Weird Library Encounters: Existential Crisis Guy

Some people (like my professors) think that working at a library reference desk means answering questions as myriad and unique as there are people in the world.

Or historical inaccuracies in 300

In reality, it’s usually just a lot of “Where are the mysteries?” and “Where can I find a book that’s exactly like Harry Potter but not Harry Potter?” Sometimes, though, there are those bright stars of individuality who do something so bizarre that I remember them after my shift is over, that I end up telling Steven about so many times they earn a nickname. “Nancy Drew Drunk Lady”, “Star Wars Quote Yelling Boy”, and “Angry Divorcing Mom” are but a few. This week I got to add another perfect, special butterfly to this rare and interesting collection with “Existential Crisis Guy”.

Existential Crisis Guy is maybe the weirdest encounter I have ever had at the library (which, if you’ll take a moment to think about it, is REALLY saying something). But also one of the most polite and uplifting, something I would never think about, say, Nancy Drew Drunk Lady. He came in asking for books about “basic virtues”, which, since we were in the children’s section, I assumed were for his kid. We have a lot of books about things like Responsibility and Caring for the preschool/early elementary crowd, so I showed him where they were. He took one of every single title we had in the section, even doubling up on some of the virtues if more than one series covered it. My first assumption was that he maybe had the most badly behaved child in the world, and that kid was about to get such a reading to.

Then he told me that the books were actually for him. He admitted that he wasn’t the strongest reader (which is a very brave thing to admit! Sometimes people understandably dance around the issue and it’s awkward) and also that he was “having a hard time”. He mentioned losing money, realizing that money can’t buy happiness, and that he is now desperately searching for inner peace. He turned to me with pleading eyes and asked, “Which is the book I can read to tell me how to be happy? How can I find inner peace?”

My first thought was, “Wow, out of the eight librarians on desks right now you thought I was the best person to ask this of?” I guess because on most days I feel so far away from inner peace–or, really, any kind of peace. I told him that there are lots of books about that, and all of them say something different. He seemed pretty bummed that there wasn’t one answer I could just hand him. I showed him the section on feelings and he seemed moderately happy with a book titled something like Being the Best Me I Can Be. I also kind of hesitantly showed him the religion section just in case, but he was having none of that, telling me that religion is not the same as inner peace, that he wanted spiritual happiness. Then he thanked me profusely, said he would be back after he finished “learning these basic morals”, and left.

For a long time after this encounter, I was pretty much freaking out. But the more I thought about it, the happier I got. Here was someone who was clearly in emotional distress. And he chose to come to the library for help. The library, you guys!

I was trying to think of other places people might go to with this sort of problem. Obviously many people, certainly in the past but still today, might turn to a church or religious counsel of some kind. Except when I tried to offer him this he seemed adamant that religion was not the kind of help he needed, that it had nothing to do with “spiritual happiness”.

What about the Internet? That great leveler of libraries that most of my professors are not-so-secretly afraid of? Why didn’t he just type “How can I be happy” into Google? There could be lots of reasons (including not having Internet access at home, for which you would also need to come to the library), but I think one of the main ones is that he needed to talk to another human. Especially with these kinds of problems, there’s little comfort in an algorithm, however well designed. Plus, do a search for “How can I be happy?” You get 1,320,000,000 results! And most of them are trite little tips about “spending time outside”. How are you supposed to sort through that? How are you supposed to find some kind of meaning in that? For some people and for some things, I think the library is the only place to go, whether they know it or not.

And it’s not like I can just tell you the answer. But neither can google, when it comes down to it. What I can do is show you how to maybe find an answer, which in the end, will probably help you more in the long run, when you come up with other questions, anyway.

Sometimes (okay, all the time) grad school gets me down for being a pointless waste of time. Sometimes I let the gloomsayers all around me affect my own attitude, question my own sense of purpose. The day before I met Existential Crisis Guy I had even been thinking things like, “Maybe people really don’t need libraries. Maybe they will disappear and I’ll have to find a different, less awesome job.” I know it’s not really on par with what Existential Crisis Guy was going through, but meeting him definitely helped me get over it. I can tell you with 100% surety that we NEED libraries. Maybe not for little things anymore, like looking up how tall giraffes get, but for big things, things where you need answers but also community.

So, thank you, Existential Crisis Guy. I hope I can help you as much as you’ve helped me.

5 responses to “Weird Library Encounters: Existential Crisis Guy”

  1. momladd says:

    Wow! Love you Tricia…

  2. Bova says:

    This is nice! It made me happy. I hope he finds what he was looking for too. I have been having a super rough time too…my recital is in 1 month and I’m starting to have recurring nightmares where I’m on stage and can’t remember any of my music. It’s stress-city over here. But we are going to make it!!! I miss you Patricia!!!!

  3. Barbara A. Bowen says:

    You just did for me, what he did for you. Thank you! B

  4. Karol says:

    Thanks for sharing Tricia!

    Made my Day…You’re AWESOME!

  5. Caitlin says:

    Thanks for sharing. I had a similar experience at the SPCA once, but it was much sadder. I’m glad this was so inspiring, and I hope he finds what he’s looking for. What a charming way of approaching problems.

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