A day or so after I hearing the Invisibilia piece that inspired my post about Max Hawkins and his life-randomizing nonsense I saw a kindness.org video of a guy named Joe. Joe has a few things in common with Max. Both are young men, both have floppy hair, both have beards and mustaches, both are slender (though Joe looks a bit more muscular than Max), both are cute (though Joe is more straight-up, conventionally cute as opposed to Max and his nerdboy appeal). There are differences, of course. Max is bespectacled, Joe isn’t. Max is white, Joe is Black.
They share an interest in upending the way they approach human interaction, an interest in bringing more strangers into their lives.
But when I watched Joe’s video, I was left with none of the feelings I had after hearing the NPR piece on Max. Joe’s random acts of service or kindness are putting him in contact with a number of strangers, all kinds of strangers, strangers Max’s apps would never find. Joe is sharing time with some of these people — sometimes only a moment, but other times longer. He is broadening his world, randomizing his life. So why is he not annoying and upsetting me the way Max does?
Well, of course, it’s because he’s not stalking people’s private events and gate-crashing their parties. Of course it’s because he isn’t starting FB groups that encourage other people to disregard folks’ privacy. Of course it’s because he isn’t creating apps that will help abusive husbands and stalker boyfriends and fatal attraction girlfriends and thieves track people’s whereabouts. Of course.
But it’s more than that. It’s “other” than that. It’s the mindset behind Joe’s actions. One of the things that really angered me about Max’s story was his entitlement, his confidence in his right to invade other people’s spaces, his sense that — because he was bored and looking for new and fun things to do — it was okay for him to stride into someone else’s life and make himself at home.
There’s none of that with Joe. Joe’s motivation is to show some human kindness and maybe meet some nice people in the bargain. He approaches strangers and offers himself to them. There’s no sense of his feeling entitled to their time and attention, no inviting himself into their private parties and gatherings.
And he backs away when his offers are rejected. I’m sure Max would do the same if people didn’t welcome him in — he does seem like a nice guy, after all — but the NPR piece gives the impression that he was welcomed everywhere he went, so I’ll just have to have faith that he would have backed off.
In the video, we see a few instances of people rejecting Joe’s offer. A couple in a park can’t think of anything they need. An older woman doesn’t need help with her bags. And we see two women who don’t want to be approached by a man they don’t know.
Joe doesn’t annoy me. He charms me. He makes me wish I was on the street in London being approached by him. I don’t actually need any help, but maybe I’d ask him for directions or a recommendation of someplace nice to go for dinner. Something. Whereas I would close my door in Max’s face.
I want Joe and Max to meet. I want them to talk about their approaches to strangers and randomizing their lives. Would Max be able to see enough of the difference in what they’re doing, the ways that Joe offering himself up to strangers isn’t grounded in what Joe can get from the experience?
Because that’s a thing that speaks to me in these stories. Max’s plans began with his desire to do something for himself, his desire to make his life more interesting, to broaden the focus of his lens. It’s likely that the people who welcome Max into their events and their homes get something from the encounter, from Max. Of course. Imagining that is simple because Max seems likable and interesting. The fact of his random appearance at an event, at a dinner table, would automatically make for lively conversation. So the people whose space Max invades get something in the deal. Yes, but the primary focus of that transaction is Max, the transaction happens for his benefit.
I imagine Joe gets quite a lot from his interactions. And surely a good part of his decision to do this experiment is to feel good about himself, as one of the women in the video says. But it’s more than that. He was inspired because of a friend’s birthday and wanting to honor that day, celebrate the way he valued that person. Notice how there’s nothing in there about what he needs, what he’ll get
I’m not trying to paint Joe as selfless and saintly. He seems like a regular guy, not perfect, not awful. He seems like a kind, gentle man. And he seems like a person who’s able to see beyond himself more clearly than Max can. And his ability to see beyond himself makes all the difference, is a large part of what makes his story endearing while Max’s mostly just pisses me off.
There are more layers to this — as to all things. Seeing Joe’s video made me think about what it means that it’s men in both cases. Are there videos of women running around putting themselves in the hands of strangers? I want to hope there are, though I haven’t found one yet. Because a woman doing this would be different — for her and for the people with whom she interacted. Maleness is something Max and Joe share, and neither man calls attention to or in any way makes clear his awareness of the freedom, the privilege, that comes along with that maleness.
Both present as men. The way men are seen by strangers varies depending on the man. There’s no indication in the Invisibilia piece that Max ran into any negative responses to his maleness. With Joe, however, there are two instances in which young women reject his offer — or attempt to offer. In both instances, it’s easy to imagine that those women are reacting to the discomfort of having a strange man walk up and start asking something.
But then we add race. Would either of those young women who fast-walk away from Joe have paused to hear Max out? Would the woman who tells Joe she’s fine with her bags have accepted Max’s offer of help? It’s impossible to know, of course, but the question sits heavy for me.
Race aside, I’m still thinking about how Joe and Max navigate the response — or potential response — to maleness. We see two young woman give Joe the brush off. In the second instance in particular, we see Joe do a quick about-face away from her. Something in his quickness spoke to me … of his awareness of and respect for her space and feelings.
And I know I said “race aside,” but that about-face also spoke to me of Joe’s awareness of others’ perceptions of and responses to him as a Black man. Where Max, for all that he and Joe share many physical characteristics, might be perceived as harmless, Joe is more likely to be perceived as a threat.
Which isn’t Max’s fault, and isn’t something he necessarily needs to take into account when he makes decisions about approaching strangers. I think we’re meant to assume this is the privilege we’re told Max acknowledges, but there was nothing in the piece to show that awareness. Inherent bias isn’t Max’s fault, but Joe’s about-face — his need to be aware of bias in ways that Max will likely never have to be aware — spoke loudly to me.
In the end, what’s true is that I like Joe and find his video heartwarming. I like Joe. I like that he reaches out to both children and adults. I like his English accent. I like that he’s a pretty brown man with locs and facial hair (my most favorite kind of pretty men!).
Naturally, I wonder if I’m partial to Joe because he’s a pretty brown man with locs and facial hair. I probably am. I am aware of my preferences, my biases. But I’m also able to see them and try to think past them. Beyond Joe’s sweet face and charming accent, I like how invested he is in thinking about his relationships with others — the people who are his friends and people he doesn’t know. I like that he seems aware of the space he takes up, and that he wants to be intentional about how he takes that space.
The differences between Max and Joe are stark in my eyes. And the two men play interestingly off one another in my head. Without Max, I wouldn’t have been able to articulate exactly why I like Joe so much. Without Joe, I would have continued to wonder if I was being too hard on Max. It isn’t the idea of life-randomization that’s problematic. It’s possible to randomize your day to day without the ugly side-effects. Focusing beyond ourselves as Joe does, seems to be the key — thinking about ways we can help other people, not only about how we can make our own lives more fun or interesting.
I’m on my #GriotGrind, committed to writing an essay a week … except that I’m WAY behind! I’m determined to catch up, to write 52 essays by year’s end.
I’m following Vanessa Mártir‘s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.