand that being bothersome is part of being alive, and that bothering is a kind of power. When they play the irritating “I’m Not Touching You” game, they are asserting themselves, and rejoicing in their ability to annoy without explicitly breaking rules. Bothering can be fun. What if we could bring the joyful irritant energy of “I’m Not Touching You” to bear on something powerful?
Bothering is an act of defiance. It is an assault on futility and hopelessness. It is a recognition that we live in a society, that our actions affect others, and that our lack of action also has consequence. If you bother, someone benefits. If you don’t bother, someone also benefits. Opting out is a false concept. You have opted in simply by existing. Perhaps the right question is not why bother, but how bother?
Jessica Lamb-Shapiro is the author of Promise Land: My Journey Through America’s Self-Help Culture and a former fellow at the MacDowell Colony and the New York Foundation for the Arts. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, The Believer, and McSweeney’s.