“Only the lonely, know the way I feel tonight.”1
Not word in nearly three years; then his text bloomed on my screen: “Hi, it’s me. How are you doing?” “Very, well, full plate. How are you?” “I’ve been better. I’ve been drinking for a little over a year. I’m fed up and need help. …” For two years, she’s been recycling through rehabs and detoxes. Near death on a gurney in the local ER, to a 42-day stint in a posh rehab, she retired with her husband to the upper reaches of coastal New England (his call, not hers). “It’s awful here. I have no one. These are not my people.” She has no people; never has. Bystanders, cast members, leading actors, but no costars… the price of intimacy is transparency and she lacks the currency.
Alcoholics die of loneliness. Clinically, booze is fatal, but our addiction is fermented in loneliness, the heaven-sent antidote to “I’m not enough.”, to “I don’t fit in.”, to “I’m a failure, a loser.”, to “Nobody cares about me anyway.” Alcohol fuels “Look at me now!”, and “I’ll show them.”, and “I’m fine.”
Late Sunday morning, a group of forty or so fans adorned in home-team swag shuffle toward the bus door, chattering, smiling, happy. A few fidget, glancing warily around, but others draw them into the banter. Their big-league home team is on a roll and a trip to a ball game is what sober people do. Together they are safe, together they are happy, learning, perhaps for the first time, ordinary social life, to be just a face in the crowd. For these few hours, they’re all fans rooting for their slugging heroes. This is what “not lonely” feels like.
Two recent articles in the nation’s newspaper of record touted the crucial importance of casual relationships.2, 3 They assert that engaging the people around us, connecting in the simplest of ways with colleagues, family, neighbors, clerks, mechanics, passers-by grounds us. These low-stakes drumrolls give us the beat for high-note, big-stakes relationships. Like crowd-sourcing love. In classic Hebrew, the biblical “neighbor” is contextual, a linguistic shape-shifter: our “neighbor” extends beyond the family next door; he or she is the person at hand, and importantly, the person who invests in others’ presence, their dignity, their humanity, just like the Good Samaritan. In our intense, desensitized world, we are surrounded by neighbors who are beaten and left for dead, acutely and metaphorically. Sometimes, a nod their way can work a miracle.
A dozen or more years ago, I was overcome by the many relationships, parents, siblings, marriages, children, friendships, colleagues I had failed to a degree my occasional heroics could not offset. I failed them because… no clue. Not that I didn’t understand why/how I failed. I literally had no grasp on relationships – what they are, how they work, how to behave – what responsibilities one has and what one can reasonably expect from a relationship.
December 12, 2006, I emailed my friend who was struggling to get sober that I had no answers for his travail, but our talk that afternoon spurred me “to build relationships with family and friends that provide an infrastructure of love to sustain me in any intimate relationship that might unfold.” I had finally wearied of I searching for a “someone” and began to clearly see, be with and respond to the people around me, hour by hour, day by day. Slowly the arc of my life rose and even now, accelerates.
Jesus, it turns out, was a connector. He saw people, saw into and through them. He was present, listening and conversing. We devote great attention to his extravagant miracles and to his rich parables, but I often wonder if there are unrevealed lessons from the “certain ruler” who went away sad. Did he return? Did the nine lepers who departed Jesus without expressing their gratitude rush to rejoice with their families and friends? Was that thanks enough? The folks Christ touched had backstories and futures. Presumably, all Jesus’s followers, devotees and disciples connected with each other to share their experience, strength and hope. Love compounds. That’s a lesson for us.
My brother died a couple of months ago. He succeeded in everything – marriage, family, career. A mobbed funeral, but the few testimonials were spare. All anybody came up with was that he was “there for them”. Made them feel… less lonely.
So, if you’re new or just coming back, or feeling stale and stuck in “the program”, AA practices fellowship first. We listen and learn about each other’s loneliness, then shed it together. The stories are pathetic, the advice isn’t always sage, the jokes often are not funny, the snacks are stale and forgettable, but the love is real. So, if you are lonely, you know where to go.
1 Only the Lonely by Joe Melson / Roy Orbison © Barbara Orbison Music Company, Roy Orbison Music Company, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd., BMG Rights Management
2 “Why You Need a Network of Low-Stakes, Casual Friendships” Allie Volpe, New York Times, Smarter Living, May 6, 2019
3 Invest in Relationships, The Payoff Is Immense”, Tim Herrera, New York Times, Smarter Living Newsletter, May 12, 2019