I work with others. Mostly volunteer work – but I find my self in the horrid trenches of the front line battle against despair. The Four Horsemen of Terror, Bewilderment, Frustration, and Despair march the earth seeking human souls. What do I see? What do I hear?
Last week a man happened upon me – that is what he thought – he did not know I was waiting for him. I intentionally put myself in places where the paths of others might be crossed. I put myself in places where lonely hearts wander. My hangout is at the intersection of Sanity Avenue and Crazy Street. My new acquaintance was walking into the polar north of Crazy. I told him that I too had come to this intersection by way of Crazy Street. He relaxed and told me his story.
“No one cares. No one listens. I am stuck in the quagmire of despair. I try to tell people but they seem to not care. Outwardly they say things like, ‘I’m am sorry for your troubles;’ then change the subject to something more comfortable.”
The Four Horsemen are not comfortable. They ravage the soul like a brush fire in California. I was not surprised that a mere recent acquaintance would be so willing to share his deepest troubles so easily. I have met these folks before. Their circle of family and friends are worn out. The people who change the subject are themselves at a loss. They no longer know what to say to make my new friend feel better.
The single greatest blessing of my life is that I have time to sit around and listen to stories. My new friend continued:
“I killed a bird. It was just an aggressive blackbird. I like birds. Like Robins and Cardinals and Finch. The black bird threatens the other birds. I was sitting outside in the shade and a black bird swooped down threatening to pluck out my eyeballs. My first thought was that it was a momma bird and she must have had a nest close by. I ignored the first attack. She came back for another run. Then another. I went in the house and retrieved by grandson’s BB gun. It is one of the small Daisy lever action models. The mother bird perched on a wire and I gave her what for. She began to fly away and then turned toward the ground, gliding into some bushes. I knew I had at least winged her – and she would probably die from her injuries.
A sense of despair came over me. What had I done? The Four Horsemen circled my brain. My despair was disproportionate to my crime. I know why. I was already in a state of despair. I tried to justify my actions by reminding myself that I had saved the Robins and Cardinals and the finch. The reminder fell flat. What kind of a person must I be?
My listening strategies are simple. Make eye contact. Occasionally nod or in some other simple way acknowledge I continue to listen. These are passive listening actions. Sometimes I encourage or prompt my new friends. I give some reflective response like, “It sounds like you were sad about what you did?” Active, reflective listening was not required for my new acquaintance. He was ready to unload.
Most of the time he hung his head as he talked, occasionally looking up to see if I was listening. I would simply nod an affirmation. He went on:
“Killing Black Birds is no crime where I come from. They bring trouble with them wherever they go. They are bullies – and I don’t like bullies. But something is wrong with me. It seems the slightest infraction against nature, or maybe just any confrontation with anything or anyone drags me down.
I have been down for about a year. I had some family trouble last year and I stood up for what I thought was right. Some others disagreed with me. We clashed, pride took over, the conflict escalated, no one was willing to surrender, for any conceding to the other was seen as surrender. People are hurt. People are angry. I have been emotionally knocked to the ground. I do not have the strength to stand with the heavy emotional burden I carry. I can not defend a helpless finch without feeling like I have abandoned all sense of morality.
Along the way I tried to tell people that my aggressive action and words were from a deep sense of hurt and fear – but no one cared to listen. I continue to believe I was right in my position. Hindsight allows me to see that the words and actions of others, along with my words and actions, escalated beyond civil discourse. Pride rules. To admit that the words used were wrong feels like admitting that the position was wrong.
I was not wrong.”
He was no longer talking to me. He was talking to himself. He was rehashing trouble for the bazillionth time. He was stuck in the quagmire of a deep conflict. I said, “It sounds like you have been down this thought path before?” He responded immediately:
“You are right about that. It is all I think about. I am unable to think about anything but my despair. Then I become more frustrated, bewildered, and desperate. I try to talk to others but nobody wants to hear my story. I think everyone is tired of me. Others have moved on. I continue in my despair.”
“How did you manage to come to Sanity Street?” I asked.
“I pass by this way a couple of times a week. I know that I have gone bonkers and I need an occasional dose of sanity. How do I know? That is easy — none of my sane friends care to hear me talk. I say something like, ‘I am in despair,’ and they respond, ‘Yeah, I know what you mean. I have to get the oil changed in my car. If it does not rain I have to cut the grass.’
When people begin to dismiss you without thought that is when you know that you have crossed the line. But the funny thing is this, I know I have crossed the line of normal life frustration but I do not know how to turn it around. I do not know how to get back. That is not exactly true. The truth is that I don’t want to go back. I cannot go back. I will never return to the place where I cannot express my dissatisfaction without being punished. I will take the punishment rather than the false sanity of belonging to a dishonest community. But the price of honesty is steep; sometimes unbearable.
I’ll tell you my deepest secret if you promise to not call the looney wagon. Last week I was wondering why I continue in my despair. It seemed like there were two choices. Return to the false happiness of a dishonest community – or just end the whole deal. I have a .22 caliber pistol. Why not just turn out the lights? The party is over.
Now that is a crazy thought. What is the simplistic thought? A permanent solution to a temporary problem? Hey Bud, after a year this no longer feels like a temporary problem. This feels like what I can expect for the rest of my life. So why continue?”
He paused. I sat quietly for a short time and then asked, “It appears that you decided to keep the lights on?”
“I figured it out. You can always turn off the lights. But you cannot turn them back on. That is why I am here. I heard about you. I heard that you sometimes come to the corner of Crazy. Others said I should take a chance and tell you my story. They said you could help. So that is what I want to know. Can you help me?”
He was staring into my eyes. I could see the desperation mounting. He needed hope. I needed more information. So I came right out and asked: “Do you have shelter for tonight? Do you have food? How do you get around? Do you have transportation? If I said meet me here tomorrow at the same time would you be able to do that?”
He had food and shelter and transportation – check, check, check. All good. The questions are important because someone without basic needs will struggle with any higher thought processes. “Okay,” I said, “Meet me here tomorrow, same time.”
The next day we met at the figurative corner. “Good to see you,” I said, “Have a seat”. We sat for a while and watched the people on Sanity Avenue walk by, humming the tune of normalcy. After about ten minutes my new friend said, “Well, what are we doing?”
“Shhhh,” be patient my friend, “Our salvation is coming now”. There was no one on Sanity Avenue at the moment, but there was a solitary figure coming toward us on Crazy Street. His shoulders were hunched and he sauntered along with slow and sad regularity. As he began to pass by I said, “It is a nice day, don’t you think?”
The solitary man stopped and looked at us. I said, “It is cool here in the shade. Why don’t you join us? We have plenty of room and we are boring each other to death.”
He seemed to be lost in thought. After some moments of contemplation he sat with us. We exchanged brief introductions and I told him that both of us had come along the Crazy Street path to this intersection. He seemed to relax and began to tell his story. He said:
“No one cares. No one listens. I am stuck in the quagmire of despair….. “