Sometimes you meet people whose loneliness is so desperate that it reaches out and grabs you by the throat. It’s like a drowning man, clutching on to the person who has come to his rescue, and nearly drowning his own salvation.
What do we do when we meet someone like that? Do we turn our backs? Do we look for an opportunity to peel away from an uncomfortable conversation? Do we ignore them when we’re in line at the post office, when they want to tell you their entire, tragic life history in the ten minutes it takes to mail a package?
Or do we look them in the eye and answer back? Treat them like normal, even when she tells you about her recent trip to Illinois for the sole purpose of photographing the gravesite of the man who wrote Ben Hur. And you ignore the others in line who are listening in, and you don’t worry about whether they think this person is your personal friend, even when she tells you that her mother treated her like Abraham Lincoln’s father treated him but doesn’t explain why. And when she tells you that she doesn’t want to spend another Thanksgiving alone, you suggest that perhaps this year she invite someone over instead of waiting for an invitation. Will she do it? I don’t know.
But for ten minutes, someone treated her like a human being. For ten minutes, someone listened to her and didn’t try to get away or pretend not to hear. Someone answered back and interacted and treated her like she was normal, and didn’t just nod and smile. And maybe she will remember my suggestion when Thanksgiving comes around. And maybe she will raise her own head and think about someone else’s problems and not just her own. And she’ll have the strength to dog paddle for just a little longer.