The Ghosts of Loneliness

The month after the September 11th terrorist attacks, my wife and I decided to visit the harvest festival at Cox Farms in Virginia. She’d heard about it from our neighbors so we took a Saturday to see what it was all about.

It was a windy fall day with clear skies, and the festival area was already busy when we arrived. From the parking lot, we walked through the entry gates into an open, gently sloping area bordered by corn fields. Pumpkins, straw bales and gathered cornstalks decorated everything.

Our two-year-old daughter, bundled in layers, ran to the first activity area. It was a small stage with percussion instruments for the kids to play. Some music was coming through a sound system and my daughter picked two drum sticks and banged along on a log. My wife and I sat on some hay bales and watched the somewhat chaotic “music.”

My wife and daughter at Cox Farms in 2001.

My wife and daughter at Cox Farms in 2001.

I carried our younger child, not quite one year, in the carrier backpack. He was bundled too and hunkered down against the wind. He peered out at the activity around him but seemed content to stay in his nest.

Our daughter next wanted to try the long slide. Built into the side of a slope, I thought it would be daunting to a small child but she was game. At the bottom we waited and as she slid to a stop in the soft straw, she looked as if it were a bit much.

“Would you like to go again?” I asked.

“No,” she said. So we moved on to the next thing.

My wife and I had come to Cox Farms that day looking for something. It had been a rough year for us. Our son had been born through an emergency caesarian section when my wife had suffered a ruptured aneurysm while pregnant. The subsequent brain surgery, while saving her life, caused trauma that required months of rehab and supervised care. And all while we tried to raise two small children.

The aneurysm was an event that divided our lives into “before” and “after,” a clear marker that separated what we wished for our future from what was now actually achievable. The brain trauma also created a separation between “us” and “them”—those who understood what brain injury was all about and those who could not.

These twin difficulties worked in tandem to create a feeling of isolation for us. And the September 11th attacks only added to our desire to find connection with others and with a normal flow of life.

But we didn’t find it that day, nor for several years to come. The loss and the resulting loneliness were with us constantly, a formless presence that acted out when least appropriate, seeping into our daily routines and interactions. It seemed to live in our bones.

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Honesty Is Not Always the Best Policy

Promise?

When I was 18, I was naïve about many things. Prominent among those things was how to behave around girls. While most boys were busy learning the social rules, I blundered along in my ignorance. So the day when a pretty girl in my grade offered to give me a back rub, with my shirt off, I accepted without reading anything into it. Sometimes a back rub is just a back rub.

She had me lay face down and, using some lotion, she began the massage. Honestly, I wasn’t enjoying it much. I was having trouble relaxing as I wondered what to say when she was done. I’d had better massages before and I’ve had better since. I decided that I should just be honest.

“How was that?” she asked as she sat back.

“It was okay,” I said.

“Okay?!” she said, with a look of amused surprise, and perhaps a trace of hurt.

In hindsight, I should have lied. I should’ve said it was great, fantastic even. Anything but what I said. But I said what I was thinking. And I’ve regretted it for decades.

I guess that, sometimes, honesty is not the best policy.

Just to be clear, I’m not advocating deliberate deceitfulness. I’ve been around enough liars and truth-benders to know that it’s never a sustainable way to be. What I want to consider instead is the value of sticking to unvarnished honesty at all costs. Perhaps there is room for a place that exists somewhere between a hurtful lie and the brutal truth.

My dictionary defines honesty as “truthfulness” and truth as “honesty,” but perhaps it’s not as simple as all that. Gandhi understood that there exists a distinction between truth and full disclosure. “Who can say how much I must give and how much omit in the interests of truth?” he wrote in his Autobiography. To focus overly much on bald-faced honesty ignores that there are more subtle forces involved.

The Biblical Ten Commandments include the following: “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” All my life, this has been interpreted for me as “never lie.” Strictly speaking, this would require unvarnished honesty at all times. Under this scheme, the so-called “white lie” is still a lie and should not be tolerated.

Technically, though, the commandment is less universal than that, requiring only that no “false witness” be used against your “neighbor.” What about when talking with your husband or wife, for instance? If you tell them you are happy to be married in a moment when you are not entirely convinced of the truth of that statement, is that false witness? What about with your child? When you tell them their popsicle stick collage “art” is beautiful, is that false witness? Maybe an occasional dishonesty is okay, even in the eyes of God.thou-shalt-not-lie

In the farcical movie Liar, Liar (1997), Jim Carrey plays a man condemned to always tell the truth. Quickly, it becomes apparent that all honesty all the time leads to awkward situations and hurt feelings. Even when people say “be honest” they often don’t mean, literally, honest. The story implies that a little dishonesty once in a while acts as a type of social lubricant, easing the friction of our daily lives. Take that away and we are faced with the loss of a measure of civility.

Does this suggest that we will all descend down the slippery slope as we abandon honesty? I don’t think so for a few reasons. For one, with the exception of young children and those with mental health problems, people normally understand when a small lie cross the line into more sinister territory. As long as we have some kind of value system, we can maintain a distinction between the two.

For another, many people frequently find themselves in situations where they feel they have to “fake it.” As the author Susan Cain points out in her book Quiet, this is often true for introverts. It also can be true for those stuck in an unsatisfying line of work or difficult family situation. The trick is not mistaking a surface level of feeling false for a deeper-rooted inauthenticity. The inner compass should remain true, despite of moments of uncertainty.

Truth, honesty, lies, and deceit—there’s plenty of all of them to go around. So what is the best policy? In the end, I suggest a better guide is “Be polite and be authentic.”

Helping Hands

Near my home, there is an intersection of two busy roads where people beg for money. I drive through at least weekly. It is a rotating cast of characters. You have the disabled veteran, or the older guy who has “lost it all,” or the woman with the multiple kids she must feed. I can’t tell if they’re drawn there because it’s a particularly lucrative spot, or if panhandling has now reached the suburbs and intersections are the new street corner.

Only occasionally do I give some money. But I am always moved. I just don’t know how best to respond.

Sometimes what’s needed is a helping hand. Sometimes what’s needed is a hand to hold.

Often, it’s hard to tell, at any given moment, which is needed more.
Helping hands

Last July, a friend of mine lost her partner to cancer. They’d been together only a few years, and both were married before. Essentially, she had stopped communicating during the last month of his life, and in the months following. I struggled to discern whether she needed help, and if so, what kind? What was the right help to offer?

Recently, a couple I know who are the parents of one of my son’s friends were struck by a car while crossing the street. When I first heard, my reaction was to be a part of their support network. But as each day led to the next, and the struggles of my own life claimed my attention, their need became less pressing. They have mostly recovered now, and I didn’t even stop by their house. Was that the best thing to do?

Twelve years ago, my life derailed when my wife suffered a ruptured aneurysm while carrying our second child. I’ve written about this before, so I won’t repeat the details. With hindsight, though, I can see that during her recovery, I was facing  grief, traumatic stress, the normal demands of raising small children and earning a living, and serving as my wife’s primary care-giver, all mixed together. My needs changed constantly, even several times a day. I could never, while immersed in it, say with any certainty whether I needed a helping hand or a hand to hold. Honestly, at times it was probably both simultaneously, while at other times neither. Often, when people asked if there was anything they could do, I couldn’t say because I just didn’t know.
sadness

What is the “right” response? How can anyone tell what another person needs, and when they need it?

In the book How Can I Help? Stories and Reflections on Service, authors Ram Dass and Paul Gorman say that while it natural to want to help, compassion is not without complication.

“We needn’t go deep beneath the surface before we encounter our ambivalence,” they write. “We note the interplay of generosity and resistance, self-sacrifice and self-protectiveness…. There are clearly many ways in which we hesitate to reach out or we get confused when we try.”

In spite of the complete mystery of it, sometimes people do do the right thing. That December, when it all began to unravel for me, my wife’s former employer brought us a Christmas tree. I could not have said at the time that I needed it, but I deeply believe now that it was exactly the right thing for us.
Holding Hands

Contrary to what many may think, the helping transaction requires something from each party—both the helper and the helped are giving and getting. I was very bitter and angry when I was in need of help. I probably asked for less than I needed, and was less gracious than I could have been.

In contrast, I see a cheerful gratitude in the couple recovering from the car accident. They feel lucky to be alive, which says so much about their approach to the event.

What had I to offer them? Maybe very little. Should I have done something? Probably.

Action is required, and compassion, and luck. “On this path we will stumble, fall, and often look and feel a little foolish,” say Dass and Gorman. But in the end, we’ve done what we could, and we “trust the rest to God, to Nature, to the Universe.”

My Facebook Experiment

A few years ago, I joined Facebook. Reluctantly.

The members of the band I was in at the time thought that social media was a good way to publicize our gigs. Everyone else in the band was already on Facebook, and I thought it would give the wrong impression if the bassist were the only one who was not. Up until that point, I didn’t see the value of it. Facebook

So I joined. But I had one condition.

I felt that if I had to be on Facebook–if it wasn’t my idea–then I would do it on my terms. And my terms were these: with a few exceptions, I would not initiate friending anyone; I would wait for them to friend me.

I thought it would look phony if, after having dismissed social media, I suddenly joined and started friending everyone I could think of. Also, and more importantly, I wanted to gauge the level of other’s interest in being connected to me. One way to do that was to wait and see.

And you know what? Very few people have friended me. The usual suspects have–I could have predicted with 95 percent confidence the small number of individuals who would friend me–but a surprising number have not. For example, there are some people with whom my wife is barely acquainted–but who I have known for years–who have friended her, but not me.

I have to wonder what that means. Does that say something about me, or about them?

I would like to blame Facebook’s automated “find your friends” feature, which mines your address book and friends everyone whom you may have, at some point in your life, listed an email address for.

But, more likely, it is that I have some fundamental misunderstanding of the rules of social media, because they are essentially the same rules that govern social interaction in general. It has something to do with how attractive you are, how talkative you are, and how comfortable you are with the medium. Things like intelligence and humor do not come across well on Facebook.

And if that feels like high school, it’s because…well…it is like high school. In a recent article in New York magazine, writer Jennifer Senior points out that research indicates that all our social skills–the ability to pick up on cues or fail to do so–we learn as adolescents. Quoting work by Gabriella Conti, she says ” ‘Adolescent popularity,…it’s about interpersonal relations. High school is when you learn how to master social relationships—and to understand how, basically, to play the game. ” Or don’t.”

Underlying all of this is being able to effectively interact with people and make yourself interesting to others. This is a skill that is, for the most part, independent of media, although Facebook does amplify the extent to which one has mastered it, thus requiring the refinement of one’s social toolkit to avoid being annoying.

I’ve heard people say how connected they feel on Facebook, but these are people who were already connected in the real world. For me, Facebook has not upped my feeling of connection. Rather, it is one more avenue of communication that I suck at. Most days, instead of updating my status with some inane personal detail, I find myself thinking, “Why bother?” and “Who cares?”

The bottom line is that social media is little different from any other social situation. Those who understand the rules are rewarded, and those for whom the rules remain mysterious are marginalized or even penalized. I know of a number of people who’ve tried Facebook but have since deactivated their accounts. “It just didn’t work for me,” one guy told me.

I continue to use Facebook on occasion. Often I go more than a week without even logging in. Sometimes I wonder why I use it at all.

The Virtue of a Pigeon

I pass the same pigeon on my way to work each day. Her plumage is white with brown patches the color of wheat toast. When I approach her, she does not startle and bolt, or dodder around goofily like most pigeons.  She just calmly keeps doing what she is doing, pecking and scratching for whatever bounty city grass might provide.

Photo: Alexander James Stock Photography

Photo: Alexander James Stock Photography

But all pigeons are the same, you say.  They look the same and they act the same.  They even seem to think the same, with a collective consciousness that, like The Borg on Star Trek, give them no identity, no individuality.  But this one is different.

She has a beau, I think.  He’s a typical black-grey-and-white pigeon who is always nearby.  He’s the one who looks ready to burst into crazy-eyed flight when I walk past, but not her.  She’s the sensible one.

As a species, pigeons (Columba livia) suffer from a bad reputation.  Originally imported to this country for food, they’ve now become naturalized citizens, inhabiting the gritty spaces of urban America. A biology professor of mine once called them the rats of the bird world.  In some cities, peregrine falcons hunt them as a means of population control. People are happy to let this happen because falcons, after all, are much cooler than pigeons.  When I lived in Burlington, Vermont, in the early 1990s, the city government decided to poison the town’s pigeons but underestimated the dose.  For several days, dazed and dying pigeons wandered the streets like intoxicated homeless people.

Such malice arises from a contempt bred by familiarity. But if you can see beyond it, you’ll find that pigeons have their virtues too. For instance, they are amazingly skilled flyers.  Watch them slicing through narrow city spaces, under bridges and around cars, and you’ll know what I mean.  Also, they have the ability, thanks to their fantastic breast muscles, to become airborne from a standstill.  Imagine suspending your entire weight in thin air with a single downbeat of wings. It sounds impossible, yet pigeons do it every day.

That is not to say they are particularly smart.  In Burlington, a pair of pigeons would nest on the stone window sill outside the office where I worked.  The nest was spare, so their egg would essentially sit on the stone.  If the egg happened to roll off, they would just lay again in the same place.  Another time, in Oakland, California, my soon-to-be-wife and I were entering the courthouse to purchase a marriage license when we heard a dull thunk from above.  A pigeon flying full-throttle had collided with the large windows above the entrance, dropping dead at our feet.  We chose not to take it as an omen concerning our marriage.

Perhaps if pigeons were smart, they would become dissatisfied with their station in life and we would have a great pigeon revolt on our hands.  Cities the world over would have to mobilize to quash the rebellion.  Overnight, squab would become a featured entrée on restaurant menus.

But my pigeon seems happy.  She looks healthy, and perhaps that is happiness to a pigeon.  She has companionship aplenty in this town.  In addition to her suitor, pigeons by the scores socialize at virtually every public space with a statue where birds can congregate.

My pigeon most likely was born in this town and will die in this town.  She will raise a few babies and scratch out a living.  She will do what she can to stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter, but her life will pass quickly by, not remarked by anyone.

Anyone except me, that is.  I’ve noticed her, and perhaps she has noticed me.  Each day, we nod greetings to each other and then go our separate ways.

Note: It has been several years since I first wrote this. My pigeon is most likely long gone.