“At least you have somebody,” said the man leaving the cancer consultation room.
We were waiting our turn. This was one of several high anxiety medical appointments. We would be told the extent of the metastasis. Our daughter had offered to come with us and we gratefully accepted. To tap down the tension she was telling us the most recent knucklehead antic of one of our grandsons. We were laughing.
Shamefully, I didn’t notice the gentleman until those arresting words broke through the self-absorption and family comradery. I was speechless, literally. I said nothing to him. He walked by without receiving any personal acknowledgement. My husband and daughter felt it too; guilt for not offering some encouragement. David later told me that he thought of chasing the man down and saying something. But what was there to say?
“Sorry, man, that you don’t have a family or friend to be with you in a time like this?”
It was all so awkward, but my guilt was slightly assuaged by the justification that I was caught by surprise. But why surprised? Perhaps it was the surprise of a man’s spontaneous vulnerability to complete strangers. Or maybe it was the surprise of being shaken out of my consuming suffering to realize that I was part of a suffering humanity – no more or less special than anyone else; certainly not in the eyes of God.
Suffering is suffering for several reasons but one of its most devastating attributes is loneliness. “My God, my God why have you forsaken me;” the memorialized words of our Savior God who too experienced the human condition of loneliness as he hung on the cross suffering an agonized death of pain, shame and abandonment.
Hardly shocking are the numerous studies showing loneliness as adverse to physical health. More than depression or anxiety, loneliness predicts a lower mortality rate. People live longer who don’t report chronic feelings of loneliness. Consider the Roseto Effect; a 50-year study of the residents of Roseto, Pennsylvania, a community of Italian immigrants who lived sedentary lifestyles, were overweight, had high alcohol consumption, smoked stogies (whatever those are) and were exposed to toxic particles through their work at the quarries. Bottom line: they lived way longer than the average person in the US during the 1950’s. Being a descendent of Italian immigrants I was happily prepared to read that it was genetics that brought their good fortune of longevity. However, family members of the Roseto residents who lived in neighboring towns were not beneficiaries of the same great health. So, what was it? As it turned out no one in Roseto owned a TV and nightly group dinners were a common occurrence. Researchers, after controlling for about everything, concluded that these folks were dodging the bullets of loneliness’s bad health effects because they did use technology to entertain themselves in isolation. They just had each other and consequently lived longer for it.
Loneliness is awful on many levels. And just to be clear I’m talking about a distressful emotional condition; people that feel lonely, not people who live alone. Background: I was the only child of a career military father and a working mom. Loneliness was the constant background noise of my existence, but I compensated by developing people skills. Actually, I perfected very sophisticated kid skills. “Hey, you want to play with me at my house? My mom has candy in big dishes all through the house. (She really did. I didn’t care about candy, but I knew greedy, candy-starved children did.)
I told myself that I would never marry anyone in the military service, thus putting my kids through the never-establishing-roots-anywhere-lonely-existence that I had. But falling in love breaks a lot of promises made to one’s self.
I’m grateful for family and close friends. And I’m grateful for each of my adopted church families. Over the decades as an adult I have lived in ten communities spread over 11 time zones. In each I have enjoyed and loved the commitment each little band of Jesus followers had for me and me to them before I had to geographically move on.
“Family” is one of the most used metaphors in the New Testament for describing the church; a perk that has never been missed on this only child as she traipsed around the world. As David, my daughter and I sat waiting to learn the extent of my metastasis my adopted family sat in the wings, praying for us, bringing food, visiting, comforting, and laughing with us as appropriate.
I hope, I pray that the gentleman ‘with nobody’ but cancer will find his family. I pray that an adopted family, a church, will find him. It is our scared responsibility, as the church, to love our neighbor as we want to be loved. This challenges me, within my own little church, to make sure when someone is facing a health crisis to ask,
“Who is going with you to your appointment? How about me?”
“At least you will have somebody.”