An Unknown Debt

I’ve been thinking lately about encouragement, and how seldom we as a culture are willing to give encouragement to others. I suspect much of that ties into toxic masculinity: the idea that people without sufficient skills or confidence to succeed deserve to suffer isn’t new, but seems popular these days.

I’ve been thinking about this ever since late August. I was at GeekKon when an acquaintance of mine stopped me as I passed the booth at which he was working. He thanked me for encouraging him at last year’s GeekKon. He was out of work then, and feeling pretty low. At the time I had suggested a couple of places I knew to be hiring, saying that I knew they weren’t career-type jobs, but at least they’d get him back on his feet while he looked for something better. To be honest, I thought nothing further of it until he brought it up two months ago. He said he wanted to thank me for encouraging him to keep looking. He ended up getting a job at one of the employers I suggested, and had indeed moved on to a better job since then. I was stunned to hear this; at the time I was trying to be encouraging to someone I barely knew in hopes of cheering him up a little. I’ve certainly needed cheering up from time to time, and I was deeply moved to have this man tell me I’d made a difference in his life, thanking me for it, even.

Over the years I’ve received plenty of encouragement too — much of it in regard to writing. There’s one incident that comes strongly to mind: Many years ago I was into fanzines. Fanzines are like paper newsletters that people sent out to each other, covering whatever subject the author had in mind. People printed these up and mailed copies to friends and acquaintances — a practice that began in science fiction fandom in the 1930s, when travel was difficult and arduous, and conventions didn’t yet exist. People wrote more letters back then, and this was a way to keep in touch with many people at once — the precursor to the form Christmas letter we know (and sometimes loathe) today. After receiving these fanzines, people would often write a letter back, commenting on the content or sharing relevant stories of their own. In this way, fanzines became one of the main ways science fiction fans kept in touch with each other. To discover more about fanzines, I highly recommend taking a stroll through EFANZINES.COM to learn more about what fanzines are today.

I published a fanzine back in the late 1980s called Solomon’s Seal, covering occult and supernatural topics. In putting together my mailing list with the help of fans who had gone down this road before, I added a few contacts of my own. One of them was Sandy Peterson, author of one of my favorite tabletop role playing games, Call of Cthulhu. I’m not really sure what I expected to happen, but I certainly didn’t expect to receive a letter from Mr. Peterson, thanking me for the fanzine and encouraging me — sincerely and with gusto — to keep writing, saying my fanzine was the type that he liked to see and felt was needed.

I had the opportunity a couple of years ago to thank Mr. Peterson personally at GenCon for his encouragement back then. He seemed confused, and I could hardly blame him for that: it’s been 30-ish years since the one and only issue of Solomon’s Seal made it’s way through the postal service, plus it was loud in the convention hall, and a seemingly endless parade of fans had been wandering through Chaosium’s booth to shake Mr. Peterson’s hand. Still, I’m glad I had the chance to tell him to his face how much his encouragement meant to me back then. That he would take them time to write a letter to give encouragement to someone he didn’t even know still humbles me now, decades later.

We sometimes never know the effect we have on the lives of others. When something like this comes up, it’s important for all of us to recognize that we can be powerful forces for good, even if only one person at a time. That, to me, is the most important lesson I’ve ever learned. Encourage someone: tell them when you admire or enjoy their work. So many of us are living on the edge of our wits, wondering if our creative endeavors are worth the time and trouble: one word of encouragement from a friend, colleague, or even a total stranger, can make a word of difference in someone’s life. Do that. It costs you nothing except a little bit of time, and can mean the world to someone.

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