Before his retirement from First United Methodist Church in Santa Monica, Ca., my friend and colleague, the Rev Dr. Donald Shelby, told a story that has stuck in my mind like a cocklebur. Perhaps it will stick in your mind also. It represents a life style to which I have been committed all my life. It all started when I was growing up in a rural church in South Alabama during the Depression. Almost every Sunday we would sing a song titled "Help Somebody Today". The concept was indelibly imprinted on my heart and mind. It probably had something to do with my vocational choice. This is Dr.Shelby's story.
While visiting a children's hospital in London, the great physician, Sir William Osler, noticed a little girl sitting all by herself. Everyone else was playing with other children. She sat alone on her bed, clutching her doll. The ward nurse whispered, "We've tried to get Susan to play with others, but the other children just won't include her. It may be because no one ever comes to see the child. Her mother died and her father came once to see her and brought her that doll, but has never been back. The children here have a strange unspoken code. If no one comes to see you, they ignore you."
Sir William walked over to the little girl, and asked in a voice loud enough for the others to hear, "May I sit with you please?" The little girl's face lit up as Osler sat down. "I can't stay very long", he said, "but I have wanted to see you very much." For about five minutes he sat talking to her, even asking about her doll's health and listening to the doll's chest with his stethoscope. As he rose to leave, he said in a loud voice for all to hear, "Now don't forget our secret. And mind you, don't tell anyone:"
At the door Sir William looked back. His new little friend was now in the center of a curious and admiring crowd of children.
It appears that people tend to isolate people who are isolated. People tend to steer clear of lonely people as if loneliness were contagious.
Most of us are able to break out of our loneliness by doing something, consciously or unconsciously, to attract attention. The "attention attracting" behaviors are usually benign, but not always. People in the helping professions often see situations in which lonely and isolated people do some violent act to themselves or others to get attention. Can you imagine the desperation of someone who threatens to harm themselves to get attention? It happens.
For several years after retirement I visited a nursing home in Mobile, Alabama to see an old friend and colleague who was paralyzed. There were people in wheel chairs parked up and down the hallway. Eyes dripping with loneliness followed visitors who passed by. Most visitors stared straight ahead, avoiding eye contact. I was guilty too on those days in which I fancied myself too busy to be bothered by people I did not know. It is easy to pretend you are in a hurry as you walk faster than usual to get past those lonely eyes. I am good at that. But on some days when the "pastoral part" of me floated to the top, there was something in me that would not let me look the other way and pass by. I would pick up some hand and look at the person and say, "How are you doing today?" Their grip would tighten on my hand and they would begin to tell me more than I wanted to know - who last came to see them, who didn't come, what the doctor said, how they planned to get back home, etc. When there was enough of a break in the conversation for me to say, "I have to be going now.", more often than not the grip tightened on my hand and they would not let me go. If you visit nursing homes, you are familiar with that experience. What a wonderful opportunity for the "better angels of our nature" to take charge and cause us to stay a little longer.
There are people, and they are not always in a nursing home, who for some reasons have passed the point of being able to reach out to a passing person. They drift deeper and deeper into their own loneliness, and they are increasingly ignored, even shunned by those around them. They become increasingly lost in the silent pain of their loneliness unless - unless some sensitive soul breaks through the barrier from the outside.
Seeing human need and taking time and making the effort to meet that need is a godly thing to do. It is the sort of thing Jesus would do for a lonely child or an emotionally hungry nursing home patient.
Next time you have the occasion to do so, reach out and help somebody. You would be surprised what the transaction will do for you, and for them.