The most consistently moving and poignant website- to me- is postsecrets.
In it, people anonymously are able to share their deepest secrets. Often, it is that One Secret that has has defined her or his life, that a person is able to share for the very first time. These secrets are shared on a postcard of the secret-sharer’s own design, and sent to an address in Maryland. Looking at the way these secrets are presented visually is sometimes even more difficult than reading the words of the secrets themselves.
A new collection is posted each Sunday. One of them this week is among the saddest I have ever read there because it represents, I’m afraid, the tip of an enormous iceberg of isolation and loneliness, being experienced by many, many people.
Years ago, at a prison ministry weekend event, at a point when the residents of the institution were relaxed enough to feel comfortable sharing real feelings, I heard a man named Monty say this (I am reconstructing this from notes I took quickly as he spoke, because I knew I was hearing something profound):
“All my life, I thought everyone was having a good time, except for me. When I was in the army, we’d go to bars and everyone was laughing. I’d laugh, too, even though I didn’t feel like laughing. I’d make jokes about women that I didn’t believe, because I thought they were what the guys wanted to hear. People liked me, but it was the pretend-me. It wasn’t me.
“It wasn’t until I’d been in here for several years, and finally made some real friends, that I found out that everybody in that bar felt that way. People feel that way everywhere. I was envying everybody, and everybody was envying me, and we were all laughing and none of us had a goddam friend in the world. Hell, that’s why we were in the army in the first place!”
In prison, irony of ironies, Monty had found a real group of friends. Their shared circumstances, and Monty’s own abilities to be vulnerable and honest, were the foundations of his new relationships. (Which would, because of the crime which landed Monty there, need to last a lifetime.)
Loneliness is a plague of the most widespread and severe sort. It is a plague born, in large part, by the viral cultural environment in which almost all of us live. We learn early on that it is our own bootstraps we must be pulling on, that the point of everything is winning, and that fun- good times- is the reason for living.
Our models in life are the two dimensional beings we see on television or at the movies who seem to have to have mastered those three ‘truths.” They’re happy like I wannabe, but can’t be. They’re on top, like I wannabe, but won’t ever be. They’ve got lots of friends, and I just want one.
The assumptions that most people begin to make, from the time they sit in front of a TV and are able to comprehend, are that there must be something wrong with them if they cannot be like everybody else. Insidiously, a solution to that personal assessment follows almost immediately: a person can buy their way out of their apartness. Thirty thousand scripted commercials into life, and the five year old knows exactly what kind of cereal, toys, soda pop, and clothing will make them happy, “like those kids.” (the two dimensional ones) Over the next 15 years, or so, they will learn that the thrill of purchased “victory” is either unattainable (poverty) or short-lived (there is always a new and better thing, looming). But by that time, the dies of American consumerism have been set, and the 20 year old begins his or her life as a continuing cog in the American Gross National Product.
The only real fulfilling relationships in life are with life. My personal circles of inclusion are almost crazily without boundaries, so what I say may be skewed for you, but I think all living things have the capacity to ground us as individuals in that which is fulfilling, meaningful, and satisfying. All living things offer us the opportunity to belong, “to be a part of something.”
And belonging really is the point. (“Let us make humankind in our image.”) It takes vulnerability to be able to say, out loud, even in secret, “I need to belong” because false bravado and superficial happiness are sub-strains of the infections of American individualism and consumerism.
Here are some living things to which persons can belong. I’m mentioning only a few, as keys to unlock what everyone already knows, but which is often buried under an avalanche of advertising and other cultural bullsh*t:
Belong to the forest, the ocean, a field of wildflowers. They are as alive as you, they will listen to you, and they will sing to you in return. Don’t go to them with any expectations. Listen. Stand still. And listen some more. (I learned from a local rancher- bless him- that if you sit very still for about 25 minutes, the animals- birds, rabbits, deer- will start coming near again. They were watching you; now you can watch them trusting you. It feels good.)
Belong to a living God. God’s not stuck in a book like many of God’s followers. God is still creating. Plant some trees, some tomatoes; learn how, if you don’t know how today. Help God do what God does! There are fellowships of people all over the place who are talking about God, often without even using God’s name. Garden clubs, rose societies, shoot- even cemetery auxiliaries maintain what is often the beautiful place in town. Clean the yard of the old lady across the street who can’t. Call the local Senior Center and find who needs a ride. Re-present God to someone who needs it!
Belong to animals. There are thousands of dogs and cats within a hundred miles of anyone that need adopted, taken care of, or whose cages at their shelters need cleaned. A dog’s love is unique (my personal prejudice) and I’ll shout for the rest of my life that a person can learn as much about God’s love from a dog as anywhere else. But I’ve got two cats I’m fond of, too, and I’ve heard that some people do, against all odds, prefer them over dogs. IMPORTANT: There is NO NEED to buy a name brand pet! In fact, please DON’T! Pick the goofy hound/shepherd cross that licks you through the cage at the pound..you belonged to him before he was born. And you know that.
Belong to people. Big Brother/Big Sister. Mentoring. Downtown Soup Kitchens. Habitat for Humanity. Et al., et al., et al. You will develop relationships in those endeavors, over time. You will belong. It may take a few weeks, even months, and those relationships may lead elsewhere besides the places you thought or falsely hoped they would at one time in your life, but you will be doing vital, necessary, important work. You can even be doing revolutionary work as a volunteer, by demonstrating to others that it is possible to jump off and stay off the treadmills others have designed for us to spend our lives on.
I know you do. Or will. Monty figured it out. I figured it out. If we did, then there is loads of hope for you.